SMITH COUNTY, Texas — In his statement of intent for Senate Bill 9, Senator Bryan Hughes says, "As efforts to identify and prosecute election crimes have intensified, we have gained a better understanding of the ways certain bad actors take advantage of holes in the electoral process. As proposed, S.B. 9 amends current law relating to election integrity, increases criminal penalties, creates a criminal offense, and creates civil penalties."
Among its provisions, Senate Bill 9 would raise criminal penalties for certain election-related offenses such as establish tighter rules for assisting disabled, elderly or absentee voters. Also increase the likelihood of criminal prosecution on people who mistakenly violate election laws.
"As you go down section by section, there are concerns that there are really no sections that encourage voting, that help make it easier for voters to get to the polls," Smith County Voter Registration Drive organizer, Nancy Nichols said. "I think we're so concerned about it here in Smith County because of the voter irregularities that happened during the midterm election."
Nichols said instead of promoting election integrity, in some ways the bill aids in voter suppression, particularly in minority communities.
"There is a section that could lead to selective prosecutions," Nichols said. "What I'm talking about are honest mistakes. For example, if a voter comes in and honestly believes that he or she has the right to vote but there's maybe a hiccup. The election clerk sends them on to fill out a provisional ballot and this happened in the case of Crystal Mason."
In the 2016 Presidential Election, Mason became the poster child for voter suppression when she was sentenced to five years for casting a ballot in Texas.
When she went to the polling station, her name was not on the register list. She cast a provisional ballot that was never counted. She did not read the small print of the form that said anyone who has been convicted of a felony, as she had, was prohibited from voting under Texas law.
Another section of S.B. 9 creates an entirely new election-related crime. It will be Class B misdemeanor to impede a walkway, sidewalk, parking lot or roadway within one-thousand feet of a polling place, hindering a person from entering the location. However, it is unclear how that specific section would be enforced.
"A concern that has many people worried is what appears to be restrictions for rides to the polls." Nichols said. "In that section, it’s proposed that we would need forms filled out and things like that to be able to take the elderly or the disabled to the polls. If that’s expanded, then what does that mean specifically what does that mean for our rides to the polls."
In defense of this section of the bill, Senator Hughes wrote in a statement, "If you take ten friends to the polling place and they hop out and go vote, this section doesn't apply to you at all."
"We heard testimony of certain jurisdictions where handlers would go around and load up 10 to 15 people in a van, take them to the polling place, and tell the elections workers that all of the passengers were too disabled to enter the polling place and needed to vote curbside," Senator Hughes said. "The workers then bring out a voting machine and the driver of the van talks each voter through their ballot, telling them how to vote.
"Under this section of the bill only a person who takes three or more people at a time who are not family members and who are all disabled to the point of not being able to enter the polling place would be affected," Senator Hughes said. "Even then, the bill doesn't prohibit transportation, it just requires the driver to fill out a short form with basic information about who they are and how they helped."
Civil rights' groups including the Texas Civil Rights Project and MOVE Texas have urged Senator Hughes to change or withdraw S.B. 9. At the same time, the groups have praised parts of the bill that address election machine security.
"Often times there are changes that happen without us even being aware of them and these changes affect our lives," Nichols said. "We want to protect the right to vote. We want to encourage voters. We do not want to provide a hindrance or worse of all, we don't want it to be a fearful experience."