Gov. Greg Abbott calls for stiffer penalty for illegal voting — weeks after he signed a bill lowering it

Voting signs at Dan Ruiz Branch Library in Austin on Election Day. Nov. 3, 2020.

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Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday called for Texas lawmakers to increase the penalty for illegal voting — less than a month after he signed a bill that lowers the maximum punishment.

The crime of illegal voting was scheduled to go from a second degree felony to a Class A misdemeanor in December, after the passage of Senate Bill 1, a sweeping bill that restricted the state’s voting process and narrowed local control of elections.

Class A misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in jail, but can be resolved with a fine. A second degree felony in Texas is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

But in a letter to the Texas Senate on Thursday, Abbott added legislation that would reverse that change to the list of items lawmakers can consider during the current special session of the Legislature.

"The State of Texas has made tremendous progress in upholding the integrity of our elections," Abbott said in a press release. "By increasing penalties for illegal voting, we will send an even clearer message that voter fraud will not be tolerated in Texas."

The move received praise from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the state Senate. He said on Twitter that the Senate will pass a bill with that aim next week. Patrick also said in his tweet that the House added the amendment lowering the penalties "last minute" and that the change "went under the radar until" Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Patrick "found it & agreed that it must be corrected."

The amendment originally came from Rep. Steve Allison, a San Antonio Republican. It was approved in the House on an 80-35 vote. The bill was then sent to a conference committee and the final version was approved in the Senate with the support of all the Republicans in the chamber.

Neither Patrick nor Abbott were available for immediate comment about the announcement.

Earlier this month, House Speaker Dade Phelan told the Houston Chronicle that the Allison amendment was part of the Legislature’s “holistic approach to advancing election integrity” that struck “the appropriate balance between ballot access and accountability." Phelan implied he disagreed with the governor's choice in a tweet late Thursday, asserting that now "is not the time to re-litigate."

​Harsh penalties for voting fraud in Texas have gained national attention in recent years, particularly in the case of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year sentence for a ballot she has said she did not know she was ineligible to cast.

Another amendment focused on penalties for voter fraud specifically addressed Mason’s case, but was stripped during another conference committee after author Sen. Bryan Hughes disapproved of the language.

​The state's Republican leadership has gone to considerable lengths to add new restrictions to voting and root out perceived election fraud in the state, even though there have been no credible allegations of widespread fraud in the 2020 elections and the top elections officials for the Secretary of State's office told lawmakers that the voting was "smooth and secure."

In addition to lowering penalties for illegal voting, SB 1 establishes new ID requirements for voting by mail, enhances protections for partisan poll watchers and sets new rules, and possible criminal penalties, for those who assist voters. It also makes it a state jail felony for local election officials to proactively distribute applications for mail-in ballots, even if they are providing them to voters who automatically qualify to vote by mail or groups helping get out the vote.

This week, Abbott has pushed an audit of the general election of 2020 in four Texas counties — Harris, Collin, Dallas and Tarrant — after former President Donald Trump urged him to add audit legislation to the special session agenda.

Local officials said they were in the dark about the process, which Abbott later claimed had already begun as the audit’s guidelines covered some of the standard post-election procedures local officials are already required to undertake.

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