On Texas Voting Rules, Fear is the Point


Make a mistake at the ballot box and you could go to jail.

Potentially for years.

Do you still want to vote?

Despite all the attention to Texas Republicans’ efforts to limit late-night voting or postal voting, the GOP’s assault on voting rights is also a campaign of fear. Voting restriction bills proposed to the legislature this year define new crimes and increased penalties for voting incidents that could be honest mistakes: a person who does not sign a written oath when helping someone else to vote by mail, or a voter who prevents the sight of a a supporter of the poll, or an election official who provides a vote-request by mail to someone who has not requested it. All are crimes under Bill House 3, a bill so full of problems that House Democrats broke the quorum and fled the state this week in an attempt to stop it.

And lest there be any doubt that Attorney General Ken Paxton and other officials are prepared to pounce on electoral error cases and send people to jail, we have the recent arrest of Hervis Rogers.

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People line up to vote in the primary election at the Carver Branch Library on Tuesday March 3, 2020.  [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Rogers became an overnight hero last year after dutifully queuing for six hours – until 1:30 a.m. – to cast his presidential ballot at a Houston polling station. But it turns out that his wait was not long enough. Under Texas law, Rogers should not have voted until the end of his probation, nearly four months after the March 2020 election. Rogers also voted in 2018.

It is absurd to think that Rogers would draw attention to his efforts to vote, telling reporters last year about his long hours of waiting, if he knew he was breaking the law. No doubt Rogers, who left prison in 2004 after serving nine years on a burglary conviction, has no desire to return. But Paxton tries to send him there. On the eve of the extraordinary session of the Legislative Assembly deal with “electoral integrity”, Rogers has been charged with two counts of illegal voting, second-degree crimes that can carry prison terms ranging from two to 20 years.

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Notably, Paxton exploited a loophole in state law allowing him to lay charges not where the alleged crime took place, but in a neighboring county – putting Rogers, a black man from the strongly Democratic County of Harris, in the Montgomery County court system, a conservative stronghold where the jury pool is said to be predominantly white. The very act of shopping is revealing. Prosecutors play these games when cases depend more on politics than the law.

But the shopping around quickly paid off: Paxton secured a punitive bail of $ 100,000 for Rogers, well above the bail amounts usually set for those accused of criminal harassment, fatal driving with a firearm, or others. violent crimes. Rogers, 62, was released with the help of the nonprofit Bail Project.

The Rogers case carries echoes of crystal mason, the Fort Worth woman sentenced in 2018 to five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot – which was not even counted – while on probation. Like Rogers, Mason declared that she did not realize that she did not have the right to vote.

Indeed, Texas does a poor job of clarifying the matter. Then-Gov. Rick perry vetoed a 2003 bill demand a public campaign to explain voters’ rights, including information on the eligibility of people with criminal records; and in 2007 Perry vetoed a bill ordering the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to send notices to people when their probation is over, explaining that they are now eligible to register to vote. Adding to the confusion: voting on probation is legal in 23 other states.

Texas’ threat of years in prison for such an offense is even more outrageous when you consider the types of punishments other states impose for voting rights violations.

A Colorado woman who submitted two postal ballots in last year’s primary, was fined $ 500 plus court costs. A Michigan man who forged his daughter’s signature on a mail ballot last year got 90 days of probation and a fine of $ 1,000. A man from Pennsylvania who vote by post on behalf of his deceased mother, and applied for another ballot on behalf of his late mother-in-law, got five years probation. They broke the law and they are paying for it, but not with years of their life.

What is happening in Texas is not about justice. The criminalization of mistakes, the exorbitant bail for Rogers, the specter of years in prison – all designed to instill fear so that just enough voters will decide to stay home instead. Legal voters who have already completed their probation could still fear a misunderstanding at the polls. Those helping elderly or disabled voters, or election workers who incur the wrath of overzealous observers, might fear that a misstep could land them in jail.

It is not electoral integrity. It is intimidation.

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