88th LegislatureIssuesStatewide NewsRepublicans File Election Bills to Bolster Fraud Prosecutions After Court Strips Attorney General’s Power

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decided in 2021 that the attorney general cannot unilaterally prosecute suspected election crimes.
January 17, 2023
State Reps. Keith Bell (R-Forney) and Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) filed legislation to work around a decision by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) gutting Attorney General Ken Paxton’s authority to prosecute election fraud on his own volition.

Bell’s House Bill (HB) 678 would empower special prosecutors from adjacent counties to prosecute election crimes at the request of the attorney general. The two-page bill also repeals a statute that hinges on a law found unconstitutional by the CCA.

Slaton’s bill, HB 125, empowers the attorney general to file suit against a district or county attorney who explicitly or by “pattern or practice” declines to prosecute certain crimes under the election code. Officials who flouted the election code would also be subject to removal from office, an outcome the attorney general would be required to pursue under HB 125.

It also provides for civil penalties of up to $1,500 for the first violation and $25,000 for each subsequent violation. Under HB 125, prosecuting attorneys would also be prohibited from directing peace officers under their employ to avoid investigating suspected violations of the election code.

The CCA decided in December 2021 that a decades-old Texas statute giving the state attorney general the authority to charge individuals for alleged violations of election law runs contrary to the Texas Constitution. The judges on the court contended that it violates the separation of powers, which gives local district and county attorneys the ability to prosecute people.

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The case originated in Jefferson County, where Paxton convened a grand jury and brought charges against Sheriff Zena Stephens, a Democrat.

Paxton sought a rehearing in the case, but the CCA denied his motion in September.

“The CCA’s shameful decision means local DAs with radical liberal views have the sole power to prosecute election fraud in TX — which they will never do. The timing is no accident — this is devastating for the integrity of our upcoming elections. Time for [the Texas Legislature] to right this wrong,” Paxton wrote at the time.

Republicans designed the Election Integrity Protection Act of 2021 with the attorney general’s authority to prosecute alleged violations of the election code in mind. Without the attorney general’s involvement, decisions to prosecute are left to local district and county attorneys. Supporters of the election reform law believe that Democrats — specifically in counties such as Dallas, Harris, and Travis — will not prosecute fraud as aggressively as Republicans.

The election reform bill expanded the required timeframe for early voting, added criminal penalties for unsolicited mail ballot applications, and gave additional legal protections for poll watchers, among other measures. Republicans and supporters of the law say it makes elections more secure and fraud easier to prosecute.

Opponents of the bill in the Legislature bewailed the bill as “voter suppression” and ascribed it to unproven claims by former President Trump that President Biden illegitimately won the 2020 presidential election.

Democrats broke quorum and fled the Capitol during the 87th Legislature’s regular session and two special sessions in an unsuccessful effort to scuttle the law.


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Hayden Sparks

Hayden Sparks is a senior reporter for The Texan and a lifelong resident of the Lone Star State. He has coached competitive speech and debate and has been involved in politics since a young age. One of Hayden's favorite quotes is by Sam Houston: "Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may."