In recent years, citizens in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio have resorted to litigation to sort out confusing ballot language and allegedly opaque charter amendment procedures, prompting proposed legislative remedies from Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) in Senate Bill (SB) 221.
Passed in a 22 to 8 vote on the Senate floor Wednesday, the bill requires home-rule cities to adopt and publicize ballot language that includes “such definiteness, certainty, and facial neutrality that the voters are not misled,” and allows citizens to request a Texas secretary of state review of the language within seven days of publication.
If the secretary of state finds the ballot language insufficient, the city will have the opportunity to rewrite it, but after three attempts, the state agency will draft the ballot language itself.
SB 221 also calls on courts to quickly respond to citizen petitions over ballot language, and cities found non-compliant must pay complainants’ legal fees and will lose the authority to compose their own ballot language for four years.
Finally, Bettencourt’s bill makes it more difficult for cities to reject citizen petitions and preempts city restrictions on who may gather petition signatures, such as religious groups.
Noting that the Supreme Court of Texas has frequently had to reprimand cities over ballot language, Bettencourt defended the right of citizens’ petitions “to be voted on in the same language that they are submitted.”
On Thursday, the Senate Committee on State Affairs approved more than a dozen election-related bills and took up 15 more, including a proposal from Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) to remove inactive voters from registration rolls.
In laying out SB 260, Kolkhorst cited research conducted by Judicial Watch in 2020 showing there were 33 counties in Texas with more registered voters than eligible adult citizens. Most were smaller counties, with Loving topping the list with 187 percent of the population registered to vote. Larger counties included Travis, Comal, and Fort Bend.
Kolkhorst’s legislation, approved by the committee in an 8 to 2 vote, would require election officials to mail a request for confirmation to voters who have not voted for 25 months. If the voter does not respond, the registrar must then remove them from the rolls.
Noting the rise in local debt and taxes but often low voter participation in bond elections, Sen. Kevin Sparks (R-Midland) proposed SB 946 requiring bond and voter-ratified tax increase elections be held on uniform election dates in November.
Other proposals heard during Thursday’s committee hearing included providing for automatic recounts to be paid for by the state, prohibitions on voting system software owned by companies headquartered in hostile nations, and requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote.
The committee also took testimony on Bettencourt’s SB 220 to create a state election marshal and system of regional election marshals and to assign specially trained Texas Department of Public Safety officers to assist with the enforcement of election law during an election.
“During the November 2020 election cycle the lax enforcement and tools for the Texas Election Code was very apparent,” said Bettencourt. “All too often violations occurred but [were] not addressed, noted merely as an irregularity that could be used in the event of an election contest.”
Bettencourt listed Harris County violations such as plans to mail absentee ballots to all voters, obstruction of poll watchers, and use of illegal drive-through voting that resulted in still-unresolved irregularities.
The bill would also require each of the state’s 11 judicial regional administrators to set up systems for hearing challenges to election procedures beginning 45 days before an election in an effort to prevent violations.
Houston City Council Member Mike Knox, a former police officer, testified that he had witnessed violations and the law enforcement officers were needed.
“If you call the police out there, the police are not prepared because they don’t understand the election code and there’s no recourse until after that,” said Knox. “You can file a complaint, but that complaint won’t be heard until after the election is already over.”
David Weinberg of the Brennan Center for Justice objected to giving the state greater enforcement power, which he said would shift authority to “offices controlled by the governor and away from prosecutors that operate independently from the political branches.”
“This is a fundamental erosion of the investigative and prosecutorial independence,” said Weinberg.
Last year, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upended prosecution of election crime in the state in a ruling that allowed only locally elected district attorneys to pursue election fraud.
Following Harris County’s fraught 2022 elections that included delayed openings and widespread issues due to malfunctioning equipment, lack of staff, and a ballot paper shortage, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced her office had received criminal complaints and formally requested assistance from the Texas Rangers to investigate.
The county also faces multiple lawsuits and 21 formal election contests in relation to last year’s elections.
Knox described Harris County’s elections as “designed incompetence.”
Weinberg and other opponents to SB 221 accused Bettencourt of copying a similar law passed in Florida last year, but Bettencourt noted he had introduced the same legislation during the 2021 legislative session.
Nicole Peterson of Muslim political advocacy group Emgage told the committee there is no need for “election police.”
“There’s nothing in this bill to keep election marshals from targeting specifically election workers who are not of the same political party as the Secretary of State’s voters,” said Peterson.
While Peterson alleged Harris County’s problems could be addressed by “proper funding,” Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel told the committee that the county’s election budget had increased from $12 million in 2018 to more than $30 million in 2022.
Disclosure: Unlike almost every other media outlet, The Texan is not beholden to any special interests, does not apply for any type of state or federal funding, and relies exclusively on its readers for financial support. If you’d like to become one of the people we’re financially accountable to, click here to subscribe.
Holly Hansen is a reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.