Texas lawmakers take first step to restoring felony penalty for illegal voting

Republican lawmakers work to reverse change to state law that made illegal voting a misdemeanor

A man inside a building stands in front of a row of voting machines

Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S.

A bill that would reestablish illegal voting as a felony in Texas received its initial approval Monday from a state Senate committee. 

The legislation — a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s — would reverse the work lawmakers did two years ago when they approved sweeping changes to the state’s election law that included downgrading a conviction of illegal voting to a misdemeanor.  

The panel’s vote was one of the first times this session a legislative committee has given its OK to a bill. Before this week, no committee in either chamber had advanced any other legislation. 

The early vote by the Senate State Affairs Committee is further evidence how important the legislation is to Senate leadership. However, because elections issues are not among Gov. Greg Abbott’s seven legislative priorities for the session, the entire Senate cannot debate the bill until after March 10. 

The committee voted along party lines after lawmakers heard testimony from more than a dozen election workers, local political party chairs, voting rights advocates and others.

Authored by state Sens. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, and Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, the bill restores the penalty of illegal voting to a second-degree felony. The bill would also change the standard for determining someone’s intent for illegal voting. 

Policy experts say the new provision of the law could impact voters who know of the reason that makes them ineligible to vote, but who are in fact not aware that they are ineligible to vote. Examples include anyone who knows they are a convicted felon or who knows they are not a U.S. citizen, but who does not know that means they are ineligible to vote.

Hughes on Monday said “ignorance of the law is not a defense” for illegally voting. 

“Providing what someone individually, subjectively knows, is almost impossible,” he said. 

Supporters of the bill said Monday they believe the change would act as a deterrent — despite any evidence that widespread voter fraud exists in Texas. 

Sharon Edwards, who supported the bill, told the panel Monday that raising the penalty would be the only way to “get people’s attention” and prevent further malfeasance at the polls. 

“When we’re young, we have our parents who teach us the difference between right and wrong. And I believe that most people know when they’re doing something illegal,” she said. 

Opponents questioned its purpose and emphasized that it would further intimidate voters and disenfranchise voters of color in Texas.  

“This bill should not be discussed as simply a matter of good or bad public policy but instead should be discussed as a clear and overt manifestation of racial bias,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP. 

Bettencourt said “there’s no racial intent in this bill. It is completely colorblind.”

The penalty for illegal voting was reduced to a misdemeanor last session as an amendment to the omnibus voting bill during House debate on the legislation. The change went unnoticed until after the bill was signed by Abbott. In 2021, Patrick said the change made “last minute” must be “corrected.”

Patrick added the new bill to his list of legislative priorities for this session. If found guilty of the crime, a person could face up to 20 years in prison and more than $10,000 in fines. At least five other bills in the House and Senate were also filed with the same goal. Back in 2021, Abbott called for the penalty for illegal voting to be increased during a special legislative session, but House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, expressed skepticism at the time — and the measure didn’t reach Abbott’s desk.

Natalia Contreras covers election administration for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at ncontreras@votebeat.org.

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