NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM/CNN) — Republican-controlled legislatures in Texas and across the country are adding new criminal penalties to their election laws. The changes come after record voter turnout for the 2020 elections.

The proposals range from bills that would make it a crime for election officials to buck state guidance to measures that criminalize what some call “mundane” activities, such as Georgia’s controversial election law making it a misdemeanor to approach voters waiting in line to provide food or drink.

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Election Officials

Some of the proposals involve election officials themselves.

A bill that passed a key committee in the Texas state House last week would make it a felony for an election official to send a voter an unsolicited ballot application or to pre-fill portions of ballot applications sent to voters.

Under a bill introduced last month in the battleground state of Wisconsin, felony charges could be lodged against municipal clerks who issue absentee ballots if ballot application forms are missing voters’ signatures. A bill pending in Arizona, another swing state, makes it a felony for election officials to send a ballot to anyone who has not requested it and is not already on the state’s permanent early voting list. And the Iowa law signed in early March by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds makes it a felony for local election officials to buck the guidance of the secretary of state or disregard state election laws.

Lawrence Norden, director of the election reform program at the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, called the pattern “very troubling” — in the wake of an election that saw then-President Donald Trump and his allies make repeated attacks on election officials in key states and spread falsehoods about voter fraud.

State Legislatures vs. Local Election Officials

The push by Republican lawmakers to attach criminal penalties to actions by election officials follows bitter disputes in 2020 over how to conduct elections in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

In Iowa court battles erupted after elected auditors in three counties — Linn, Johnson and Woodbury — sent out absentee ballot requests that pre-filled some of the voters’ information, including their names and dates of birth. That ran counter to a directive by Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate to leave the forms blank, except for the election date and type.

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Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, a Democrat, maintained at the time that he was trying to make it as easy as possible for voters to request mail-in ballots during the pandemic.

But critics argued that pre-populating the form opened the door to potential voter fraud because the wrong person could receive a ballot application with another voter’s personal information. In the end, the courts sided with Trump and Republican Party officials who sued to discard the pre-filled absentee forms.

Kaufmann, the Iowa legislator who helped craft the new law, said last year’s controversy underscored the need “to make it clear that it’s our job to change the law, not the auditors’.”

The new law makes it a crime for election officials to willfully obstruct or disregard the state’s election laws, punishable by up to five years in prison. Kaufmann stressed that the prison time is not automatic and is subject to a judge’s discretion.

‘Ballot-Harvesting’

Across the country, several states are moving to criminalize other election activities. Among them: a practice called “ballot harvesting” by critics, which allows third parties to collect and deliver voters’ ballots.

Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures, counts 17 new bills in 12 states that would limit who can handle someone’s absentee ballot.

Some would attach criminal penalties.

A bill under consideration in Texas would make it a felony to pay or to provide “other benefit” to someone collecting absentee ballots, including for voters with disabilities. And in Iowa, the new law makes ballot collection a crime for someone who isn’t a relative, household member or caregiver of the registered voter. There’s an exception for an election official helping voters who are hospitalized or in assisted living settings.

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CBSDFW.com Staff