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New Voting Law Aims to Curb Ballot Harvesting

Lawmakers, who usually get bogged down in controversy over election laws, passed a mail-in ballot measure that Republicans and voter-advocacy groups agreed will help crack down on "ballot harvesting."
For some campaign workers, the 2014 season could be a little less lucrative. A new law that takes effect Sept. 1 aims to curb "ballot harvesting" by ensuring that campaign workers are not compensated based on the number of mail-in ballots they collect.

The Texas Legislature, which typically becomes mired in controversy over election-related laws, managed to pass a mail-in ballot measure that Republicans and voter-advocacy groups agreed — after some compromise — was the best way to crack down on the practice they say leads to voter fraud and intimidation.

Gov. Rick Perry in June signed House Bill 148, by state Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, which will make it a crime to offer people compensation based on the number of mail-in ballots they collect during a local, state or national election. The law also makes it an offense for a person to collect compensation for collecting and mailing the ballots.

A person convicted of the misdemeanor crime would face between 30 days and a year in jail, and a fine of up to $4,000. Repeat offenders could be charged with a state jail felony, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000 and a prison sentence of up to two years.

The new law does not apply, though, to people who gather ballots while doing campaign work, such as block-walking, as long as their payment is not tied to the collection of mail-in ballots.

Proponents of the bill said that being paid to collect ballots leads to voter fraud and possible voter intimidation. Some campaign workers, proponents of the measure said, have coerced voters into selecting particular candidates.

During debate on the House floor, opponents said there was no need for the law, calling it an attempt to suppress voter turnout. Opponents were concerned the measure would make possible felons out of “good Samaritans” — like Meals on Wheels volunteers or Boy Scouts in search of a merit badge — who were simply trying to help people in cast their ballots.

Those questions led to compromise that made HB 148 palatable to voting rights groups. Initially, the bill would have limited the number of ballots any person could collect to 10. Under the compromise, there is no limit on the number of ballots someone can collect, and instead the law penalizes payment for the gathering of ballots, reducing the chances a good Samaritan would face criminal charges for helping others to vote.

“We’re preventing unscrupulous people from committing ballot fraud, which does happen,” said Sondra Holtom, the president of Empower the Vote Texas, an advocacy group. “But we’re not punishing people for being nice to their neighbors.”

Alicia Pierce, the communications director at the Texas secretary of state’s office, said the agency’s voting division would begin conducting outreach to inform city, county and school board election officials of the rule change in July.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/08/22/31-days-31-ways-laws-mail-ballots-takes-effect/.

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