In the wake of the continued chaos and mismanagement surrounding the conduct of elections in Harris County, two Harris County legislators have filed legislation that would create additional measures to increase the security of Texas elections and provide other avenues to enforce election laws.
House Bill 549 by State Representative Valoree Swanson and its companion legislation, Senate Bill 220 by State Senator Paul Bettencourt, would establish a state election marshal within the office of the Secretary of State. The state election marshal would be tasked with appointing election marshals across the state that would be required by law to investigate alleged violations of the Texas Election Code that are brought to their attention.
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The election marshals, who would be required to be licensed peace officers with special training in election law, would be required to “exercise all lawful means” to prevent election law violations from continuing or occurring. The election marshals would also be empowered to seek orders or warrants from a court needed to carry out their duties, as well as have the ability to file appropriate criminal charges.
Swanson and Bettencourt’s legislation would also require that civil court cases brought to stop or prevent violations of election integrity laws are heard almost immediately by a visiting judge. The judge of a district or county court with jurisdiction over any geographic area served by an election official who is a party to the proceeding would be disqualified from hearing the case unless the election official serves statewide.
Actions brought within 45 days of an election by a candidate, political party, or a state, county, or precinct chair of a political party that seeks emergency injunctive relief to prevent a violation of election integrity law from continuing or occurring would be heard by a specially appointed emergency election review judge. The judge would be required to hold a hearing within 3 hours of receiving a written request for a hearing up until the last day of early voting and one hour if the request is made after the last day of early voting and before the final canvas of the election.
In a statement to The Texas Voice, Rep. Swanson said, “Election fraud is the perfect crime. Once the illegal ballots have been mixed with the legal ballots, it is impossible to separate them. We must stop election fraud as it is happening! HB 549 Swanson / SB 220 Bettencourt will create election marshals under the control of the Secretary of State, who can arrest election officials breaking the law on the spot. It also sets up for an emergency election review judge— in a different jurisdiction from the alleged crime— to get fraud cases to court within three hours.”
Representative Swanson and Senator Bettencourt represent parts of Harris County, which has experienced chaotic and mismanaged elections over the last several years. Over 20 candidates in Harris County have filed election contests arising from the 2022 general election, which are pending in front of visiting Judge David Peeples.
The numerous irregularities surrounding the conduct of elections in Harris County have also garnered the attention of Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. The problems with Harris County’s conduct of the 2022 general election included polling locations being forced to turn away voters due to a lack of ballot paper. Houston television station KHOU discovered that 121 polling locations in Harris County lacked sufficient ballot paper.
On January 31, 2023, Governor Abbott tweeted, “Harris Co. election ballot paper shortage far bigger than initially estimated. It’s so big it may have altered the outcome of elections. It may necessitate new elections. It WILL necessitate new LAWS that prevent Harris Co. from ever doing this again.”
Earlier this week, speaking to the Magic Circle Republican Women’s club in Houston, Patrick called for new elections in Harris County due to voters being turned away due to a lack of ballot paper.