A controversial elections bill that would raise penalties for certain election-related offenses and establish tighter rules for assisting disabled, elderly or absentee voters is set for a public hearing and vote this week in a Texas House committee.

Senate Bill 9, authored by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is in part a response to suspected mail-in ballot fraud seen in Gregg County, which is now the focus of an investigation by the Texas attorney general. The same issues have been seen elsewhere in the state as well.

Wednesday’s hearing in the House Elections Committee would come exactly a month after the measure passed the Senate on a party-line vote of 19-12.

A coalition of voting groups including the Texas Civil Rights Project has decried the bill as a “dangerous new assault on voting rights in Texas.”

Hughes has suggested they are misreading the GOP-backed measure.

“The bill is aimed at folks who are cheating and are abusing the rules,” he said in March.

The measure’s goal, Hughes said, is making sure every vote counts and is counted accurately, and closing loopholes on some of the ways people cheat. He has cited evidence and testimony given to the Senate Select Committee on Election Integrity as the bill’s basis.

Hughes chaired the committee during 2018, learning that questions of potential mail ballot fraud were arising in two parts of the state — the Rio Grande Valley and Gregg County’s Pct. 4. The panel in December issued a 17-page report recommending measures that Hughes built into SB 9, which also requires a paper audit trail be available from electronic voting machines.

That paper trail is the “heart” of the bill, Hughes said. It requires all voting systems in the state to create a paper backup record of voting.

It also gives poll watchers new powers to inspect documents and even photograph or take video of vote counting, institutes new procedures for election workers and creates a “risk-limiting audit” process that uses statistical models to spot-check election results for accuracy.

The most controversial aspects of the bill are procedures added for those who vote by mail and who assist disabled voters. The point is to eliminate instances where people manipulate or intimidate voters in the guise of assisting them, Hughes said. That is what’s under investigation in Gregg County.

SB9 would require people who vote by mail because of disability to sign a statement affirming they are unable to go to a polling place without needing assistance or endangering their health. Anyone who assists someone else with a mail-in ballot would have to complete a form stating his or her name and address, the manner in which the voter requires assistance, the reason the assistance is necessary and the relationship of the assistant to the voter.

“We are concerned that an unequal application from polling place to polling place within a county and between counties might lead to an equal protection challenge of this provision,” the opposition coalition said in a letter sent to Hughes and elections administrators around the state.

The bill also would create a Class B misdemeanor for anyone who impedes a walkway, sidewalk, parking lot or road within 500 feet of a polling place. Current state law limits that distance to 100 feet.

If the committee votes to recommend the bill, the Republican-controlled House could pass it by the end of the week, with about a week to spare before May 27, when the regular session is set to adjourn.