Voting restriction bill moves in the Alabama Legislature as voting access legislation stalls

By: - May 23, 2023 6:59 am
A sign saying "Vote Here," with a red arrow pointing to the left placed between both words.

Election officials direct voters during early-morning voting in the Wisconsin recall election at the Beloit Historical Society June 5, 2012 in Beloit, Wisconsin. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Alabama Legislature is on course to finish the 2023 regular session with more restrictions on voting and a number of stalled attempts to make casting a ballot easier.

A bill that would make it a felony for most people and organizations to assist people with filling out absentee ballots is moving quickly through the final days of session. Legislation that would make absentee voting easier or make it easier for people convicted of a crime to get the ballot back have stalled in committee.

HB 209, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, makes it a Class D felony for most people and organizations to assist someone with an absentee ballot, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $7,500. People paid to complete an absentee ballot for another person is a Class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

Individuals who pay someone or an organization to assist them with an absentee ballot face a Class B felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $30,000 fine.

It provides exemptions for family members and members of the same household. The same is true for employees of the Alabama Secretary of State’s office, a probate judge, a county election manager, an absentee election manager and guardians are also exempt.

The bill also allows someone to make an affirmative defense to assist a person who is blind, disabled, or illiterate.

The legislation passed the House 76-28 on May 4, mostly on party lines. It is scheduled to be in the Senate’s State Governmental Affairs committee on Tuesday afternoon.

“I am very hopeful that they will see the importance of this,” Kiel said in an interview on Friday. “I hope they see it for what it is. This is an attempt to make our voting process more secure. I hope they see that and get it across the finish line.”

Alabama Representative defends bill limiting assistance on voting
Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, defends a bill that would make it a felony for most individuals and organizations to assist people with absentee ballots. (Alander Rocha/Alabama Reflector)

Republicans have pushed for bills making it harder to vote since President Donald Trump made false claims of widespread voter fraud after losing the 2020 presidential election to President Joe Biden.

“I don’t know if there is a relationship between the level of security and the level of rules around absentee balloting,” said Ryan Williamson, a former assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Auburn University now working at the R Street Institute, a Washington-based free market think tank. “I don’t know if any work has illustrated that. Absentee balloting still has the requirements of no-signature verification. You have to include the ID the same as you would if you voted in person.”

The bill makes it more difficult for specific sections of the electorate to vote. Democrats are strongly opposed to Kiel’s bill.

“It amounts to voter suppression and intimidation,” said Sen Linda Coleman-Madison on Friday, D-Birmingham, the ranking Democrat on that committee.

Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, who also serves on the committee, agreed.

“What this bill does, at least to me, is it attempts to keep certain people from having the opportunity to cast their ballot instead of expanding the opportunity.” Coleman said.

A woman smiling, her head turned to the left.
Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, stands on the floor of the Alabama Senate on March 7, 2023. Legislators gathered Tuesday for the first day of the Alabama Legislature’s 2023 regular session. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

But Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, the vice chair of the committee, said the bill is “probably going to move.”

“In the majority party, there is a lot of concern about election fraud, elections in general, election security and ballot security,” he said. “Not necessarily alleging there is anything going on untoward in Alabama, although there have been a few instances at least talking about, but all in all I think we have had fairly secure elections in Alabama.”

Kiel had already been advocating for the bill with his colleagues on the Senate side.

“I think the chances are good,” Kiel said Friday of the possibility of making it through. “It is a strong bill. We had good support in the House. I had 41 cosponsors in the House. We were successful there.”

The Legislature has also passed two bills sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, that codify into law practices that have already been implemented by the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office.

The first,SB 9, requires the use of paper ballots in elections. The second, SB 10, prohibits the use of voting machines that connect to the Internet.

Ivey signed SB 10 into law on May 9. As of Monday morning, SB 9 was still awaiting action from the governor.

Expansion efforts stall

Democrats have seen efforts to expand voter access get stonewalled. A series of measures proposed by Rep. Kenyatté Hassell, D-Montgomery, that would have expanded voter access by absentee ballot, remain in committee.

“I got to give credit to the League of Women Voters,” he said Friday. “I had a conversation with that group, and they said these are bills that would be great ideas.”

HB 142, sponsored by Hassell, would give voters the chance to correct any errors or omissions on an absentee ballot.

Under current law, absentee ballots must be placed in a plain envelope, then sealed in a second envelope, known as an affidavit envelope, and signed by the voter and a notary public or two witnesses over the age of 18.  An election manager cannot work with a ballot if it is defective in some way. Election managers are not even permitted to unseal the ballot if the affidavit has issues.

The bill would allow election officials to inform voters who turn in an absentee ballot at least three business days before an election of any errors on it and tell them how to fix the defects. Voters would be able to fix the ballot up until the final business day before an election.

Some of the defects include an unsigned affidavit; an address that does not match with the one that is on the records; submitted envelopes not being in order; improper witnessing of an affidavit, or the voter not giving a reason for voting absentee.

“I am big on expanding voting rights anyway I can,” Hassell said.

He also filed HB 464, which removes the affidavit altogether.

“We should remove the questions on the affidavit because that doubles the questions,” Hassell said. “Sometimes the voters get confused.”

Expanding voter access to the ballot box by absentee voting is what other states are trying to do, according to Williamson.

“Alabama, historically and especially since the pandemic, has some of the strictest rules around absentee balloting,” he said. “It looks like this would relax the excuses and really bring it in line with the rest of the country. Currently, 35 states offer no excuse absentee or mail voting, and so that would move Alabama into the overwhelming majority category of what it takes to submit an absentee ballot.”

Hassel has struggled to get any sort of traction for his proposals, both of which have not even been placed on the agenda within the session. He hopes to at least get it discussed in committee and the other he will wait until the following legislative session.

Another bill that has struggled to get through is HB 96, sponsored by Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, which would eliminate the application process for people who have lost their voting rights for a criminal conviction.

Alabama law requires those seeking to restore their voting rights after completing a sentence to apply to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. Hall’s bill would effectively make voting rights restoration automatic for people who qualify. The Board would determine if a former inmate is once again eligible to vote.

It also allows people to regain their voting rights if they make one year’s worth of payments on their fines, fees, and restitution if they are on an approved payment plan.

Multiple attempts to reach Hall Friday were unsuccessful.

Thus far that bill has gained little traction in the House Judiciary Committee, where it has stalled. Republicans on the committee have said they do not believe the bill is necessary.

“I am trying to understand the reason for your bill to change that,” said Rep. David Faulkner, R-Mountain Brook during a committee meeting earlier this month. “What is the basis? Is there a problem or issue now that people are not able to (apply)? What is the problem that your bill is fixing?”

The bill has been carried over for the last two weeks.

“What we ought to be doing is making it easier for people to have access to the ballot box, not harder,” Coleman said Friday.

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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.