By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – In the wake of the 2020 elections, measures to change voting procedures and regulations have been introduced at the federal and state levels, revealing a deep partisan divide over how voting should work.
While Democrats in Congress are pushing legislation that would limit states’ ability to enact strict voting requirements, Republicans in state legislatures are considering bills to tighten voting regulations in the name of securing voter integrity.
Alabama has followed suit, as a number of election-centered bills have been introduced during the ongoing 2021 regular session. Around 32 bills from both Democrats and Republicans introduced this year have dealt with Alabama election law.
Some of the conservative measures have drawn sharp concern from Democrats saying the bills promote voter suppression and are in reaction to President Donald Trump’s false accusations of widespread voter fraud during the 2020 election.
“If Trump won the election, we wouldn’t be talking about these bills,” Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said during floor discussion about criminalizing double voting.
But Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, doesn’t believe that’s what’s happening in Alabama. He supports bills he says would make it “easy to vote and hard to cheat” in Alabama.
“What we are doing is not any different than what we do every election cycle, which is we evaluate what happened in the election and then we go back and we address the areas that we think need to be addressed,” Merrill said in an interview. He serves as Alabama’s chief election official.
Merrill said he believes Alabama’s election was one of the most secure and well-run in the nation and didn’t cite any specific problems he would like to fix from the 2020 election.
Here is a look at the bills concerning voters, voter registration or elections that are moving in the Alabama Legislature.
Ban on curbside voting
House Bill 285 from Rep. Wes Allen, R-Troy, would prohibit so-called curbside voting. The bill passed along party lines in the House and now awaits a Senate committee vote.
Allen has said the bill is about protecting election integrity, while opponents of the bill say it will discourage voters who may be disabled or otherwise unable to show up to the polls on election day.
Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, said her father is a disabled veteran and is afraid this bill would discourage people like her father from attempting to vote at the polls.
“This bill is going to say his vote is not important anymore,” Coleman said during floor discussion.
Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, who defended the bill on the House floor said disabled voters can vote through the absentee process and any polling place in Alabama has to be compliant under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Secretary of State John Merrill supports the bill and fought during the 2020 general election to ban curbside voting throughout the state, a position that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with.
House Bill 70 from Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, would make it illegal to pay an individual or entity for getting individuals to vote in an election. Anyone who violates this law could be convicted of a Class C misdemeanor.
Kiel said it’s already illegal to pay someone to vote in Alabama and his bill fixes a loophole in state law.
“This does away with the appearance that we’re paying someone to vote,” Kiel said.
The bill has passed committee and is awaiting a vote on the House floor.
In October, the Associated Press reported that the “New South Souls to the Polls Initiative” was paying churches a $6 contribution “for each documented early vote” to cover the expenses for outreach and transportation to help people vote early by absentee ballot.
Kiel said his bill would not prevent organizations from conducting get-out-the-vote operations or reimbursing entities for transportation costs but does ban paying entities on a “per voter” basis that requires proof of voter participation.
Crime of voting twice
House Bill 167 from Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Smiths Station, would make it a Class A misdemeanor to vote twice in the same election in or outside the state.
Blackshear has said that even though fewer than 10 people were found to have been guilty of double voting in the 2018 election, it still is a problem that should be prosecuted.
“When it comes to voter fraud, one is too many and when it comes to the citizens of Alabama I think we should get it to as close to perfect as we can,” Blackshear said.
After staunch opposition from Democrats during a lengthy floor debate, the penalty was taken down from a Class C felony to a Class A misdemeanor after some thought the punishment was too severe.
Merrill supports the bill.
The bill has been scheduled for the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee on March 31.
Omitting certain voter info
House bill 123 from Rep. David Faulkner, R-Homewood, would allow federal or state prosecutors, federal, state, probate, or municipal judges, or law enforcement officers to have their personal identifying information omitted from the state’s voter registration list.
“The idea is that people who are making arrests, judges, prosecutors or someone who is taking someone’s civil liberties away and putting them in jail or prison, to protect them from any kind of violent actor,” Faulkner said.
The voter registration list contains info such as a person’s address and their voting location.
Multiple Democratic lawmakers said state legislators should be included on the list but the attempted amendment failed to pass.
Secretary Merrill supports the bill, which has been scheduled to be heard by the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee on March 31.
One time audit after 2022 election
House bill 116 from Rep. David Standridge, R-Hayden, would allow for a special one-time audit after the 2022 general election. This bill was proposed in the 2020 regular legislative session but was cut short due to COVID-19.
Secretary Merrill supports the bill and said the bill’s main purpose is to increase election security.
“The audit component is a component that simply helps the election administrator determine whether or not there were irregularities, inconsistencies or improprieties that were introduced in the administrative aspect of the election,” Merrill told ADN.
The audit would only be performed in three counties, one each from a north, central and southern county. It will be conducted on one statewide office election and one specific county wide election.
All local offices will be reimbursed with the help of funds from the 2002 Help America Vote Act. No state dollars will be used for the audit.
The bill passed a Senate committee with one amendment saying that the counties will reflect the racial, urban/rural and economic diversity of the state and the findings of the audit will be sent to the governor and legislature within 30 days of completion.
Extra in-person absentee voting sites
House bill 507 from Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, would allow for more sites to be opened up within a county to accept in-person absentee ballots.
Garrett said larger populated counties like Jefferson County, need other options for where they can return their absentee ballots in person rather than just at the downtown courthouse.
“I want to make it easier for people to do it under the controlled setting of the absentee elections manager,” Garrett said.
The bill would allow certain designated places to be opened 14 days before an election and would be run by a county’s absentee election manager. The county commission of that county would have to approve the expansion.
The bill passed out of a House committee but not without reservations from some Republican members saying this will open the doors for more early voting to happen in the state.
Absentee application time shortened
House Bill 538 from Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, would shorten the amount of time absentee ballot applications can be received by the election manager’s office.
The bill requires the application to be mailed into the manager’s officer 10 days before an election or hand-delivered five days before. Current state law says no matter if you are mailing or hand-delivering an absentee application, it must be submitted to the absentee election manager’s office no later than 5 days before an election.
The bill also would allow absentee ballots to start being counted on election day at 7 a.m. instead of starting at noon.
Baker said after the delays and problems seen with the U.S. postal service last year during the 2020 election, he thought the added time to process the applications was needed.
“Within the election process the ballot will be counted in a timely and efficient manner, which will make the release of unofficial election results happen on election night,” Baker said.
The bill is now awaiting a vote on the House floor.
No-excuse absentee voting
House Bill 396 from Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, would allow for no-excuse absentee voting in Alabama, but the bill was held back by Hall after discovering that there weren’t enough votes to pass it out of committee.
A top aide from Merrill’s office defended the no-excuse provision during a public hearing on the bill, but Merrill later reversed course and said he would not support the bill.
The bill would have supplied extra workers to absentee election managers, allowed for absentee ballots to start being counted at 7 a.m. on election day rather than at noon and would have changed the time by which absentee applications had to be received.
Merrill said once it became clear that probate judges and circuit clerks were not interested in allowing no-excuse absentee voting in the state, he backed off supporting Hall’s bill.
Merrill said all of the provisions regarding absentee voting that he does want to tackle are contained in Baker’s bill, House Bill 538.
Restoring voting rights process amended
Senate Bill 118 from Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, would revise how formerly incarcerated people can restore their right to vote.
The bill was substituted by Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, during the Senate floor debate and passed the Senate with only one vote against.
The bill as amended would require a formerly incarcerated person to have paid all victim restitution fees ordered by the court, and also have paid all fines, court costs and fees or have proof of payments to an approved payment plan for all fees for no less than a year.
Givhan also told ADN that, alternatively, the Bureau of Pardons and Parole (BPP) can come up with a community service plan for those who cannot pay off any fees upon release.
A person also has to have either completed their sentence, been pardoned for their crime or successfully completed probation or parole and has been released from compliance by the ordering entity.
The BPP then must conduct a review to determine the person’s eligibility and if they’ve complied with all the requirements, they can have their voting rights restored.
Once the formerly incarcerated person’s rights are restored, the person would have to re-register to vote with the appropriate board of registrars.
BPP Director Cam Ward said he likes the bill as amended and thinks it makes the process easier for those individuals.
“If you have paid your debt and paid your restitution that you owed, then it should be easier to get your rights restored,” Ward told ADN.
Requiring paper ballots
Senate Bill 284 from Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, would require voters to use a paper ballot along with an electronic vote counting system during elections.
Merrill supports this bill and said this is a practice that already happens across the state.
“This just codifies that requirement and will be statutory language if this bill passes,” Merrill said.
Senate Bill 283 also from Chambliss would prohibit an electronic vote counting system from being connected to the internet, a cell phone network or possess modem technology.
Both bills now await a vote on the Senate floor.
Clarifying campaigning law near polls
House Bill 345 from Rep. Dickie Drake, R-Leeds, clarifies already existing law that says a person cannot campaign within 30 feet of the door of a polling place.
An amendment to the bill clarifies that it is 30 feet from the exterior doors from where voting machines are located at polling places.
The bill now awaits a vote on the House floor.
Blind people on permanent absentee voting list
House Bill 145 from Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, would allow blind or visually impaired voters to be permanently placed on the state’s absentee voting list.
The voter would have to go through an application process and be confirmed by the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind to be put on the list.
Merrill supports the bill and is awaiting a vote on the House floor.