Push for no-excuse absentee voting likely going nowhere

Push for no-excuse absentee voting likely going nowhere

By SARA MACNEIL, for Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Senate approved Tuesday a resolution that says it’s “imperative to the democratic process to propose and adopt” no-excuse absentee voting, but the passage of actual legislation to loosen restrictions on the ballots seems unlikely in the GOP-controlled body.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, filed a bill Monday that would authorize no-excuse absentee voting. Smitherman’s Senate Bill 335 strikes out the list of excuses that qualify a voter for an absentee ballot and deletes a section of state law that says they must have one of those excuses to apply for an absentee ballot.

Some cities have been pushing for no-excuse absentee voting in recent weeks. Alabamians go to the polls July 14 for primary runoffs. The election date was delayed in March because of concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.

Smitherman this week said he needs to rush the no excuse voting bill into committee during the shortened session, so he had no time to consult with his Republican colleagues. His bill was assigned to the Governmental Affairs Committee, which has no meetings scheduled this week.

“There is no support for no-excuse absentee voting within the Republican caucus,” said William Califf, spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, told Alabama Daily News Tuesday.

Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, introduced House Bill 251, which is identical to Smitherman’s bill, early this session. HB 251 has been pending in a House committee without a vote since Feb. 13.

Some of the allowed excuses for voting absentee include expecting to be out of the country, having a job that requires working a 10-hour shift that coincides with polling hours or the having a homebound family member. Voters must check a box next to the reason that applies to them. Falsifying the application is a Class C felony, according to state law.

Secretary of State John Merrill, the state’s top election official, sees no reason to change Alabama’s voting laws, his spokeswoman said.

“Considering we have shattered every record in the history of the state for voter registration and voter participation, Secretary Merrill does not consider our current voting laws to be an issue,” Merrill’s press secretary Grace Newcombe wrote in an email.

As of Monday, 14,415 people requested absentee ballots for the July 14 primary runoff election. Newcombe said the process may have begun for some voters ahead of the March 3 primary election.

In the March 3 primary,18,729 people returned absentee ballots. 

The Legislature is working consecutive days in a short window of time due to the coronavirus pandemic. The session could end Saturday, so SB335 would need to be moved out of committee today, Smitherman said. He said he wanted to move on the bill because the coronavirus  pandemic could impact future elections, he said.

“We’re going to be dealing with this issue way into next year and we will have a variety of elections that will take place from local elections to state elections to national elections so we’re trying to get prepared for those . . . right now,” Smitherman said.

Smitherman’s daughter, Birmingham City Councilwoman Crystal Smitherman, introduced a resolution to the Birmingham City Council in support of no-excuse absentee voting that passed last week.

In order to apply for an absentee ballot, voters concerned about exposure to the coronavirus and/or are at risk of the more serious complications of the virus have been encouraged to say they have a physical illness or infirmity which prevents their attendance at the polls. The resolution Birmingham City Council passed April 28 and Mayor Randall Woodfin approved May 1 also points out that falsifying an absentee ballot is a felony. 

“All of us who have voted absentee, we’ve had to lie,” Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, said on the Senate floor Tuesday during discussion of the resolution. “We’ve all committed fraud.” 

“… I really think that at some point in time, those checkoff boxes need to be eliminated,” she said.

The Huntsville City Council late last month also passed a resolution asking legislators for changes to Alabama law that would allow for no-excuse absentee ballot voting. 

Montgomery City Council President Charles Jinright introduced an identical resolution Tuesday, but the vote was postponed at Councilman CC Calhoun’s request. He said he had questions about the verification process.

“I understand that COVID-19 is going on, but I want to understand what the rules and regulations are that we are asking our Legislature to change,” Calhoun said.

The resolution that state senators approved Tuesday from Smitherman and Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, highlights continued concerns about COVID-19 and the need to maintain social distancing. 

“It is important, even in times such as these, for our citizens to be able to cast their votes in any and all elections without fear that to do so might enhance  their exposure to a serious, even deadly, disease,” the resolution says. Resolutions express legislative opinion, but don’t have any legal weight. This one was approved on a voice vote.

Smitherman said he’s hopeful for a compromise with Gov. Kay Ivey, but she does not support legislative change that would allow for no-excuse absentee voting.

“If anyone can submit an absentee vote without a valid reason, it raises the potential for voter fraud. In the middle of a public health crisis, we don’t need to open that up and add extra problems to our plate,” Ivey’s Press Secretary Gina Maiola wrote Tuesday in an email.

Smitherman said voter fraud would not be a concern with no excuse absentee voting because it would not change the process of verifying voters. Absentee applications must include a copy of a valid photo ID.

“We are not moving to change the process of verification over absentee voting,” Smitherman said. “That’s where you deal with the concern for fraud —verifying that that is the person.  We’re not trying to change that part at all. We’re just trying to eliminate the necessity to not tell the truth.”

July 9 is the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot for the July 14 runoff election.