By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Two pre-filed bills sponsored by Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, would allow early voting up to 14 days before an election and would abolish the need to apply for absentee voting.
Jackson told Alabama Daily News that he hopes these bills will make voting easier for Alabamians.
“This is about making sure it’s open for everyone to vote and not just simply for an hour at lunchtime during Election Day,” Jackson said.
House Bill 28 would allow voters to vote absentee without having to supply an excuse and House Bill 30 would require each county to provide at least one voting center to be open for in-person voting for 14 days preceding an Election Day.
Jackson sponsored both bills last year but both failed to get out of committee.
Alabama’s Secretary of State, John Merrill, told ADN he doesn’t think either bill is likely to pass this year either.
“I feel like [lawmakers] don’t think there is a need for it,” Merrill said. “That’s the comment we’ve heard in the past.”
Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia currently offer “no-excuse” absentee voting. Some states allow voters to be placed on a permanent absentee voting list, but Alabama only allows those with a permanent disability to be on a permanent absentee ballot list.
Nine states including Alabama do not offer early in-person voting options, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The states that currently allow early voting, on average, allow voting to start 22 days before an election.
Merrill says he does not see the point of having early-voting access when the state has already proven great voter turnout.
“We have broken every record in the state for voting participation in the last four major elections we’ve had, so when you’re breaking records for voter registration and voter participation, I find it very difficult to believe that we need to change what we’re currently doing,” Merrill told ADN.
According to Alabama’s Secretary of State website, the last major presidential election on Nov. 8, 2016 saw a voter turnout of 66.8% for the state. The national voter turnout rate for 2016 was around 55%.
The highest reported turnout rate for Alabama during a general election in recent years was in 2008 at 73.8%.
Merrill also said early voting would also come with personnel costs for the state and counties, but did not know the specific amount.
“If you increase the cost but you’re not increasing the number of people actually voting overall, then why would you make everyone pay for something that only benefited a few people and did not ultimately increase what you were trying to do, which is increase voter participation,” Merrill said.
Jackson said that the extra cost for early voting wouldn’t be significant since it would have to be in an already open registrar’s office.
“You have to vote in front of the registrar anyways, so all you have to do is provide those dates for people to open up their precincts,” Jackson said.
Merrill said an election cycle, which consists of a primary, general and runoff election, costs the state around $16.5 million.
Jackson said that he thinks voter suppression is still a problem in Alabama and that the Republican-led Legislature does not support voting rights enough.
“We say we want to move forward, and give everyone the same rights and abilities, but then we keep people away from the ballot, so somebody isn’t really being truthful,” Jackson said.
In 2018, BirminghamWatch reported that nearly 100 polling places were closed in 25 counties between 2010 and 2018. Some county officials said it was population shifts that caused closures. Others said condemned buildings or requests from property owners required a change.
The legislative session begins Feb. 4.