Alabama battles controversial GOP legislation

Published 9:00 am Thursday, July 13, 2023

Republican legislators have created laws in at least six states — including Georgia — which could lead to high fines or jail time for voter assistance organizations. 

A recent Alabama House bill was defeated in the 2023 session that would have restricted absentee voting. Many voting advocacy groups have said the laws promote voter suppression and impact marginalized groups. 

“In many cases in rural areas and rural counties, just all over the state of Alabama, Black people are already denied and meet challenges when it comes to access to the ballot,” said Ronald James Jr., Alabama Regional Organizer with Black Voters Matter Fund. “And so this here was another step toward suppressing that vote and making it harder for Alabamians in total to vote, but specifically for Black Alabamians.”

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Alabama House Bill 209, which would have criminalized individuals helping others with absentee ballots, did not pass through the session. Voting advocacy groups said that if it did pass, it would have violated the Voting Rights Act. 

“The legal implications of a lawmaker saying, ‘I want to make it a felony for people to help each other vote, which is certainly horrible,” said Mike Nicholson, Alabama Arise policy analyst. “I think it says a lot about the way that some of our lawmakers view voting as maybe not a right but a privilege, which is certainly an ideology that we’ve been struggling with in the last — really, since the Civil Rights Movement.”

Representative Debbie Wood, who co-sponsored the bill, said that the goal was to prevent voter fraud with absentee ballots. She said the absentee voting application could allow individuals to have ballots sent to the wrong address so that people could vote under another voters’ name.

“We’ve had voters that have showed up to the polls to vote and couldn’t vote because there was already an absentee ballot,” Wood said.

However, Nicholson said that there is little evidence to suggest that voter fraud is a big issue in Alabama. 

“I think any bill that makes it harder to vote without any evidence that there is a problem of voter fraud,” Nicholson said. “… There’s just no reason to introduce legislation that could severely restrict people’s access to the ballot and scare people away from voting with so little justification.”

Many voting rights groups said that criminalizing the act to the degree of a felony created fear in absentee voters and those helping family or working for voting assistance programs. 

“It was the fact that I could get more time now for helping my grandmother or a senior with an absentee ballot than I would have breaking into someone’s house,” James said. 

Many organizations have also said the voting bills would suppress marginalized groups and citizens with language barriers. In Chambers County, the population of Black or African American was 40% in the 2020 census count. The population of Asian and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander groups is about 10%, which has more than doubled in the last ten years. 

Wood said she believes that the bill did not pass in part because it would impact the way politicians run their campaigns. Wood said that oftentimes during campaigning, she passes out absentee ballots while knocking on doors; this bill would have restricted that. 

“I think that the bill did not pass because there are some issues that we found with the bill that we’re trying to address … It did force even legislators to change the way they’ve campaigned all these years,” she said. 

However, Wood said the bill will likely be rewritten and reintroduced next session. 

Likewise, Nicholson said that the number of rural and older citizen voters who may be impacted by the absentee ballot restriction likely played a role in the bill not passing.

“I definitely think it’s unfortunate that that’s the logic or reasoning we have to use to convince these lawmakers this bill is a bad idea,” Nicholson said. 

West Point has been impacted by Georgia lawmakers in a 2019 bill. The bill makes it a misdemeanor to offer a voter any money or gifts at polling places, including passing out water and snack in long lines. 

Just south of Alabama, Florida’s legislatures have imposed a $50,000 fine on organizations whose staff have felonies or noncitizens. Voting rights advocates criticized the bill as blocking trust with marginalized voter groups. 

Wood said voting bills similar to Georgia’s bill S202 and Florida’s bill, will likely continue to be introduced into Alabama legislature in future sessions. 

“It’s not making it harder to vote. I say it’s safer to vote,” Wood said. “You know your vote counts, and you know that your vote is not wiped away by anything illegal. So yes, I think it’s going to continue to happen until we feel like we’ve gotten it right.”

Wood said that she sees HB 209 as having the potential to be a bipartisan bill but that the bill still needs work in order to make sure voters’ voices are heard.

“We have to still find a way to ensure that they feel valuable, the people that are at home, and that they know that we want to ensure that they get their absentee application so they can receive their ballot,” Wood said. “So I think we still have a little bit of work to do.”

James said that the bill is a voting issue that can affect anyone on either side of the aisle.

“This is not a Democrat thing. It’s not a Republican thing because absentee voters are affected on each side of the aisle and letting people know that this is not a party issue,” James said. “This is a voting issue.”