Alabama lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a bill that would make it a crime to help a non-family member request, fill out or return an absentee ballot.
The Senate Governmental Affairs committee voted 5-2 — in a vote that fell along party lines — to advance the House-passed bill to the full Alabama Senate. The Republican sponsor of the bill said the change is needed to combat voter fraud, but opponents called it an attempt to make it harder for people to vote.
Kathy Jones, president of the League of Women Voters of Alabama, said the bill would make criminals out of "law-abiding people who are volunteering to help others be prepared to vote." Jones said in every election, volunteers help senior citizens, college students and others with absentee ballot forms and getting the required copy of their photo identification that must accompany the ballot.
Betty Shinn, of Mobile, told the committee that the bill harkens back to Alabama's history of making it difficult, or impossible, for certain people to vote.
"This reminds me of requiring individuals to recite the Constitution in its entirety, tell how many jellybeans are within a jar or how many bubbles a particular bar of soap could produce," Shinn, 72, said, describing tactics that were used in the Jim Crow era to keep African Americans from registering to vote.
The bill by Republican Rep. Jamie Kiel of Russellville would make it a misdemeanor in most cases for a person to order, request, collect, prefill or return an absentee ballot other than their own. It would become a felony to pay someone, or receive payment, for absentee ballot assistance.
"The purpose of the bill is very simple. It's to make sure the balloting process, the election process in Alabama, is as secure as possible," Kiel said. He argued absentee voting is less secure than in-person voting. "Most of the cases where there is voter fraud across the country are in early voting."
The bill is part of a wave of GOP bills nationally seeking limitations on early and mail-in voting. Alabama does not have early voting or mail-in voting opportunities beyond returning an absentee ballot.
"From my knowledge, this law, if passed, would be the broadest, harshest and most punitive law addressing assistance with absentee ballot applications and absentee ballots in the country," Danielle Lang, senior director of voting rights for the the Campaign Legal Center, said in a telephone interview earlier this month.
The bill allows an exemption for family members to help other family members up to the "second degree of kinship" including parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles — provided they are not paid to do so. The bill also says there is an affirmative defense if the voter being helped is blind, disabled or unable to read or write, also provided there is no payment involved.
Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, said that exemption is extremely narrow, noting the bill would make it a felony for her great aunt to offer her $2 in gas money to return her absentee ballot.