Bill criminalizing absentee ballot assistance passes Alabama Senate

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Anyone who helps a voter fill out an absentee ballot in Alabama faces up to a year in jail under a bill that passed the state Senate on Tuesday.

SB1, pushed by Republicans in an effort to combat so-called “ballot harvesting,” was overwhelmingly approved in the upper chamber by a vote of 27-8.

The legislation makes it a Class C felony “for a third party to knowingly receive a payment or gift for distributing, ordering, requesting, collecting, completing, prefilling, obtaining or delivering a voter’s absentee ballot application” and a Class B felony for someone to “knowingly pay or provide a gift to a third party to distribute, order, request, collect, prefill, complete, obtain or deliver a voter’s absentee ballot application.”

The bill makes exceptions for voters who are blind, disabled, unable to read or write. Such voters can designate a helper “other than the voter’s employer or agent of that employer or officer or agent of the voter’s union.”

Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, a Republican, said the legislation is needed to combat voter fraud.

“Allowing partisan groups and individuals to collect, handle, and potentially tamper with countless numbers of absentee ballots breeds fraud and invites abuse,” he said in a statement shortly after the bill passed the Senate. “With passage of this bill, Alabamians can rest assured that an absentee ballot honestly cast will be an absentee ballot honestly counted.”

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said the bill’s language means campaign staffers or the candidates themselves could be put in jail, pointing out that campaigns send absentee ballots to voters who are unable to cast ballots on Election Day.

“You just disenfranchise people who are elderly or are in a wheelchair,” Singleton said on the Senate floor Tuesday while debating the bill with the legislation’s sponsor, Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman.

Singleton said he doubted that the issue of “ballot harvesting” is a problem in Alabama, pointing out that the subject is not mentioned in the Alabama Election Handbook put out by the secretary of state’s office.

“No where in this book does it talk about ballot harvesting,” he said.

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, argued the legislation’s language also means a family member who gives their relative gas money to deliver an absentee ballot could be jailed.

She pointed out that in 2022, the state recorded its lowest voter turnout in 35 years, and argued that SB1 will only stifle turnout further.

“We don’t have people who are participating in the electoral process right now, and right now we are putting up barriers to voting,” she said.

Singleton said it is campaigns and volunteers who help distribute absentee ballots. He then asked his colleagues to raise their hands if they participated in “ballot harvesting.”

“If none of you did it, if none of your campaigns did it, why would we need the law?” he said.

A similar bill died last year amid Democratic opposition and from groups that provide voter education and assistance, including the League of Women Voters. The Alabama Legislature is a supermajority Republican.

The bill now heads to the House for consideration.

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