Voting rights reforms face uphill climb, anti-democratic political sentiments

All Alabamians should be able to exercise the right to vote without facing suppression, administrative hurdles, or manipulation by elected officials. But the infrastructure of democracy in Alabama falls short of that standard. Efforts to protect and expand voting rights for Alabamians in the past session took place amid a national atmosphere of outlandish conspiracy theories and outright lies about election security. Some states have used these lies to pass bills restricting voting rights.

For example, Georgia passed a broad voter suppression bill this year that shortens time frames for absentee ballot applications, allows state-level election officials to remove local officials, and criminalizes giving food or water to voters while they wait in line.

And like voters in neighboring states, Alabamians faced varied voter suppression attempts. For example, bills to restrict voter assistance in filling out ballots (HB 575, by Rep. Mike Holmes), prevent response by elected officials to emergency election concerns (HB 399, Rep. Wes Allen), and forbid payment to voter outreach organizations based on the number of voters who vote (HB 70, Rep. Jamie Kiel) were all introduced this session.

Alternative methods of voting attacked

Additionally, the Legislature delayed and killed multiple bills that would have increased access to voting for eligible Alabamians. Rep. Laura Hall’s HB 396 would have allowed voters to cast absentee ballots without providing an excuse from a list of state-approved reasons for absentee voting.

Early in the session, Hall had bipartisan support for this bill. Secretary of State John Merrill sent a staffer to the public hearing on HB 396 in the House Constitution, Campaigns and Elections (CC&E) Committee meeting to speak in favor of the bill. But partisan opposition arose in the committee during that hearing and soon after on talk radio. By the next week, Merrill had abandoned the bill and distanced himself from his longstanding if quiet support of no-cause absentee voting.

The right to vote received this same unabashed political consideration in other bills as well. Rep. Wes Allen introduced a bill to prohibit mail-in voting and prevent the secretary of state from responding to disasters by issuing emergency election rules. If that bill had been in effect during the 2020 election, Alabamians could not have voted an absentee ballot to avoid a crowded gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But HB 399 wasn’t the only bill to pander to the false claim that the 2020 election was somehow insecure or flawed. Other bills also sought to restrict executive branch officials from responding to emergencies that affect elections, and those bills also failed to become law. Rep. Arnold Mooney’s HB 638 would have prevented local officials from extending voting hours in response to emergencies.

Both sides saw voting rights issues essentially reach a stalemate

While Arise advocates and our partners stopped many of the worst bills, positive reforms faced severe opposition across the board. Bills to allow early voting, same-day voter registration, and automatic voter registration through DMV record updates didn’t advance at all. In fact, most reform bills were never even placed on the calendar in the House CC&E Committee.

One reform bill did make significant headway, though. SB 118, by Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, would have streamlined the process for people returning from prison to regain their right to vote. This bill also would have removed the requirement to pay fines and fees to regain the right to vote. That requirement is effectively a poll tax and prevents many Alabamians from full participation in civic life.

But in order to advance the bill through the Senate, the anti-poll tax provision was stripped out after it became clear that the bill would not pass without removing it. And even after the Senate passed SB 118, the House CC&E Committee failed to advance it further.

Through nearly the entire session, the voting rights issue remained fairly stalemated. Voting rights advocates found their bills slowed and killed by legislators hostile to expanding voter access, and voting rights opponents found their bills stalled because of ardent public opposition to new restrictions.

Legislature forces through anti-democratic, racist bill at end of session

Unfortunately, on the last night of the session, SB 235 / HB 285, sponsored by Sen. Dan Roberts and Rep. Wes Allen, respectively, passed the Senate, the final step it needed for legislative passage. This bill prohibits curbside voting, even though no jurisdictions offered curbside voting in the 2020 election cycle.

This bill directly furthers the false conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 election. The 2020 Alabama general election saw no accusations of systemic problems for voters, no accusations of election fraud, and no curbside voting available for the public. And during the initial Senate debate on SB 235, even senators who ended up voting for it admitted it was unnecessary because curbside voting was unavailable, because the recent election was secure, and because the Secretary of State’s office prohibited the practice by rule already.

Further, SB 235’s passage will almost inevitably get the state sued, and the state should lose the lawsuit. In passing this bill, the Legislature has inscribed in the state code that Alabama refuses to grant accommodations to voters with disabilities, older voters, and pregnant voters.

While polling places are required to be accessible to voters with disabilities, too many Alabama polling places fail to meet that legal obligation. Allowing election officials to meet those voters at the curb is a way to meet the needs of voters who can’t access their designated polling place on election day. Sen. Bobby Singleton introduced SB 377 to remedy this looming legal problem, but this bill was voted down in committee 1-8 along straight party lines.

SB 235 faced a filibuster when it was placed on the calendar on the session’s last day. In the state’s long tradition of hostility to voting rights for all Alabamians, SB 235 fits the pattern of wealthy, influential areas oppressing voters with less power. SB 235’s purpose is to prevent local jurisdictions populated and run by Black Alabamians from making voting more accessible to their citizens. After Black senators opposing the bill repeatedly pointed out this bill is born from hostility to voting rights and furthers inequity, the Senate voted 25-6, again on a straight party line, to silence debate on the bill and force a vote.

The feds aren’t coming to save the state from itself, so where do we go from here?

At the federal level, the House passed HR 1, the For the People Act, an omnibus voting rights bill that contains many of the provisions Arise has supported at the state level. Among them, HR 1 would force states to implement automatic voter registration, no-cause absentee voting, and early voting for federal elections.

This bill would also return Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required some states, including Alabama, to submit proposed changes to election procedures to the U.S. attorney general. Section 5’s preclearance provision was held unconstitutional in Shelby County v. Holder, and since that ruling, the Alabama Legislature has faced dozens of attempts to make voting more cumbersome, inconvenient, and difficult.

HR 1 has passed the House, but it faces stiff opposition in the Senate. The archaic, elitist rules of the U.S. Senate – combined with some Republican senators’ desire to fend off conservative challengers in next year’s primary and some conservative Democrats’ refusal to change filibuster rules – mean the For the People Act is unlikely to pass that chamber.

But federal dysfunction on top of political manipulation at the state level doesn’t mean progress is impossible. Alabama’s status outside the group of battleground states means that the policy arguments Arise has been making in favor of increasing democratic participation may be evaluated less on a political basis than how they improve access to democracy for all people. Automatic voter registration will still save the state money. No-cause absentee voting will still distribute the administrative workload for election officials more broadly, enabling efficiency increases.

Policies created to maintain Alabama’s longstanding racist social and economic structure can be overcome with sufficient public pressure. And in fact, that public pressure is what killed most of the bad bills facing the people of Alabama this year. The Legislature did not prevent the governor from responding to emergencies. Local election officials did not have their ability to extend hours curtailed when facing disasters.

These significant defensive victories happened because legislators heard from Alabamians who do not believe the right to vote should be a political football. The next major undertaking will be moving from defensive victories to bold steps forward that free Alabamians from the chains of the state government’s past hostility to equitable voting rights. The racially divided, partisan and nakedly political passage of SB 235/HB 285 shows we have a steep hill to climb. But transformational victories will come as advocates build power and push legislators toward a just Alabama that welcomes full democratic participation.