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Bill would allow no-excuse absentee voting

By CAROLINE BECK Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A bill that would allow for no-excuse absentee voting in Alabama has support from the Secretary of State but faced some pushback during a public hearing on Wednesday.   

House Bill 396 from Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, removes the excuse provision for absentee voting and allows for absentee election managers to appoint additional assistants.

Current law only allows absentee voting for a few reasons, including expecting to be out of the country, having a job that requires working a 10-hour shift that coincides with polling hours or having a homebound family member. Voters must check a box next to the reason that applies to them. Falsifying the application is a Class C felony, according to state law.

Grace Newcombe, the communications director for the Secretary of State’s office, told committee members that the absentee voting excuse provision “seldom serves any real purpose.”

Out of more than a thousand voter fraud claims reviewed by the office since 2015, only five were found guilty of absentee voter fraud, Newcombe said.

“Of these convictions, our office has determined that the excuse provisions would not have deterred voter fraud, rather it was the witness and notary requirements that helped,” Newcombe said.

Hall’s bill would not change the requirement for voters to have a valid state issued voter ID to cast a vote, nor would it change the two witness signatures needed on the final ballot.

The bill would allow absentee ballot counting to start at 7 a.m. on election day, rather than noon, to prepare for the influx of absentee ballots.

Rep. Adline Clarke, D-Mobile, who has her own early voting legislation filled this year, said she supports Hall’s bill.

“Absentee voting is a form of early voting,” Clarke said. “It offers all voters a greater degree of flexibility in exercising their right to vote.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Alabama essentially had no-excuse absentee voting for the 2020 November election after Secretary John Merrill allowed voters to mark concerns over COVID-19 as an excuse on their absentee ballots. That was possible because of the state of emergency declared by the governor. 

“Because Alabama successfully handled a very similar effort to no excuse absentee voting on Nov. 3, we believe Alabama is fully prepared to make this change and provide a successful means of voting for our constituents,” Newcombe said.

Pike County Probate Judge Michael Bunn told committee members that the Alabama Association for Probate Judges does not support the bill because it erodes election integrity in their eyes.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Bunn said. “Today it’s removing the excuses, tomorrow it will be removing the other bars, the affidavit, the ID requirement.”

Another opponent of the bill was Houston County Circuit Clerk Carla Woodall, who said the increase of absentee application and ballot paperwork would overwhelm her office.

“We have no foundation to support early voting,” Woodall said.

A fiscal note on the bill says this would increase the state’s General Fund expenditures by an estimated maximum of $615,500 per statewide election cycle to provide compensation for extra assistants for absentee election managers, and $10,000 annually to print and distribute the additional affidavit and application for absentee ballots.

Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, asked Newcombe if Alabama’s voting process worked so well for the 2020 election, why bother changing it.  

“I would say that just because something works doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it even more effective,” Newcombe responded.

A vote on the bill is expected at the committee’s next meeting. It hasn’t been scheduled.

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