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Controversial absentee ballot bill to return next session, sponsor says

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – House Bill 209, known to supporters as the ballot harvesting bill, failed to cross the finish line during the final day of the 2023 Alabama legislative session. The bill would have made it a crime to handle another person’s absentee ballot or ballot application, with exceptions for family members and the disabled. 

The bill’s sponsor said he intends to reintroduce it in 2024.

I’m ready to go to work on it again and get it passed’

Prior to the Tuesday’s final day of the session, bill sponsor Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, told Alabama Daily News that he felt the latest iteration of his bill had addressed critics’ concerns, and was confident that were it to appear on the Senate floor, it would have been approved. But the bill was not selected for Senate floor discussion and vote.

“I never heard a clear reason behind it not going up for a vote,” Kiel said on Wednesday. “We thought all along that we had strong support, we thought we had the votes to pass it, and for whatever reason just couldn’t get it on the floor.”

Asked about the bill by reporters when the Senate adjourned Tuesday night, Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, told reporters several controversial bills needed more work.

“It was primarily because there were questions, there were conflicts,” Reed said. “There were issues and unintended consequences that had been discussed.”

Despite the setback, Kiel said he was already at work preparing similar legislation to file for the 2024 legislative session, and attributed the bill’s failure, at least in part, to “disingenuous” media coverage.

Changes to HB209 throughout the session

The bill was first teased back in February, with Kiel telling ADN that he intended to file a bill similar to a proposal made in 2022 by former House member and current Secretary of State Wes Allen.

Kiel’s bill, which was filed on March 23, was near-identical to Allen’s past proposal, and would have made it a Class D felony for an individual to assist another person with an absentee ballot, with exemptions for family members. 

Supporters said the bill was needed to make elections more secure and prevent “ballot harvesting,” where politically driven groups try to influence elections by collecting absentee ballots.

The bill would have also made it a Class B felony to pay someone to help with a ballot, and a Class C felony to receive payment for help with a ballot, with no exceptions for family members if a payment was exchanged.

Before reaching the House floor, the bill was amended to say that it would be an “affirmative defense” to prosecution if an individual provided ballot assistance to someone who was disabled, blind, or unable to read or write. While the bill ultimately received House approval with a vote of 76-28, Democrats still strongly opposed the bill, calling it an attack on voting rights.

The bill would later be amended again in a Senate committee, this time making it an exclusion to the law to assist a disabled person with a ballot, rather than an affirmative defense in court. The amendment also lessened the criminal penalty from a Class D felony to a Class A misdemeanor.

‘That was what was really frustrating’

Kiel said that while it was “frustrating” for his bill to not come up for a vote in the Senate, he hopes senators will provide feedback as he works on a new iteration of the bill for 2024.

“In the Senate committee, the people that spoke against the bill were people who were speaking for people who were blind or disabled, and we had already taken an amendment to be clear that we were not trying to hinder their access to a ballot or the way they vote,” Kiel said. “But even after that, the media portrayed it as we’re trying to hurt the rights of those who are disabled, and it’s just not true.”

A vocal critic of the bill, Rep. Ontario Tillman, D-Bessemer, told ADN on Wednesday that while he understood Kiel’s intent with the legislation, he felt – even as amended – that the bill was a “solution looking for a problem.”

“If the evidence was there to suggest we have widespread, rampant voting fraud in Alabama, then I would love to sit down at the table and come up with legislation to address it, but it’s just not the case in Alabama,” Tillman said. “We need to look at what’s happening here in our state and draft legislation to help the people of Alabama, not this national voting fraud cult that everyone is trying to place on everyone else.”

House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Raisnville, also named the bill as a potential top priority in 2024.

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