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Legislature ‘poised and ready’ to take up absentee ballot bill this year, sponsor says

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A controversial absentee ballot bill that died last year after not being taken up for a vote in the Alabama Senate is set to return in the upcoming legislative session, and this time, its Senate sponsor says he strongly believes it will succeed.

Senate Bill 1 from Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, would make it a Class A misdemeanor for a person to assist another person with their absentee ballot, with some exceptions for family members and the disabled. The charge would be increased to a Class C felony were a person to receive payment for the assistance, or a Class B felony for someone who pays for assistance, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

A nearly identical version of the bill was fiercely debated in 2023. The original version did not include full exceptions for the disabled and it made ballot assistance without payment a Class D felony, rather than a misdemeanor. Sponsored by Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, that version of the bill passed the House, but never came up for a vote in the Senate as the session drew to a close.

Gudger said that through conversations with community and faith leaders across the state spanning months, he believes that the bill has been sufficiently improved for it to succeed this time. The bill is also championed by Secretary of State Wes Allen.

“There (were) some questions that we had in that last bill that we decided to wait on and to try to improve it for this year, but I believe the Senate is poised and ready to take it up,” Gudger told Alabama Daily News on Monday. 

“I think there’s been a lot of hard work with Rep. Kiel, and I think he is a great representative and I think we’re going to be working together on this particular bill this year.”

When debated in 2023, Democratic lawmakers largely pointed to what they considered to be potential unintended consequences of the bill, such as making it a felony for an elderly person to pay someone to assist them with their absentee ballot. 

At the time, Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, called it “quite possibly the worst piece of legislation that I have ever seen.”

Democrats’ complaints helped carve out family members and roommates as exceptions to the proposed penalties. Yet despite Gudger’s bill including the former bill’s amended exceptions, many Democrats remain strongly opposed to the bill, one being Rep. Kenyatte Hassell, D-Montgomery.

“I still think this bill is not needed at all; how many fraud cases have we had in the last three years for this bill to be introduced?” Hassell told ADN Monday.

“If we start doing this, we’re going to start legislating every little problem until the government is so involved in so much stuff. My issue with this whole bill is it’s not a problem; you might have some cases like with (former Rep. David Cole), but it just doesn’t make sense.”

Similar to concerns expressed last year, Hassell brought up the potential for an elderly person to be charged with a felony for soliciting and paying for help with an absentee ballot, something still possible under Gudger’s new version of the bill.

Still, Gudger said he felt the bill had been altered enough from its previous form to succeed this time around, but said he still remained open to some alterations as it makes its way through the legislative process.

He explained the bill is intended to go after individuals or groups collecting dozens, if not hundreds of ballots and receiving payment, and potentially altering those ballots “in the way that they think their neighborhood felt like was needed.”

“The one thing I feel like we are still lacking (is) that we still have issues with ballot harvesting, which is really the last issue that we need to conquer to have fair and safe elections in the state of Alabama,” Gudger continued. “This particular bill helps every voter in the state of Alabama, not just one party or the other, so that people can’t pay or receive money for ballot harvesting.”

Democrats have largely rejected the premise that voter fraud is rampant enough in Alabama to warrant such a bill, as did Hassell.

“I don’t think we have enough fraud to say we need to change the law, I think this bill will open up the door to cause issues with a lot of people,” he said.

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