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Some groups halt voter outreach efforts in wake of Alabama’s new ballot harvesting law

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Multiple organizations operating in Alabama, including the League of Women Voters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have halted some of their planned voter outreach operations in response to Alabama’s new law banning what Republicans characterize as ballot harvesting. 

The move comes as the state will feature one of the country’s most watched general election matchups in Alabama’s newly reconstituted 2nd Congressional District.

Among the first bills filed for the 2024 legislative session in Alabama, Senate Bill 1 makes it a Class B felony to provide a payment or gift for assistance with an absentee ballot application, punishable with up to 20 years in prison.

Sponsored by Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, the new law also makes it a Class C felony to receive payment or gift for assisting another person with their absentee ballot application, and further prohibits anyone from pre-filling an absentee ballot application on behalf of another voter.

Sen. Garlan Gudger listens to opposition to his anti-ballot harvesting bill on the Senate floor.

Its supporters have championed the law as a tool to combat ballot harvesting and voter fraud, while its opponents have pointed to the potential impacts on voter outreach efforts, particularly in providing assistance to the elderly or those with disabilities.

Among those opponents is Kathy Jones, president of the LWV Alabama chapter, who told Alabama Daily News Monday that her organization has already halted its voter outreach operations as they pertain to absentee ballot applications.

“We are standing down from helping people with absentee ballot applications because of this, (which) has been a vital part of our effort to reach voters,” Jones told ADN.

“Absentee ballots start becoming available mid-September. Especially elderly and disabled, they’re going to start realizing they’re going to want to vote, but they don’t necessarily know how, and they may not have what they need at their home to get ready.”

Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, who carried this year’s bill in the House and sponsored a near-identical bill in 2023, said groups shouldn’t have to stop legal voter outreach activities. About accusations that the law limited the voting rights of the elderly and disabled, Kiel said “nothing could be further from the truth.”

“There is only one reason that a group would halt voter outreach efforts due to SB1: they are either paying or getting paid to assist with obtaining the ballot application,” Kiel told ADN Tuesday. “If a group is paying for applications, then that is now illegal. There is no other reason to stop voter outreach except they were profiting from the application process.”

The LWV, along with the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups, filed suit against the state in April over the new law, arguing that it disenfranchises voters who may need assistance in the absentee voting process. 

The same group in May filed for an injunction to halt the state from enforcing the law during the current election season, an injunction that has yet to be ruled on in federal court. That means the law is currently in effect and will be for the November election, unless the court blocks it. 

With leagues in all 50 states, the LWV has engaged in voter outreach since its founding in 1920. In Alabama, its nearly 500 members regularly assist the elderly, those with disabilities and in rural areas apply for absentee ballots, including by providing envelopes and postage to submit applications.

In an exercise of caution, however, Jones said voter outreach efforts pertaining to absentee ballot applications have been halted, and instead, the organization would double down on its efforts to encourage in-person voting.

“The thing we’re focused on is getting the vote out on in-person voting, that’s really the best avenue we have this year while this lawsuit is going on, to try to get people to actually help each other get to the polls,” Jones said. 

“That to me is the only way we’re going to overcome these kinds of barriers right now, for us to all start helping each other, and don’t let the efforts to suppress the vote succeed.”

The law does include exceptions, however, for those with disabilities, or those with the inability to read or write. The law’s critics, however, have argued the language pertaining to exceptions for criminal liability are too vague, such as Barnard Simelton, president of the Alabama chapter of the NAACP.

“We’re not sure what they exactly mean by ‘voter harvesting,’ but I think it’s safe to say that the intent is to prevent some people from being able to vote,” Simelton told ADN.

Much like the LWV, the Alabama chapter of the NAACP has halted its voter outreach efforts as they relate to absentee ballot applications pending the outcome of the ongoing litigation.

“We’re telling our members to not engage in that, and that includes referring people to the website where you can get your absentee applications,” Simelton told ADN.  “Our attorneys are saying (to) be very cautious, they don’t want us doing that because it could be construed as assisting a person with their application.”

Beyond the direct impact on voter outreach efforts, Simelton also expressed concern that the bill’s creation of criminal penalties surrounding absentee ballots could also have an indirect effect on decreasing voter turnout.

Simelton told ADN that as of Monday, there was still no projected date on a resolution to the group’s lawsuit against the state, but that he was hopeful that the injunction would be ruled on in the coming two weeks.

Assisted living facilities themselves have also been affected by the new law.

Brandon Farmer, president and CEO of the Alabama Nursing Home Association, told ADN Monday that his organization’s legal team is working closely with Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen ahead of the upcoming November election to create a memorandum outlining how the new law will apply to nursing home and assisted living facility residents as it pertains to voting.

“That information is then distributed to all ANHA members and is made available to non-members as well,” Farmer said in a statement provided to ADN.

Allen, who had sponsored a similar bill in 2022 when he was a member of the Alabama House, could not comment on the suspended voter outreach operations due to the pending litigation, in which he is named as a defendant, his spokesperson told ADN.

Allen did, however, appear recently on Alabama Public Television’s Capitol Journal, where he stressed that those with disabilities, the elderly and members of the military would not be impacted by the new law. Alabamians that did not fall into any of the aforementioned categories, Allen continued, would also still be able to receive assistance on their absentee ballot, with the only difference being that compensation could not be exchanged.

“This bill allows any voter to still receive assistance from any person they so choose, but the person providing the assistance cannot be paid or compensated to help in that process,” Allen said.

“What we’ve seen and what we know is there are groups out there that go around and they target the application portion of the absentee process, either by paying individuals, or these third-party groups bringing in money to manipulate that process, and we just don’t need that.”

Alabama Republicans largely stood behind the bill as it made its way through the legislative process, and championed its passage back in March, as did John Wahl, chairman of the Alabama GOP.

On Tuesday, Wahl told ADN that there was “a lot of misinformation” related to the law that he described as an attempt to “demonize this bill,” but noted that “nothing in SB1 changed the rules surrounding military ballots, disabled voters, or voters over 65.”

And to the organizations that had scaled back their voter outreach efforts, Wahl argued they had nothing to worry about.

“No one who is helping voters with the process has to worry about this bill unless they’re purposely engaging in illegal activity; and if they are, they should stop,” Wahl told ADN. “The bottom line of SB1 is that no one should be paid to go out and ballot harvest, and no one should be filling out someone else’s ballot for them, unless they are disabled or need assistance.”

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