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Alabama Considers Criminalizing Absentee Ballot Assistance

The bill would make it a crime to request, obtain, deliver or prefill an absentee ballot application for another voter, with some exceptions. The state’s annual legislative session ends Tuesday.

Alabama lawmakers wrap up the annual legislative session Tuesday, June 6, with many of the high-profile bills either passed or dead but with some still in play, including one that has sharply divided Democrats and Republicans.

HB209 would make it a crime to request, obtain, deliver, or prefill an absentee ballot application for another voter, with exceptions for family members and others.

Democrats say the bill would criminalize the work of civic organizations, volunteers, churches, and neighbors who help voters because they are elderly, homebound, disabled or otherwise need assistance to vote absentee. Republicans said it would help prevent voter fraud by outlawing activities such as mass mailings of absentee ballot applications to voters who did not request them and receiving payment for collection and delivery of applications and ballots. Secretary of State Wes Allen backs the bill.

The House passed HB209, by Rep. Jamie Kiel, R- Russellville, by a 76-28 vote along party lines. People filled committee rooms at two public hearings on the bill, one in the House and one in the Senate. The bill could get final passage if approved by the Senate Tuesday.

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R- Jasper, said debate about the bill is ongoing. He did not say whether he expects it to come up for a vote on the 30th and last day of the session Tuesday.

“I think there’s a lot of pro and con related to that legislation,” Reed said. “No one wants people from outside of Alabama coming here spending a lot of money trying to have influence with our electoral process. At the same time, and thinking through that, we don’t want to throw a net so large that it winds up being a difficulty for someone just trying to help their family member or their neighbor in the voting process. So, I think there’s ongoing discussion with that. I think that legislation has been brought forward for all the right reasons. We want elections to be honest and fair in every way in Alabama.”

Organizations that promote voting participation, including the League of Women Voters of Alabama, have said the bill would deprive some voters of the help they need, assistance that they say does nothing to weaken the integrity of elections.

“If passed, Alabama would make felons of law-abiding people who are volunteering to help others be prepared to vote,” Kathy Jones, president of the League of Women Voters of Alabama, told lawmakers at a public hearing. “In their churches, church congregations, residential facilities, senior centers, colleges, festivals, local farmers markets, barbershops, libraries, coffee shops — voter drives happen everywhere.”

Other bills that still have a chance to pass on the last day:

HB319 by Rep. Barbara Drummond, D- Mobile, would add new regulations, penalties, and permit fees intended to crack down on the use of vaping devices by people under 21, which supporters of the legislation say is a rampant problem.

SB103 by Sen. Arthur Orr, R- Decatur, would require the Ethics Commission to give public officials and others under investigation for violating the state ethics law or campaign finance law exculpatory evidence, or evidence favorable to their defense, as well as the identity of the person who filed the complaint that led to the investigation. Under current law, the identity of the complainant is confidential.

HB43 by Rep. Pebblin Warren, D- Tuskegee, would require students entering first grade to have completed kindergarten or demonstrate readiness for first-grade before admission.

HB298 by Rep. Chris Sells, R- Evergreen, would require cellphone and tablet manufacturers to set devices to automatically activate filters to block pornography and material harmful to minors when the devices are turned on in Alabama.

SB196 by Orr, would strengthen Alabama’s law providing the public access to government records by adding specific timeline requirements for state agencies, county and municipal governments, and school boards to respond to requests for documents. Alabama’s public records law is weak, partly because it sets no guidance on when agencies must respond to requests. Felicia Mason, executive director of the Alabama Press Association, said adding some time limits would be a first step toward strengthening the law.

HB229, by Rep. Chris England, D- Tuscaloosa, would allow inmates sentenced to life without parole under the Habitual Felony Offender Act and who have been in prison at least 23 years and whose crimes did not cause a serious physical injury to apply to the court where they were convicted for a new sentence. England said about 300 inmates would be eligible.

SB301 by Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R- Vestavia Hills, would add new restrictions on holding a cellphone while driving.

Legislators wrapped up some major tasks during the last two weeks, including a bill to repeal half of the state sales tax on food, the education budget and General Fund budget. They passed supplemental spending bills that allocate more than $3 billion from the Education Trust Fund and General Fund, a bill to provide a one-time state income tax rebate of $150 to individuals and $300 to married couples filing jointly, and a bill to exempt overtime pay from the state income tax, an exemption that was capped at a statewide annual total of $25 million.

Meanwhile, the clock ran out on a number of high-profile bills. They have not advanced far enough to pass on the last day and are dead for this session:

  • The Parental Rights in Children’s Education Act, or PRICE Act, a school choice bill that would have allowed parents to use $6,900 a year in taxpayer dollars through education savings accounts for private school, home school, and other educational expenses if they attend a school other than the public school where they live.
  • A bill that would have blocked public schools, colleges, and state agencies from promoting or endorsing certain ”divisive concepts” relating to race, sex, or religion.
  • A bill to extend a ban on discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools, which now applies in kindergarten through the fifth grade, through eighth grade.
  • A bill to increase a state income tax exemption for people age 65 and older. It would apply to withdrawals from 401(k) type accounts and IRAs. The exemption is now $6,000. The bill would have raised it to $10,000.
  • A bill that would have made the state health officer an appointee of the governor and required the governor’s approval for any emergency rule or order that restricted private citizens or businesses. Currently the State Committee of Public Health appoints the state health officer.
  • A bill to overhaul the membership of the Birmingham Water Works Board.
  • A bill to amend the state’s Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act to ban public drag shows in the presence of minors.
  • A bill to add a 98-cent monthly fee to cellphone and landline bills to fund mental health crisis services and call centers for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
  • A bill that would require a unanimous decision by a jury to impose the death penalty during the sentencing phase of capital murder cases. Current law requires at least 10 of 12 jurors for the death penalty.

The legislative session started on March 7. Lawmakers set other business aside for a special session called by Ivey to allocate $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act, a COVID-19 relief plan passed by Congress. They approved a plan to allocate $400 million to water and sewer projects, $339 million for healthcare costs, $260 million to expansion of broadband internet access, and $55 million for a grant program for community services.

When the regular session resumed, lawmakers moved quickly to pass other bills labeled as high priorities, including a four-bill package called the Game Plan to renew and expand the tax incentives for recruiting industry.

Other bills that have passed this session will:

  • Create mandatory prison sentences for knowingly possessing one gram or more of fentanyl, a bill in response to the drug that is the leading cause of a surge on overdose deaths.
  • Reduce the amount of time state inmates can shorten their prison sentences through correctional incentive time, better known as “good time.” That came in response to shooting deaths of two law enforcement officers because the suspects charged in their deaths has accumulated large amounts of good time while in prison.
  • Provide increased penalties for crimes committed on behalf of “criminal enterprises,” a bill Attorney General Steve Marshall spearheaded to crack down on gang-related violence and drug crimes.
  • Give drivers in danger of having their licenses suspended more leeway if they miss an installment on their payment plan or a court date.
  • Ban transgender athletes from participating on college sports teams that match their gender identity, an expansion of the ban on transgender athletes in K-12 public schools approved last year.
  • Give the Legislative Council, a panel of 20 lawmakers, the authority to contract with the Retirement Systems of Alabama for construction of a new State House, which the Legislature would lease and use for new offices and meeting chambers to replace the current State House, built in 1963 for the State Highway Department.
  • Create a Distressed Institutions of Higher Education Revolving Loan Program Fund that could save Birmingham-Southern College and other universities at risk of closure. The bill came in response to Birmingham-Southern’s request for $30 million from the Legislature.
  • Impose new criminal penalties on street racing and dangerous driving exhibitions and stunts, legislation that was a high priority for Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and other mayors of Alabama’s largest cities after deadly incidents related to those street racing.

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