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House passes bill criminalizing absentee ballot assistance

The bill carves out some exceptions for family members, but any exchange of money would nullify those exceptions according the the bill’s structure.

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The Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill along party lines Thursday that would make it a felony to help someone fill out an absentee ballot under certain conditions.

HB209 passed 76-28 after a filibuster from Democrats, who said the bill “is a solution in search of a problem.”

“The voting process is essential to our democracy, and making sure that we have voter integrity from the start from the time somebody gets an application, all the way to the hands of when the ballot is cast, is of utmost importance,” said the bill’s sponsor Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville.

The bill would make it a Class B Felony to pay anyone for assistance with an absentee ballot. The person or organization receiving money to help with the ballot would be guilty of a Class C Felony.

When there’s no one involved, the voter requesting assistance would be guilty of a Class C Felony and the person assisting would be guilty of a Class D Felony.

The language in the bill that doesn’t involve money changing hands allows for many exceptions for family members, a member of the same household and certain election officials.

But Rep. Chris England D- Tuscaloosa, said that exception only applies when there is no money changing hands.

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“If I ask my son to go pick up my absentee ballot, and I give him gas money, I just committed a Class B Felony,” England said. “And my son is a Class C Felon.”

Kiel said nobody should be “profiting” off of assisting with an absentee ballot.

“It’s hard to celebrate democracy and be afraid of it at the same time,” England said. “It’s hard to promote and encourage people to participate in a process, and say you want them to, but then criminalize them for getting assistance to do.”

An amendment to the bill made it “an affirmative defense” to help a voter who is blind, illiterate or disabled. Several blind and disabled voters spoke against the bill before a House committee last week.

Democrats challenged Kiel to give examples of the voter fraud this bill seeks to eliminate.

Kiel noted the race for an Alabama Senate seat between Jay Hovey and Tom Whatley in the most recent election, which came down to one vote, in which it was found that one of the voters was not registered to vote.

“If one fraudulent vote changes an election, that’s way too many,” Kiel said.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center and Campaign Legal Center circulated a letter to members of the House before the vote Thursday.

“HB209 will create what is effectively a total ban on voting for many individuals within Alabama’s jails and prisons, will bar voter engagement organizations from exercising their First Amendment rights, and will prevent voters with disabilities from casting their ballots,” the organizations state in the letter. “It would also be one of the most punitive and administratively burdensome restrictions on absentee ballot application, distribution, and pre-filling in the country.”

The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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