MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WIAT) — An Alabama House committee Wednesday advanced a bill to provide criminal penalties for anyone who completes another person’s absentee ballot with some exceptions.
Supports say the bill protects election integrity while opponents worry it will disenfranchise voters who need assistance filling out a ballot, like those who are blind or disabled.
Percy Garrett, who is blind, says he’s concerned this bill would prevent his caretaker from helping him vote absentee.
“I am asking you to oppose this bill because it is a barrier to voting for the blind, the disabled and the elderly. And I’m all of that,” Garrett said.
After hearing some of those concerns, the committee passed an amendment to provide an affirmative defense for someone charged with assisting a voter who is blind, disabled or unable to read or write.
A person could still be charged but, under the affirmative defense, would not be found guilty if the exceptions were met.
Democrats voted against that amendment, saying a felony charge shouldn’t be on the table in the first place for helping someone vote.
“To pose that they would face any criminal penalty at all, rather than killing this bill as it absolutely should be is honestly offensive. I think I can speak for us all when I say that,” Dillon Nettles with ACLU Alabama said at a press conference after the hearing.
Bill sponsor Rep. Jamie Kiel disagrees.
“I don’t think that’s a valid argument, because anybody can be charged with anything, but being found guilty of it is a completely different issue,” Kiel (R- Russellville) said.
Kiel says the intent of the bill is to protect the voting process, noting that some elections are decided by a single vote.
“We are using felony as the prosecution. It’s because we believe in the voting process, and that it’s important,” Kiel said. “I believe it’s that important.”
Kiel says the amendment, along with exceptions already in the bill allowing family members to help vote, ensures that no one’s vote is suppressed. He says elections officials can also assist.
Secretary of State Wes Allen supports the bill. He says the added amendment offers protection for those with disabilities.
“And the opposition voted against that today. They voted against allowing those individuals that may have disabilities from exercising their right to vote through the absentee process,” Allen said.
The bill passed along party lines 9 to 3. It next heads to the House floor.