New Alabama Legislation Restricts Absentee Voting Infringing on Voting Rights

By Delisha Valacheril  

Image 1: Absentee Ballot. Source: Yahoo Images

 

In the United States, the right to vote is heralded as a cornerstone of democracy, in which every citizen can access the ballot box. However, recent legislation in Alabama has cast a shadow over this fundamental right, prompting a fierce legal battle to uphold the principles of democracy and accessibility in the electoral process. Alabama Senate Bill SB1 imposes stringent restrictions on absentee ballot assistance. The new law imposes misdemeanor penalties for returning someone else’s ballot application or distributing an absentee ballot application containing a voter’s personal data, like their name. The payment of someone to distribute, order, collect, deliver, finish, or prefill another person’s absentee ballot application is a felony act that carries a maximum 20-year jail sentence. Aimed at combating “ballot harvesting,” a type of voter fraud that involves submitting completed ballots by third-party individuals rather than by voters themselves, the legislation criminalizes certain forms of aid provided to vulnerable voters, including the blind, disabled, and illiterate, who rely on assistance to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Extensive research, however, shows that voter impersonation is essentially nonexistent, fraud is extremely rare, and many purported cases of fraud are actually errors made by administrators or voters. The Brennan Center’s seminal report, The Truth About Voter Fraud, conclusively demonstrated that most allegations of fraud turn out to be baseless and that most of the few remaining allegations reveal irregularities and other forms of election misconduct.

Image 2: Voting Rights Act of 1965 plaque in Alabama. Source: Yahoo Images

Historical Context

The restrictions that accompany this new law not only infringe upon fundamental constitutional rights but also perpetuate a legacy of voter suppression that has long plagued Alabama’s electoral system. This has been rooted in the state’s constitution since 1901. When delegates gathered to rewrite the constitution, Chairman John Knox opened the proceedings, saying their goal was “to establish white supremacy in this state.” During Jim Crow segregation, Alabama implemented numerous laws and practices to disenfranchise Black voters. These discriminatory practices included poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses, which limited Black people’s right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed as a result of the first failed march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, which was called “Bloody Sunday” and concluded with an attack on protesters. There have been several instances in Alabama’s history that contributed to systemic voter suppression.

Since then, there have been various forms of voter disenfranchisement in terms of redistricting, strict voter ID laws, and lack of accessibility for absentee voting. In Alabama, absentee voting is allowed only with a specific excuse. Voters must expect to be away from their county on Election Day, have a physical disability, or be scheduled to work a shift of 10 or more hours on Election Day to request an absentee ballot. This policy is completely unnecessary and imposes outdated, inconvenient restrictions on eligible voters. The challenges faced by low-income individuals, rural communities, Black Alabamans, the elderly, and those with disabilities have only worsened as a result of Alabama’s inability to enact these reforms. The lack of accessibility in Alabama’s election system was not intended with these marginalized populations in mind.

Image 3: Disabled person waiting in line to vote. Source: Yahoo Images

Implications

SB1 adds to these restrictions because now people who have a valid excuse, such as a disability, are penalized for using absentee ballots. One of the law’s key provisions prohibits individuals from assisting others with absentee ballots, criminalizing acts as benign as providing a stamp or sticker to a neighbor in need. Due to restricted transit alternatives or physical disabilities, voting is already difficult for many residents, such as homebound individuals, retirees, and the elderly. This is designed with a blatant disregard for vulnerable voting groups under the pretense of preventing voter fraud. Allowing this form of blanket prohibition not only undermines the spirit of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which sought to remove barriers to voting for marginalized communities, but also stifles the efforts of grassroots organizations striving to empower voters.

Alabama’s law creates new hurdles to voting, escalates already-existing inequities, and criminalizes assistance that helps marginalized voters participate in the political process. Enacted amidst heightened partisan tension due to the 2024 presidential election, the law has sparked widespread condemnation from civil rights organizations and voting advocacy groups. The Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program are A few years ago, a similar case was presented to the US Supreme Court, Milligan v. Allen, in which a coalition of civil rights organizations sued against the state’s enacted congressional redistricting, stating it was racial gerrymandering, the map-drawing process was intentionally used to benefit a particular race. The Court upheld the district court’s decision and required Alabama to create a second majority Black congressional district in compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Image 4: Protest sign that urges for protecting voting rights. Source: Yahoo Images

Final Thoughts

This problem goes beyond party politics and touches on democracy. Regardless of circumstances, everyone deserves unrestricted access to the ballot box in a country built on equality and freedom. The court dispute is a harrowing reminder of the continuous fight to preserve voting rights and protect democratic principles for future generations as it plays out. SB1 perpetuates obstacles that Alabamians with disabilities, the elderly, and home-bound individuals encounter daily. These people oftentimes have to travel further, wait in longer lines, and jump through more bureaucratic hoops than other people. Absentee voting increases accessibility, allowing these voters’ voices to be heard. Restrictive legislation like this is designed to keep eligible voters out of the voting booth. Twenty-eight states already have no excuse for absentee voting in place for November. Criminalizing assistance that provides access to the voting process to others limits participation for Alabama’s most vulnerable citizens.

Voter fraud is wrong, but rather than enacting laws that will make it more difficult for millions of eligible Americans to exercise their right to vote, we should focus on finding answers to real issues. All Alabama citizens need to be able to vote in the November election, and they need to be able to trust the results. This can be achieved by countering the misinformation about mail-in/absentee voting. Instead of passing SB1, voters must appeal to Congress to supply the necessary funds to help states with less experience processing absentee ballots. Voter fraud is a serious issue; however, the right to vote is a Constitutional right enshrined in this country’s foundation. Before preventing any fraud, protecting all citizen’s right to vote should be paramount. Despite all the obstacles in this unprecedented moment, Americans will vote this year, possibly in record numbers. It’s not a matter of whether tens of millions will do so by mail but whether they will have their voices heard.

The Brazilian Election: Recap and Potential Consequences

The night of Sunday, October 30th marked a great victory for leftists and supporters of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the new Brazilian President, after a majority of voters chose to oust incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro. The election’s margins were close, with 60.3 million voting for Lula, compared to 58.2 million voting for Bolsonaro. This round of voting came after a fiercely contested first round, with neither candidate reaching 50% of the overall vote on October 4th, thus needing a second round with the top-two candidates. But with this election marking a shift to the left for Brazilian politics, what does this victory by Lula actually mean?

Goodbye Jair Bolsonaro

An image of Jair Bolsonaro
Bolsonaro diz que, se perder para Lula em 2022, só aceitará se “voto for auditável”. Source: Yahoo! Images

Jair Bolsonaro led Brazil from 2018 to 2022, through a platform centered largely on eliminating corruption and “putting an end to ‘old politics,’” using rhetoric similar to that of Donald Trump. Interestingly enough, many have actually called Bolsonaro as the “Trump of the Tropics,” and combined with that title came a desire of the Trump Administration to foster closer ties with Brazil.

Brazil under Bolsonaro’s Administration started with a shift in how pensions operated in the city, changing the retirement age for men and women from 56 and 53 to 65 and 62 respectively. Brazil also reduced the protections granted to the Amazon rainforest, leading to more instances of illegal logging and burning of trees. Despite the harm done to climate change efforts, President Bolsonaro promoted business interests instead, which also led to the displacement of indigenous populations in the region. The COVID-19 pandemic also showcased Bolsonaro’s reluctance to impose federal restrictions and aid state/local governments in imposing lockdowns, with the President himself downplaying the severity of the virus. Through Bolsonaro claiming to have benefitted from taking hydroxychloroquine (which does not treat COVID-19 in individuals) and raising doubts related to vaccinations, not to mention a lackluster response from the federal government, 15 million Brazilians contracted COVID-19 and more than 400,000 individuals died from the virus.

Welcome Back Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

An image of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
Lula será candidato em 2022, diz vice-presidente do PT”: | Política. Source: Yahoo! Images

da Silva, more commonly known as “Lula,” served as Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2010, and helped alleviate ~20 million Brazilians out of poverty. After leaving office with above an 80% approval rating (President Obama even called him the “most popular politician on Earth”), he then became part of an investigation into government bribes, leading to his imprisonment. In 2021 however, the Supreme Court threw out Lula’s conviction, noting that the judge “was biased in convicting Lula.”

With 50.9% of the total vote, Lula’s victory cemented a shift to the left for politics throughout Latin America, with leftist victories in Mexico, Columbia, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Lula campaigned on making life better for Brazil’s poor, especially with the effects of the pandemic and inflation throughout Brazil. His election marks promises to increase the minimum wage, create jobs, and widen the already existing safety to aid more struggling Brazilians. His victory also came due to the deep unpopularity that Bolsonaro has throughout Brazil, given his actions and impact on Brazil’s standing on the global stage, combined with his selection of Geraldo Alckmin (his opponent in the 2006 presidential election) as his running mate. Lula’s victory also induced many celebrations throughout Brazil, and around Latin America, with Columbia’s leader, Gustavo Petro, also tweeting “Viva Lula.”

The 2022 Brazilian Election – Concerns and Protests

This election pitted an incumbent (Bolsonaro) with an ex-President (Lula), with both candidates attacking each other for the stances they have, calling each other corrupt or authoritarian-like. Tensions in Brazil are also at an all-time high because of President Bolsonaro’s attempt to cast “unsubstantiated doubt on the trustworthiness of Brazil’s electronic voting system,” combined with conspiracy theories from his supporters noting that career politicians were against Bolsonaro’s victory. Lula’s victory also symbolizes the start of a continued conflict between Lula’s leftist party and the opposition, with Lula facing many Bolsonaro supporters in Brazil’s Congress when creating and working to implement new policies.

Interestingly enough, Bolsonaro had not conceded to Lula following the election despite official results noting that he lost the election. This silence also comes with an increase in protests against Lula’s victory, especially from those working in the trucking industry. With many truckers supporting Bolsonaro’s policies starting fires and blocking off portions of a highway, election deniers / doubters have worked to cause chaos and disruption to the Brazilian economy in an effort to bring Bolsonaro back to the Presidency. In recent days, many supporters of Bolsonaro have called for blockades to be created around major industry centers, in an effort to “paralyze the country.” Despite the potential for more protests, many of Bolsonaro’s cabinet members and allies have accepted the results of the election, from televangelists to elected officials and judges in Brazil. And unlike similar occurrences of politicians refusing to accept defeat, Bolsonaro does not have as much political support to launch operations or coups.

Refusal to Concede

In his first public remarks post-election, Bolsonaro did not concede to Lula, while also noting that current protests come from a feeling of anger over a potential injustice being committed on the Brazilian population.

“The current popular movements are the fruit of indignation and a sense of injustice about the way the electoral process took place.” – Jair Bolsonaro

Despite this refusal to simply state his loss to Lula, Bolsonaro’s cabinet has moved into a transition process for the incoming cabinet. Even so, Bolsonaro has in recent months used language indicating some type of violence occurring were he to lose the Brazilian election. Combined with the fact that major Bolsonaro allies reside in the military raise even more concerns with which way administrators may turn when the transition of power officially happens.

Human Rights in Brazil

A flag of Brazil flowing in the wind
Brazil – Flag. Source: Yahoo! Images

Brazil under Bolsonaro had loosened gun regulations and opened up the rainforest to private developers. With President-Elect Lula, many hope to see protection of the Amazon Rainforest and protecting minority populations from women and LGBTQ individuals to indigenous populations and persons with disabilities. These initiatives by Lula will help to protect those most at risk while also helping Brazil recover from the detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising inflation, and a collision between left and right ideologies.

Other blogs point to Bolsonaro’s administration implementing policies that would only hurt the rich diversity in nature and the freedom of expression by all peoples, and it is through this election that hope for an egalitarian and environmentally-conscious government will serve the interests of the broader public, rather than serving the interests of the few through powerful and accusatory rhetoric.