Report: Complicated Alabama Voting Rules Restrict Access To The Polls

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Matt Lett, WBHM

As Alabama voters head to the polls Tuesday for the U.S. Senate Republican runoff, a new report reveals some of the state’s biggest barriers to voting.  The report finds these hurdles disproportionately affect the state’s poor, minority, and rural populations. This study was almost two years in the making – long before the pandemic — and was recently published by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Jenny Carroll, chair of the Alabama State Advisory Committee, said the report is the product of interviews with dozens of residents, state and local election officials, and judges.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill last year testified before Congress and opposed early voting and same-day voter registration. Absentee ballot rules during Tuesday’s runoff require voters to obtain a photocopy of a photo I.D. and two witnesses or a notarized signature, a requirement upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month. It also halted plans to allow curbside voting.

We asked Jenny Carroll to summarize some of the big issues that this report tackles in terms of barriers to voting.  

The big issue the report tackles is the issue of access to the ballot. And it tackles it in a variety of different ways. It considers things like requirements to vote, such as I.D. requirements or confirmation of registration requirements. But it also tackles more fundamental issues like where our polling places located, how does one go about acquiring I.D., and how much notice is provided to changes in voting procedures.

And from what you found, based on information compiled from voters who have experienced this, the rules around voting aren’t always clear?

There’s definitely some confusion on what requirements exist, but there’s also, I think, some barriers to actually achieving some of those requirements, even if you understand what exists. So we, for example, attempted to make contact with all the MVD’s (motor vehicle departments), which are the primary place that one would get a voter I.D. We also tried to track down information about distance between polling places and where people lived and what sorts of public transportation existed, what sorts of flexibility existed around polling hours. And in each of these instances, what we found was yes, for the vast majority of people, it’s not a terrifically onerous requirement once you figure out what the requirement is. But for people who are more marginal, these requirements and these procedures can actually be very complicated and it can actually keep them from voting or can be so discouraging that people don’t even bother to register. And we heard that from voters. And that’s what what piqued the committee’s concerns. 

How has the state responded?

One response, the primary response from the secretary of state’s office in particular, has been that the goals of particularly voting requirements and restrictions on absentee balloting in Alabama are to prevent voter fraud. The problem with that argument is there’s very little evidence that there is large scale individual voter fraud in the state of Alabama. And there’s very little evidence that the protections the secretary of state is pointing to actually prevent the type of fraud that he’s claiming are implemented to prevent. In the case of the attorney general’s office, there is the issue that the attorney general has issued an advisory opinion that counties can require those convicted of crimes of moral turpitude to pay a 30 percent surcharge on all court fines and fees before they can be reinstated to vote. And the argument behind that is that’s county rule. That’s the ability of counties to make decisions about how they want to collect court fees and fines. But the obvious problem with that is if you are economically marginal, you’re living at or below the poverty level or even above the poverty level, it may be very difficult to satisfy these payment requirements. And the fact that enfranchisement would be linked to those seems like an odd goal for the state.

One of the things that this report notes is that there just seems to be a lack of consistency across the state in terms of the people who are charged with managing elections at the local level. Why is that?

So as someone who’s trained as a lawyer and has worked as a lawyer for 20-plus years now, I read through those laws and I found them to be very complicated. I had to make my own lists and charts in order to figure out how different things overlapped. And in fact, there’s been plenty of instances in which county and state officials have misspoken about what the state of the law is. And I would include myself in that group. There have been times where I thought I understood where it was, and it turns out I didn’t understand it quite correctly. And I don’t think that’s accidental. I think that that is part of an effort to create these barriers. But the problem is we don’t provide good training for election officials. There is very little support for them when they are actually out in the field. And the manual that the secretary of state’s office publishes is incredibly dense and incredibly repetitive. And in talking really to precinct-level workers, there is a lot of confusion about what they should require from voters, particularly voters who may show up either with a different type of I.D. than a driver’s license or who may not be listed at a particular address, but are still making a claim that they live in a precinct and are entitled to vote. There’s a lot of confusion about what they should tell voters about provisional ballots, both when the voter has to cast a provisional ballot and what will happen if the voter doesn’t bring sufficient proof of qualification within that allotted period by the state, essentially the provisional ballot is tossed, but precinct workers don’t always know if they should tell that. And even speaking to some of the magistrate judges, there was some confusion and there was some frustration expressed over just how complicated these laws were. And the idea that these people would suddenly, instantly be experts every time there was an election is problematic.

Now there’s this very detailed report documenting all sorts of barriers to voting. What does this do? What happens next? 

The state advisory committee is to advise the U.S. Commission (on Civil Rights) and also to serve a fact-finding function for Congress. So the report will be forwarded on. I’ve already heard from some federal congressional staffers who are interested in finding additional information. So there’s lots of different ways the information can be used. Our goal was always to engage in a dialog with the relevant state officials and to push them to reconsider positions that we felt were disadvantaging citizens in Alabama and also to give them credit where they’re doing things that actually benefit citizens of Alabama. And so my hope is that this will cast a light on some of the barriers that have been created by these laws and push towards change. The other part of the goal, frankly, is to inform citizens as well.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.