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GOP Is Targeting Disabled Alabamians With Voting Restrictions

Under Alabama’s SB 1, people who assist voters with absentee ballot applications could face a 20-year prison sentence.

A voter enters a polling place to cast their ballots in the state's primary on March 5, 2024, in Mountain Brook, Alabama.

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Alabama may be the birthplace of the civil rights movement, but today, it has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation. With a historic election on the horizon, a bill enacted in March further restricts access to the polls, this time disproportionately threatening to disenfranchise the state’s largest marginalized group: disabled people.

Under Alabama’s Senate Bill 1 (SB 1), anyone who receives assistance or assists a voter with ordering, filling or delivering an absentee ballot application could face criminal liability with penalties of up to a 20-year prison sentence. Secretary of State Wes Allen, who has spent his career restricting voting access, claims the new rule will prevent “activists” from “profit[ing] from the absentee elections process.” While SB 1 has been touted as legislation to prevent “ballot harvesting,” meaning the act of individuals besides the voters themselves returning a voter’s mail ballot, the bill’s text only concerns absentee ballot applications — not the ballots themselves.

Opponents argue the legislation infringes on civic organizations’ and leaders’ constitutional right to political speech and will disenfranchise voters who depend on support to access, complete and submit an absentee ballot application — none more so than the 30 percent of all eligible voters in Alabama who are disabled. Adding those who are 65 or older brings this number to almost 48 percent of all eligible voters in Alabama. Many in these groups have travel-limiting disabilities, chronic illnesses, compromised immune systems, or other reasons they may not be able to get to the polls on Election Day.

“This is just pure voter suppression,” William Van Der Pol Jr., senior trial counsel for the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP), told Truthout. “Individuals, particularly individuals with disabilities whose only realistic way to vote is absentee, are being excluded from the system.”

While the text of SB 1 provides an exception for disabled voters to receive assistance of their choosing, using language copied and pasted from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), the exception names only the assisted voter. As written, the person helping a disabled voter could still face criminal penalties under SB 1. “If the assister is being criminalized, then, by definition, that voter cannot receive the assistance of their choosing,” explained Valencia Richardson, legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center (CLC).

Under the new law, it is a class B felony to “pay or provide a gift” to someone for engaging in absentee ballot application assistance. Other class B felonies in Alabama include first-degree manslaughter and second-degree rape. The law also makes it a class C felony to “receive a payment or gift” for “distributing, ordering, requesting, collecting, completing, prefilling, obtaining, or delivering” a ballot application for someone else. Those who prefill or submit another person’s absentee ballot application commit a misdemeanor under SB 1.

Terms such as “payment” and “gift” are not defined in SB 1, meaning a friend providing a postage stamp to mail an absentee ballot application or a grandmother offering ice cream to her grandchild as a treat after walking her ballot application to the mailbox could incur criminal liability. During the legislative process, Alabama State Senator Garlan Gudger, one of the bill’s sponsors, acknowledged that providing an absentee voter “a stamp [or] sticker” in connection with absentee voter assistance would violate the new law.

During public comment sessions before the bill’s approval, Alabamians asked for evidence of the voter fraud that SB 1’s sponsors claimed the legislation would address. Lawmakers pointed to higher absentee voting rates in some Alabama counties. Data on absentee voting in the state shows that four Democrat-led counties across the “Black Belt” in southern Alabama have higher percentages of absentee voters, sometimes nearing 20 percent, while the statewide rate hangs between 3 and 5 percent.

The Black Belt was first named for its rich, dark soil. But it took on a different meaning when plantations were developed in the region in the 19th century, and more than half of the nation’s enslaved population was forced to toil on them. Many of the descendants of this enslaved population continue to reside in today’s Black Belt counties. The region’s majority-Black population is more likely to be disabled than those in other parts of Alabama. Nationwide, Black adults have the highest rate of disability at 40 percent.

Black voters are also more likely to have other circumstances that make absentee voting more accessible to them, such as working long hours or heading a single-parent household. Much of Alabama’s Black Belt is also rural, meaning reaching a polling location can be more difficult, especially as the state has shuttered dozens of polling locations in recent years.

People who are incarcerated but remain eligible to vote also tend to require assistance, such as having a prison staff member mail their absentee ballot application. Both people of color and disabled people are overrepresented in the U.S. incarcerated population. “Absentee voting serves as a civic lifeline in a lot of these places,” Anuja Thatte, assisting counsel at the Legal Defense Fund (LDF), told Truthout. “Restricting access to the polls in this way really has tremendously severe consequences.”

“This is just pure voter suppression…. Individuals, particularly individuals with disabilities whose only realistic way to vote is absentee, are being excluded from the system.”

Before 2013, under the VRA, proposed changes to voting laws in Alabama and other regions with long histories of entrenched discrimination were subject to a federal review process to ensure changes would not infringe on the right to vote based on race or membership in other minority groups. However, this preclearance process was put on hold in 2013 when, in a controversial decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the formula used to determine which jurisdictions were subject to it was unconstitutional. That Supreme Court case began when Shelby County, Alabama, sued the U.S. attorney general. Richardson told Truthout that the Alabama connection is “not a coincidence” but reflects the state’s fraught history on voting rights issues.

This April, a coalition of civil rights, voting rights and disability rights organizations filed a lawsuit in federal court to block SB 1. The CLC, LDF, ADAP and the ACLU of Alabama are among those representing the coalition. The plaintiffs include ADAP and other organizations that promote civic participation through voter education and assistance, including supporting Alabamians with absentee voting. The suit argues that this work constitutes “the essence of First Amendment expression,” and SB 1 is a violation of this constitutional right.

“Our clients are entitled to express their core political speech about voter assistance and the importance of voting, especially considering the context of Alabama and how voter assistance has been a form of conveying the core tenets of the civil rights movement and Black liberation in Alabama,” Richardson said.

The suit is also being argued on the grounds that SB 1 violates the VRA and the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which includes provisions designed to establish and improve voter participation for disabled Americans. One of those provisions provides grant funding for protection and advocacy programs, such as ADAP, to provide voter assistance to disabled people.

“We receive federal money that specifically requires us as a recipient of that money to assist people with disabilities in the entire voting process,” explained Van Der Pol. Now, he said, “We are required by the federal government to do something that is explicitly a class C felony under Alabama law, and one could argue that the federal government is committing a class B felony by paying us to do this.”

On May 3, 2024, the legal team fighting to block SB 1 filed for a preliminary injunction, asking the court to pause the law’s implementation until litigation concludes. A preliminary injunction would ensure that the law cannot be enforced while the plaintiffs seek a permanent injunction at the end of the litigation, preventing the bill from ever being enforced. Defendants, including the Alabama secretary of state, opposed the motion for a preliminary injunction. On May 20, the defendants also filed a motion to dismiss the case.

If SB 1 remains on the books come November, voters and organizers fear it will dampen voter assistance efforts and voter turnout. As Alabamians struggle to understand which actions could open them up to criminal liability and face steep penalties for any misstep, many may decide not to provide needed assistance or cast a vote at all. “One of the really important reasons we brought this lawsuit is because of the severe vagueness and chilling effect and confusion on the ground that it’s having today, and particularly in a very major election year,” Thatte said.

Disabled voters are among those most concerned. “One of the biggest concerns that we have is they’re saying that we’re exempt, but there’s still so much unknown as to what this means,” Barbara Manuel, an Alabama-based member of the board of directors at the National Federation of the Blind, told Truthout. Manuel said that even if there is a working exception for disabled voters, uncertainties surrounding the legislation will pile additional burdens on already marginalized groups. “The exception doesn’t minimize the ongoing challenges we’ve faced and will continue to face.”

Nathan Young, an Anniston, Alabama-based disabled voter and creator of the “What the Hell Alabama” web series analyzing state politics, said he sees SB 1 as part of a wave of Republican-led disenfranchisement efforts in the state. “It seems like the people who need help to vote absentee live in the Black Belt and the more poor, rural areas around the state, and they tend to vote more Democrat. It seems like there’s a concentrated effort to prevent people from voting Democrat in the general election.”

As litigation around SB 1 continues, voters across Alabama are preparing for a nation-defining election under some of the country’s most restrictive voting laws, with fewer places to turn for needed support. “Where the right to vote is restricted, civic organizations usually help fill that gap between the bad laws and voter engagement,” Richardson said. “By restricting and cutting off that assistance, it is just further marginalizing historically marginalized voters.”

Note: This article was updated post-publication to clarify that the ACLU of Alabama was also part of the coalition that filed a lawsuit to block SB1.

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