The hotly debated absentee ballot bill has passed through a Senate committee with amendments after holding a public hearing for critics to voice concerns.
House Bill 209 (HB209), sponsored by State Rep. Jamie Kiel (R-Russellville), is designed to crack down on ballot harvesting.
Democratic lawmakers in both chambers have fervently opposed it, claiming it would criminalize swaths of innocent people with no intent to commit election fraud.
See also: Speed bump: Anti-ballot harvesting bill slows pace, prolongs gridlock in Alabama House
The bill would make it a Class D felony for a person to order, request, collect, complete, obtain, prefill or deliver an absentee ballot application or absentee ballot for another person in addition to their own.
It would also make it a Class C felony for any third party to receive payment to distribute, order, request, collect, complete, obtain, prefill or deliver an absentee ballot application or absentee ballot for another person.
The language of the bill allows assistance from a person by any family member to the second degree of kinship, a guardian or conservator, a resident of the household who has lived there more than six months, an employee designated by the secretary of state, a designee of the local probate judge or a county absentee election manager.
State Sen. Dan Roberts (R-Mountain Brook) offered an amendment to change language in the bill to remove the penalties for distributing an absentee ballot application. It also changed the penalties for those who order, request, collect, prefill, obtain or deliver an absentee ballot application or absentee ballot in addition to their own to a Class A misdemeanor rather than a Class D felony.
Additionally, the amendment clarified that those who are blind, disabled or unable to read or write will not be in violation of the potential law for receiving assistance with their absentee ballot or application.
State Sen. Robert Stewart (D-Selma) asked Kiel how the bill defined the word "disabled." Kiel responded that the legislation applies the definition used in the federal Voting Rights Act.
Kathy Jones, president of The League of Women Voters of Alabama (LWVAL), spoke against the bill, saying it would "make felons of law-abiding people who are volunteering to help others be prepared to vote."
Several members of LWVAL appeared before the committee, two of whom were blind.
Some claimed the bill would make felons of immunocompromised people afraid to leave their homes and those in assisted living facilities without families to help with ballots.
Kiel has explained that there are multiple avenues of assistance for those who do not have family and that disabled or blind people are not held criminally liable under the provision of HB209. Kiel told 1819 News earlier this month that the circuit court clerk, the probate judge or someone they appoint in a person's county can assist with absentee ballots and applications.
Despite the provisions, the opposition claimed on Tuesday they would rather receive assistance from a person of their choosing than a stranger appointed by the courts.
The bill passed committee with a vote of 5-2. It will go to the Senate floor for a vote. The amended bill will still have to be approved by the Senate and concurred on the House floor before it can be signed into law.
After committee passage, Kiel told media he was happy with the amendment, clarifying that the bill's purpose was to prevent fraud, not citizens from voting.
"We were very receptive to the people who came and spoke in the house committee, and we started there," Kiel said. "Between then and now, we heard from people who were disabled and blind, and so we wanted to make sure that we didn't do anything to hinder them in the process of voting. So we brought the amendment today that makes it very clear that, if you're disabled, if you're blind, then you can ask anyone you want to to help you with your ballot process."
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