Alabama attorney general wants absentee ballot lawsuit dismissed

A sign saying "Vote Here" in black lettering on a white board.
A sign saying "Vote Here" in black lettering on a white board.

Ranked choice voting, which asks voters to rank multiple candidates in order of preference, has seen its profile steadily expand since 2016. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

The Alabama attorney general’s office Monday asked a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit seeking to block a new law criminalizing some forms of ballot assistance. 

In a 52-page filing in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, the attorney general’s office argued the new law does not violate existing rights and that it did not make it harder to vote. 

“It is easy for a voter who is eligible to vote absentee to request an application, and the recent reforms ensure that the process is driven by voters, not unduly influenced by interested parties,” the brief argued.

Messages were left with representatives for the plaintiffs and the attorney general’s office on Tuesday afternoon.

SB 1, sponsored by Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, makes it a Class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for a person to receive a payment or gift “distributing, ordering, requesting, collecting, completing, prefilling, obtaining or delivering” an application. It would be a Class B felony, up to 20 years in prison, for a person to knowingly pay or provide a gift for a “third party to distribute, order, request, collect, prefill, complete, obtain or deliver.” 

Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill in March. Republican supporters of the measure said they were trying to prevent “ballot harvesting,” which they defined as third parties collecting and submitting absentee ballots. Evidence of ballot harvesting was not presented in the House or Senate.

Democratic opponents said it would make it much harder for people with disabilities in rural areas to vote. 

Civil rights groups, including the ACLU of Alabama and the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, filed suit seeking to block the law on April 4. The complaint cited Alabama’s history of voter suppression and said that volunteers helping people with absentee ballots could be punished.

Voter assistance is a vital means of political expression in Alabama that allows civic leaders to promote and build political power among historically disenfranchised communities,” the lawsuit said. “And yet, the state has historically and consistently engaged in efforts to restrict voter assistance, including through criminal prosecutions of groups and individuals seeking to create political change through civic engagement.”

In Monday’s filing, the Alabama attorney general’s office said the complaint was a “shotgun pleading” that made broad accusations and employed “conclusory, vague and immaterial facts.’”

The attorneys also wrote that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen, one of the defendants in the case, as he does not have enforcement power. The Secretary of State is often a defendant in voting rights cases, and Allen was the major party in Allen v. Milligan, the voting rights case that concluded last year with the courts approving a map creating a majority-Black congressional district and a near-majority one.

The office also argued that SB 1 targeted activity around conduct – “specifically, the ballot harvesting kind” – and not political speech. 

The plaintiffs argued that SB 1 could impact the right to association at voter drives or other events which include voter assistance. The state rejected the argument.

“Even if SB 1 works some incidental burden on Plaintiffs’ associational rights, it is far short of the level that raises “concerns” about Plaintiffs’ ‘ability to express’ their message,” they wrote.

The state attorneys wrote that the rules around payment or gifts, which plaintiffs wrote could have included branded logo items for volunteers, are not vague.

“The text and structure of these provisions shows that the “payment or gift” provisions (though broad) are not vague,” they wrote.

The plaintiffs had not filed a response as of Tuesday afternoon.

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