Early voting faces uncertainty despite record absentee votes

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) —

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Alabamians voted by absentee ballot in record numbers this year after the state made it easier to do so.

But the push to allow early voting, or no-excuse absentee voting, every year in the state, faces an uncertain outlook in the GOP-controlled Alabama Legislature.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, has supported no-excuse absentee voting in the past but said it is ultimately the Alabama Legislature’s decision.

“I have supported no-excuse absentee voting before. I think that is something that needs to be considered, but it’s a decision that will be made by the Alabama Legislature,” Merrill said.

The state saw a record 318,000 absentee ballots cast in the November election — shattering the previous record of 89,000 — after rules were loosened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Normally, to vote absentee, people must swear that they are out of town or ill or working during polling hours. Merrill has said this year people can vote by absentee ballot if they are concerned about the risk of COVID-19 at the polls.

“No excuse absentee voting is basically what we had this time,” he said.

Merrill noted that he doesn’t believe local election officials ever monitor to see if someone has a valid excuse to vote absentee such as working a double shift or going out of town.

More than a dozen counties opened courthouses on Saturday for people to cast in-person absentee ballots.

State Rep. Chris England, who chairs the Alabama Democratic Party, told The Associated Press earlier this year that the lines and heavy absentee ballot voting show that people want opportunities to vote early.

“This is direct evidence that people want to vote early,” said Tuscaloosa Rep. Chris England, who is the chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party.

England said he believes the issue cuts across party lines, and that people of all political leanings appreciate the opportunity to vote outside of 12 hours on Election Day.

Some Republicans expressed opposition to the idea.

House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter said in a statement that, “I believe that no excuse mail-in voting will erode the public’s confidence in honest elections and open the door to abuse.”

“Our current voting system has worked well, especially since photo Voter ID went into effect, so I personally see no need to tinker with something that isn’t broken.”

Sen. Greg Reed, who is expected to be named Senate president pro tempore in February, said he expected discussion on those ideas, but added, “I think we’ve got a good system in Alabama.”

Speaking just for himself and not in his leadership role, Reed said he doesn’t oppose allowing people the choice to vote by absentee.

“If someone wants the opportunity to vote absentee and that is their choice, then I don’t have a problem with that,” Reed said.