The state of Alabama conducted an experiment in early voting this year, and it has been a tremendous success. The state should expand its temporary relaxation of absentee voting restrictions into a permanent adoption of early voting.
Secretary of State John Merrill and Gov. Kay Ivey wisely concluded that forcing all voters to enter polling places during a 12-hour span on Election Day, during a pandemic, made no sense. The risk of mass transmission of COVID-19 created a serious health risk, and fear of the virus was likely to dissuade people from voting.
The only version of early voting that Alabama law allows is absentee voting, and until this year the voter had to swear that an absentee ballot was necessary for one of a very limited number of reasons. An emergency order this year circumvented those limitations by allowing those concerned about the coronavirus to state that they “have a physical illness or infirmity which prevents my attendance at the polls.”
Absentee ballots are received by each county’s absentee election manager, typically the circuit court clerk. Managers in several counties this year accepted in-person absentee ballots on a Saturday.
The response was remarkable. Long lines formed in many counties, especially for the Saturday voting. As of Friday, the Secretary of State’s Office reported that 329,657 absentee ballots had been requested and 276,352 had been successfully returned for Tuesday’s election. The previous record for submitted absentee ballots was 89,000.
While the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot was Thursday, the ballots can be submitted until Monday, the day before the election. If returned by mail, the absentee ballot must be postmarked by Monday and received by noon on Election Day.
Pushed forward by a health emergency, Alabamians this year discovered what voters in most other states have long recognized: Forcing people to vote on Election Day artificially suppresses the number of people who are able to participate in the democratic process.
Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have laws that allow some form of no-excuse early voting, meaning people can vote early without having to justify their inability to vote in person on Election Day. Twenty-four of these states allow early, in-person voting on some weekends.
The success of Alabama’s experiment was tempered somewhat because the early in-person voting was accomplished through absentee ballots, unnecessarily adding to the time required both of the voter and of the absentee election manager. Twenty states have adopted early voting that does not require the steps involved in using absentee ballots. In these states, an early vote is as simple as an Election Day vote.
Partisan jockeying too often results in legislation aimed at suppressing the vote. One party or the other perceives an increase in the convenience of voting as being disadvantageous, and thus resists changes that would benefit all citizens.
Creating unnecessary hurdles to voting is a mistake this state has made before with poll taxes and literacy tests. Our representative democracy is based on the principle of the collective wisdom of the citizenry. As a nation, we are stronger and smarter when more people participate in self-governance.
Kudos to Merrill and Ivey for relaxing restrictions on absentee ballots during the pandemic. The lesson learned should prompt the Legislature to make permanent changes allowing Alabamians to vote early in future elections.