Some Calhoun County officials are alarmed at what they say is a large number of absentee ballots cast ahead of next week’s primary runoff election.
As of Monday, the Calhoun County Board of Registrars office had received 364 absentee ballots, all from Calhoun County Commission District 1. That’s more than the total number of absentee ballots cast in the entire county in the June 3 primary election.
And for Carolyn Henderson, a member on the Board of Registrars, something doesn’t add up.
“There’s no way this many people need absentee ballots,” Henderson said Monday, while thumbing through a stack of envelopes delivered to the board over the weekend. “I’m telling you, there’s just no way.”
State law allows voters to request absentee ballots if they’ll be away from the state or their county on election days, have a disability that prevents them from voting in person, have a work shift of 10 hours or longer that coincides with polling hours, are away from their home county for college or military service, or will be working as election officials. State forms used to request absentee ballots require voters to check which reason they’re claiming.
Falsifying absentee ballot applications or encouraging others to do so is a Class C felony under state law, as are several other forms of misconduct related to absentee ballots.
The absentee ballots collected so far would make up almost 15 percent of the total votes counted for District 1 in the June 3 primary, which saw a number of local and statewide races. The July 15 Democratic primary runoff will have only one local race, between Calhoun County Commission District 1 opponents Fred Wilson and James Montgomery, as well as a constitutional amendment vote.
Wilson, the incumbent in the commission race, said he has gotten a few residents to sign up for absentee voting, mostly talking to friends and family who he said have physical disabilities.
“But not that mass number,” said Wilson, referring to the 364 absentee ballots. “I’m not going door-to-door, getting people to sign up, although maybe I should have.”
Montgomery said he’s been campaigning to tell folks to vote absentee if they think for any reason they won’t be able to get to the polls on July 15, and said he has four campaign workers going door-to-door to ask for votes. Reached by phone Monday, Montgomery said he had no idea how many people had signed up for absentees ballot because of his campaign.
“I don’t know because folks fill them out themselves, or have one of my campaign workers send it back for them,” Montgomery said. “I have no idea how many people are signing up.”
Montgomery said that 364 was a lot of ballots, but said there’s a chance many won’t be counted. In the June election, Montgomery received 28 absentee ballot votes, but said he knows there were a lot more absentee ballot votes for him that weren’t recorded.
“Filling out an absentee ballot is a complicated, meticulous process,” Montgomery said. “And if you don’t do it correctly, they just throw them out.”
Many of the addresses from the 364 collected absentee ballots are from west Anniston, including several public housing apartments on Cooper Avenue and Constantine Avenue. District 1 includes Hobson City and most of Anniston, as well as areas just west of the city.
Henderson said she believes at least a few people who have applied to vote absentee might have been misled about what they were signing up for. Henderson said that last week a woman came to the Board of Registrars office upset that she had received an absentee ballot in the mail. Although she had signed up to receive the ballot, the woman said she thought she was registering to vote at the polls on July 15, Henderson said.
“I’m just worried people don’t realize that they won’t be able to vote at the polls, and their right to vote has been taken away from them,” Henderson said. “That’s when people are going to get angry.”
Montgomery said he’s merely trying to clear up confusion among voters in District 1. He said that while he campaigned, many residents told him they thought the election was over, and he has seen his campaign signs removed from around town for that reason.
Emily Thompson, deputy secretary of state, said that when candidates campaign for absentee votes they often walk “a fine line” between what is and isn’t legal. Thompson said she could not comment on the Calhoun County matter, but said as long as candidates aren’t filling out ballots for voters, they typically aren’t breaking any laws.
“They can tell voters that they have that option available to them, and a lot of candidates will do that,” Thompson said. “Absentee ballots can be a complicated matter, and we see issues with them quite a bit.”
Thompson said the state office had received no complaints from Calhoun County this election cycle about absentee ballots or voter fraud.
Voter fraud has been a hot topic in Alabama this year. The June primary election was the first in the state to require voters to present a photo identification to enter the polls. The Alabama Republican Party operated a tip hotline during the election, offering rewards for residents who reported cases of voter fraud. The party said it has turned over all evidence – which allegedly included cases of voters being turned away because of already-cast absentee ballots – to the Attorney General’s Office.