Alabama voters would be able to cast a ballot in person up to two weeks before Election Day under a bill proposed by a member of the Alabama House of Representatives.
Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said the bill would make voting easier for people who have to fit a trip to the polling place into a busy workday.
“In the last voting cycle, I heard a lot of complaints about long lines,” Ford said. He said some voters even gave up because of the long wait to vote.
Ford’s bill would require probate judges to set up an early voting location in each county, which would be open at least five days in the two weeks leading up to the election. At present, the only way to cast a ballot before Election Day is to get an absentee ballot. Those ballots are available to people who’ll be out of the county on Election Day, people who have disabilities that keep them from going to the polling place and people who work shifts of 10 hours or more.
Alabama is one of only 13 states that don’t allow any sort of early voting without an excuse. Mississippi is another. In Tennessee, early voting begins 20 days before an election. In Florida, counties must start early voting at least 10 days before an election. In Georgia, voting during weekdays starts three weeks before Election Day, with a requirement that polls be open on the Saturday before the election.
Ford said he’s seeking support from members of the GOP House supermajority – and Republican Secretary of State John Merrill – to get the bill passed. Support for early voting sometimes breaks along party lines, largely because of the assumption that young and minority voters – historically part of the Democratic base – will be more likely to turn out with increased voting hours.
“It’s been a partisan issue in the past, but I’m hoping John Merrill, who has shown interest in increasing participation, will work with me,” Ford said.
Merrill on Monday seemed lukewarm to the idea.
“I’m absolutely for expanding opportunities for participation,” Merrill said. “But I don’t think there’s a single study that shows early voting increases turnout.”
When the federal government’s Government Accounting Office reviewed 20 studies on the phenomenon, the group found eight studies showing that it actually decreased turnout, seven showing no significant effect and another five with mixed results. One theory floated in that research suggests that without a hard-and-fast Election Day deadline, there’s less publicity to grab voters’ attention.
The GAO report also suggests that early voting could reduce lines on Election Day.
Merrill said lines were an issue on Nov. 8, when 64 percent of the state’s registered voters turned out – the largest number of voters in any election in Alabama history.
Merrill said that at his own polling place in Tuscaloosa, people who were in line at 7 p.m., when polls closed, didn’t finish voting until 8:52 p.m.
“You’re hearing a hue and cry about this because we just had a 64 percent turnout in the election,” he said. The call for early voting typically dies down, he said, in midterm elections, where turnout is sharply lower.
Alabama has considered early voting at least once before, 20 years ago. Two bills proposed in 1996 linked early voting to tighter restrictions on absentee voting. Democrats, then in the majority, were divided over the effects those changes might have on black voters.
Ford’s bill is one of 50 that have already been filed in the House and Senate for next year’s legislative session, which begins in February.