Absentee voting hits record level in Alabama

More than 145,000 absentee votes have already been cast by mail or in-person

Voters in Alabama are casting absentee ballots in record numbers after pandemic rules made it easier to do so.

As early voting proves popular -- with many lining up on Saturdays despite the virus -- some are asking why the state doesn't allow it every year.

More than 145,000 absentee votes have already been cast, either by mail or in-person voting, according to Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill. He said that number is expected to rise.

The state’s previous record for absentee votes was about 89,000. For the Nov. 3 election, Merrill said another 70,000 absentee ballots remain outstanding.

People wait in the rain to vote in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said a record number of absentee ballots have already been cast this year in the election. Some counties allowed Saturday voting for the first time. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

People wait in the rain to vote in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said a record number of absentee ballots have already been cast this year in the election. Some counties allowed Saturday voting for the first time. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

“This is direct evidence that people want to vote early,” said Tuscaloosa Rep. Chris England, 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.

Alabama does not technically have early voting, but people can cast absentee ballots by mail or in-person at local election offices. Normally, to vote absentee, people must swear that they are out-of-town, 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.

Election officials in more than a dozen of Alabama’s 67 counties have offered Saturday in-person absentee voting to handle the anticipated flood of people.

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On a rainy Saturday in Montgomery, people waited in line for more than three hours for an opportunity to vote early in the November election. News outlets showed similar lines in Birmingham and Mobile.

Aviance Turnbull, 40, stood with an umbrella in hand to cast her vote for Democrat Joe Biden.

Turnboll is an advanced placement science teacher at a Montgomery magnet school and mother of three teenagers. Her work and home schedule sometimes makes it difficult to get to the polls on Election Day, so Saturday voting is much more convenient, she said.

“I say make this the norm. Make it where that we are not making it so difficult with all these obstacles in the way for voting,” she said.

Wearing a black T-shirt with the word VOTE on it, Jacqueline Smiley, 36, was turned away from voting Saturday because local election officials closed the line at noon. Smiley said she planned to come back Monday, but she would also like to see the state allow early voting every year.

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“It would be beneficial to anyone who has to work or just can’t get away,” she said.

Democrats have made a push to get people to the polls early. “Every day is Election Day,” the state Democratic Party wrote on social media in posts encouraging people to make a plan for voting.

England said he expects legislation to be introduced in the next session to allow early voting every year, or at least allow people to vote absentee without an excuse.

Such a change would have to be approved by the GOP-dominated Alabama Legislature. A bill to allow people to absentee vote without an excuse or explanation passed the state Senate in 2017 but did not get a vote in the House of Representatives. Merrill said he expects the issue to be considered in the 2021 legislation session.

Asked if Republican Gov. Kay Ivey would support a change to allow early voting or no-excuse absentee voting, spokeswoman Gina Maiola replied that the governor “is confident in the current process in place and believes that every person has ample opportunity to cast their vote in Alabama, even as we are amidst a pandemic.”

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Merrill said the decision to offer Saturday voting is up to local election officials.

“I don’t know why it hasn’t happened before,” Merrill said.