Alabama voter registration climbs, but turnout lags rest of nation

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Voters deliver their ballot to a polling station in Tempe, Ariz., on Nov. 3, 2020. Matt York / AP

by Ralph Chapoco, Alabama Reflector
September 15, 2023

This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.

While Alabama has enjoyed record numbers in terms of people registering to vote, voter rights groups point to troubling signs despite those figures for voters gaining access to the ballot box to exercise their constitutional right as citizens.

Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen and his predecessor, John Merrill, have pointed to a 32% increase in voter registration in the last decade as a sign of greater interest in the process.

But election turnout has lagged other states, even in presidential election years. More than 2.3 million Alabamians cast ballots in the 2020 presidential election. In terms of volume, that was a record, but it only represented 62% of Alabama voters casting votes, one of the lowest presidential turnouts in 30 years.

“One of the things that we have seen, we are still seeing, is low turnout,” said Kathy Jones, president of the League of Women Voters of Alabama. “Presidential elections get high turnout, but in the elections at the local level, and during the midterms, you see pretty sad turnout. That is not good for democracy.”

The reasons for the disparities have to do with culture, state laws that impede access to the ballot, and a lack of competitive elections.

Allen and Merrill have turned to the public airwaves to claim credit for the number of active, and registered voters in Alabama. The state has steadily increased that number, going from about 2.8 million about a decade ago to roughly 3.3 million at the end of 2022.

Through the end of August, the state’s voter rolls increased by an additional 30,000 people.

Richard Fording, a professor of political science at the University of Alabama, said “the numbers aren’t bad.”

But relatively few Alabamians exercise their right to vote, a continuation of a longstanding problem that has plagued the state for decades.

According to data compiled by Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida, only 37.3% of eligible voters turned out for the November 2022 elections, the fifth-worst in the United States. Mississippi, another southern state, fared the worst at 32.5%. Tennessee, West Virginia, and Indiana were the only other states with lower turnout than Alabama.

The issue starts with the state’s history.

“Alabama was classified as a state with a traditionalistic political culture,” Fording said. “That means a few different things, but with respect to the orientation of government participation, it is an elitist orientation.”

That culture emerged from a backdrop of slavery, segregation, and disenfranchisement of large swathes of voters, mostly Blacks but also poor whites.

Elites in the state maintained the status quo through literacy tests, poll taxes, and other discriminatory voting practices. Though those have been outlawed, their impact on the state’s political culture remains.

“When there is a system that is the status quo, those who benefit from it want to rationalize that system, as being just,” Fording said. “And if they have the power to do that through various channels of socialization like the education system, then that is likely to become embedded somewhat permanently in the culture.”

Several crosscurrents have taken shape that stem from that history that have served to depress voter turnout.

“We have started out way behind,” Fording said. “And so, it is just harder to finish first when starting last.”

Foregone conclusions

The low turnout is not tied to a party. In the 2006 elections, when Democrats controlled the state Legislature, voter participation was 36%.

Some demographic trends may play a role. Education tends to correlate with voter participation, and Alabama has a smaller percentage of college graduates than the nation as a whole.

Party strength can also influence turnout.

“In a large sense, there is not a lot of democracy because it is a foregone conclusion that most of the outcomes are going to be Republican,” said Thomas Shaw, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at the University of South Alabama.

The state is solid red, with the Republicans holding the governor’s office, all statewide elected positions, and the state Legislature.

Democrats, once the dominant party in the state, have held onto power in the Black Belt and the state’s cities. But the state has not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1976, and Democrats have won only one statewide election (the 2017 special election for U.S. Senate) since 2010.

That can depress turnout. It also makes candidate recruitment difficult. The Democrats’ statewide candidates in 2022 were mostly inexperienced and underfunded. That depressed turnout to the point that normally safe Democratic legislative districts saw closer-than-expected races.

“The people they put on the ballot in 2022 were no-name nobodies who got some of the least amount of support in the entire history of Democratic politics in Alabama,” said David Hughes, an associate professor of political science at Auburn University Montgomery.

The state party is embroiled in a fight over its bylaws and leadership. Leaders of the party voted in May to disband three diversity caucuses and adopt new bylaws, replacing a set adopted in 2019 amid a Democratic National Committee (DNC) investigation. The DNC is investigating the May meeting.

“I don’t think anybody would look at the state Democratic Party and say that it is functional,” Hughes said.

All of that weighs on turnout, said Shaw.

“If it is a presidential election, and you are a Democrat in Alabama, you know there is no chance that your candidate is going to get elected in Alabama; how does that make you feel about going to the polls,” he said. “It makes you feel like, ‘Why should I bother?’”

Ballot access

Legislators in recent years have also taken to making voting more difficult. Alabama does not have early voting or no-excuse absentee voting. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a brief loosening of absentee ballot restrictions in 2020, but those were quickly restored the following year.

“You look at every election policy you can think of, you find Alabama is of the tough, punitive, restrictive, whatever you want to call it, end of that spectrum,” Fording said. “You can start with what has become more important these days, which has become absentee ballot voting, or what is sometimes called mail-in voting.”

The Republican-controlled Alabama Legislature in recent years has banned drop-off boxes for absentee ballots, and bills to make voting easier have died in committee. The trend is likely to continue into 2024. SB 1, sponsored by Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, was prefiled earlier this month prohibiting anyone from handling an absentee ballot for another voter.

“I think the bill is very important for the integrity of our elections,” he said. “Ballot harvesting is the number one thing being abused in the state of Alabama. I think our election integrity is truly better than most of the other states that I have reviewed, but as far as the ballot harvesting, I still think we have a little bit of work to do.”

The bill makes it illegal for any person to order, request, collect, prefill, obtain or deliver an absentee ballot for another voter. Anyone who does so will be subject to a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $6,000 fine.

Provisions in the bill offer exceptions for those working in the secretary of state’s office, an election manager, a cohabitant, or a family member of someone who is a second-degree kinship. That includes an aunt or uncle, grandparents or niece and nephew.

The bill is similar to HB 209, filed by Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, in the 2023 regular session. The bill included harsher penalties for violating the rules related to absentee ballots. The legislation passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

Gudger said the bill is necessary to eliminate, or at least limit ballot harvesting, which involves gathering and submitting ballots by third parties and not the voters themselves.

“I looked at the different percentages of different counties throughout all 67 counties in the state of Alabama,” Gudger said. “Looked at where the percentages were, the voting, and how many were voting in blocks. And there was a couple of counties that happen a lot more than others.”

Just what those numbers showed, however, is unclear. In a statement released by the Secretary of State’s Office, Allen said he supports Gudger’s bill, saying that it “effectively prevents party activists, campaign consultants and other absentee ballot brokers from manipulating the absentee voting process and intimidating absentee voters.”

During his 2022 campaign for secretary of state, Allen said he had no interest in making voting easier and wanted to make it secure.

“Since taking office, I have worked hard to continue to make Alabama’s elections the most secure in the country,” Allen wrote. “I campaigned on a promise to withdraw from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), and my first day in office, I made good on that promise.”

But there is very little evidence of voter fraud and no evidence of voter fraud that affected election outcomes in Alabama.

“During our previous elections, we have practically had no voter fraud,” Jones said. “There has been very few instances. It is usually individuals who are doing something that is not allowed. There has been very few examples of voter fraud at all.”

Attempts to encourage voter participation have stalled in committee.

Rep. Kenyatté Hassell, D-Montgomery, introduced two pieces of legislation that would have made it easier for people to vote absentee.

HB 464, had it passed, would have removed a requirement to fill out an affidavit to cast an absentee ballot. The state requires a voter to state a reason for voting absentee, which includes checking a box. With the current process, they must state their reasons twice, once during the application and a second time when completing the ballot to mail it in.

Hassell also sponsored HB 142, which would have required election managers receiving absentee ballots to allow a voter to correct a spoiled ballot for a period before the election.

Neither of those bills got any traction.

“Anything to make it easier for legislators to vote, I believe the legislature is not interested,” Hassell said in an interview Wednesday.

Gerrymandering

The state has very few competitive legislative districts, either at the federal or the state level.

“There is clearly gerrymandering in Alabama given that the courts have told the state to redraw the districts,” Shaw said.

That will discourage voters from showing up to the polls and voting.

“Let’s say you are a minority, and you find yourself now in a district where there is no chance a minority is going to get elected, just like at the state level for your presidential choice. It is going to depress the voting turnout among those members,” Shaw said.

The U.S. Supreme Court last June voted in Allen v. Milligan to uphold a lower court ruling finding a 2021 congressional map unconstitutionally packed Black voters into a single congressional district and ordered the state to draw new maps. The Alabama Legislature drew a map in July that the lower court said did not address their concerns and ordered a third party to draw new lines. The state has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Voting rights advocates and experts have generally agreed on the measures that would expand voter access and increase voter participation. Those include in-person early voting, automatic voter registration, and same-day voter registration.

“From what we have been seeing is that a lot of states that have been trying to limit these voting options or limit access to the ballot box have been in southern states,” said Greta Bedekovics,  the associate director of Democracy Policy at American Progress. “I think what we have seen is that there was great turnout, there was great use of these alternative voting methods, and now we are seeing attempts to roll them back in those states.”

Republished with the permission of Alabama Reflector