Republicans Attack Voter Assistance in Alabama, U.S. Department of Justice Steps In

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As voters fight back against Alabama’s new law that criminalizes voter assistance, the U.S. Department of Justice is stepping in to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act in the state. Meanwhile, Republicans are defending the state’s new voter suppression law. 

Signed into law in March, Alabama’s Senate Bill 1 makes it illegal for anyone other than close family members or cohabitants to help someone request, fill out or return an absentee ballot. The law has an exception for voters with print disabilities, which impair their ability to read or write, but a recent lawsuit says its vague provisions do not sufficiently protect low literacy voters, those who are blind or voters with disabilities. 

The ACLU of Alabama attests that the law’s “cruel and unlawful restrictions” particularly harm Black voters, elderly voters, incarcerated voters, voters with disabilities and low-literacy voters as well as civic engagement groups helping to ensure Alabamians vote. As the complaint explains, the new law makes it a crime to even provide a stamp to someone distributing absentee ballot applications.  “This extreme law is the latest development in Alabama’s long history of restricting the political engagement of Black voters and other marginalized communities,” the ACLU stated in a press release when the lawsuit was filed.  

Pro-voting organizations argue that the new voter suppression law violates the U.S. Constitution, Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act and the Help America Vote Act. Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act explicitly protects voter assistance and requires that any person who needs assistance due to a disability may be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice.

In response to Alabama’s new law, the DOJ wrote in a brief to the court, “Alabama may not substitute its judgment for that of Congress or rewrite Section 208.” The Justice Department concludes that Section 208 preempts SB 1 to the extent that it prevents voters with disabilities from receiving assistance when completing an absentee ballot application. 

The Republican National Committee and Alabama Republican Party have also inserted themselves in the case and submitted a “friend of the court” brief arguing in favor of the state’s new voter assistance prohibitions. “SB 1 reasonably advances Alabama’s interests in election security and minimizing voter confusion and undue influence,” their brief argues. This year alone, the RNC has involved itself in 11 voting rights cases according to Democracy Docket’s database. 

Currently, another lawsuit in Alabama is pending in federal court challenging Alabama’s inaccessible absentee voting system for those who are blind or have print disabilities. Laws limiting voter assistance are currently being challenged in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio as well.

Read the DOJ’s brief here. 

Read the RNC’s brief here. 

Learn more about the case here.