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Alabama lawmakers have approved a sweeping anti-diversity, equity and inclusion bill

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama lawmakers on Tuesday gave final approval to a bill that would outlaw paid assistance with absentee ballot applications and another that would restrict diversity, equity and inclusion programs at universities and state agencies.

Republicans had named the bills as priorities for the legislative session. The Senate, in votes divided along party lines, agreed to changes made by the House of Representatives. The two bills now go to Gov. Kay Ivey for her signature.

A spokeswoman for Ivey did not immediately respond to a text message seeking comment.

The absentee voting bill would make it a misdemeanor to distribute a pre-filled absentee ballot application to a voter or return another voter's completed application. It would become a felony to give, or receive, a payment or gift "for distributing, ordering, requesting, collecting, completing, prefilling, obtaining, or delivering a voter's absentee ballot application."

Republicans said it is needed to combat voter fraud through "ballot harvesting," a term for the collection of multiple absentee ballots. Democrats argued that there is no proof that ballot harvesting exists and called it an attempt to suppress voting by absentee ballot.

"Any person can still get anyone's help with applications, but no part of that application can be pre-filled. That's all," Republican Sen. Garlan Gudger, the bill's sponsor, said. "There's a lot of pressure when some people say, 'I want you to vote this way,' and give them an application. You can't do that. You have to have it blank," Gudger said.

Democrats and several advocacy groups said the legislation is aimed at trying to make it harder for people vote by absentee ballot.

"It's just another voter suppression. It's just a means of suppressing certain people from having the ability and right to access to the free flowing of the vote," Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton said.

Jerome Dees, Alabama policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, said in a statement that the "cruel legislation aims to criminalize the charitable acts of good Samaritans across the state, whether from neighbors, church members, nursing home staffers, or prison chaplains."

Republican lawmakers across the country have pushed initiatives that would restrict diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, also known as DEI. The Alabama legislation would prohibit universities, K-12 school systems and state agencies from sponsoring DEI programs, defined under the bill as classes, training, programs and events where attendance is based on a person's race, sex, gender identity, ethnicity, national origin or sexual orientation.

The bill sparked lengthy debate in the House of Representatives earlier this month.

Republicans said they are trying to guard against programs that "deepen divisions," but Black Democrats called it an effort to roll back affirmative action programs that welcome and encourage diversity.

The bill says schools, universities and state agencies cannot require students, employees and contractors to attend classes and training sessions "that advocates for or requires assent" to what the bill lists as eight "divisive concepts." The list of banned concepts includes that "any individual should accept, acknowledge, affirm, or assent to a sense of guilt, complicity, or a need to apologize on the basis of his or her race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin."

The bill also would attempt to prohibit transgender people on college campuses from using multiple occupancy restrooms that correspond with their current gender identity.

The legislation says colleges and universities "shall ensure that every multiple occupancy restroom be designated for use by individuals based" on the sex that a person was assigned at birth. It is unclear how the requirement would be enforced.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press