Alabama amendments on the 2020 ballot: A voter's guide to your choices on Election Day
Alabama's ballot includes six state constitutional amendments, covering voting; the operation of the state judiciary; racist language in the state’s 1901 Constitution, and the use of guns in churches in two counties in north Alabama.
In Montgomery, the ballot includes a referendum on raising property taxes to increase public school funding. Elmore County voters will decide whether to renew an existing property tax that funds local schools.
Below, a guide to the Alabama statewide amendments.
Amendment 1: Limits Alabama voting to U.S. citizens
Amendment 1 would limit voting in Alabama to citizens of the United States. The measure, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, would change existing language saying "every citizen of the United States" can vote in Alabama to "only a citizen of the United States." It passed the Legislature in 2019.
Federal law already prohibits most non-citizens from voting. No state has allowed general voting by non-citizens in 100 years. A handful of cities, like San Francisco and Chicago, allow all city residents to vote in school board elections, regardless of citizenship status. In New York City, a bill was proposed earlier this year to allow non-citizens who are legal permanent residents or have work authorization to vote in elections there.
Alabama’s 1901 Constitution limited voting to “every male citizen of this state who is a citizen of the United States” and foreigners who had declared their intentions to become U.S. citizens prior to the ratification of the state constitution.
Marsh did not respond to requests for comment. Voting rights experts said the effect of the change may be minimal. Michael Li, a senior counsel with the Brennan Center in New York, said he wasn’t aware of any major push to allow noncitizens to vote.
“I think it’s trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” he said. “Out of all the things Alabama has to worry about, the Alabama Legislature giving noncitizens the right to vote is not high on the list.”
Amendment 2: Changes to state constitution's judicial article
Amendment 2 represents the first major revision of the state constitution’s judicial article since 1973. Among the changes:
The appointment of the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts – who oversees the day-to-day operations of the state court system – would go from the chief justice and given to the entire state Supreme Court. In addition, the court would have to follow procedures the nomination of the director spelled out by the Alabama Legislature.
Judges would no longer be automatically suspended once the Judicial Inquiry Commission, which investigates ethical complaints against judges, files a complaint against them. The suspension could only take place if the chief judge of the Court of the Judiciary, which considers cases against judges, approves a complaint saying the judge was physically or mentally unable to perform their duties or posed “a substantial threat of serious harm to the public or the administration of justice.” Two-thirds of the Judicial Inquiry Commission would have to approve the measure for it to take effect. In addition, the suspended judge could request a review of the action.
The Judicial Inquiry Commission would expand from nine to 11 members. The District Judges’ Association; the Probate Judges’ Association, and the Municipal Judges’ Association will get one appointment each. In addition, the members would be term-limited, serving no more than eight years.
The Court of the Judiciary could suspend a judge found in violation of the Canons of Ethical Conduct with pay. Currently, the court can only suspend without pay.
The Legislature would lose its power to impeach members of the Alabama Supreme Court (the power has never been used).
District courts would no longer have to hold court in cities or towns of more than 1,000 people that lack a municipal court.
Alabama Court of Civil Appeals Justice Scott Donaldson, who served on an Alabama Law Institute committee that met between 2017 and 2019 to consider changes, said the committee chiefly looked at eliminating outdated language and improving court function.
A committee formed by the Alabama Law Institute, which studies state laws and recommends revisions or clarifications, worked for 19 months on the proposed changes. Scott Donaldson, an Alabama Court of Civil Appeals justice who served on the committee, said the goal was to make the law clear and remove redundant or outdated language.
“We tried very hard to not make systemic, structural changes, and did not venture into areas that could be seen as partisan or should be left to another day,” he said.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the chair of the Senate Judiciary, said in an interview the amendment was a compromise following lengthy negotiations.
“You’ve got to have better accountability as to who’s going to be the court administrator,” he said. “That’s one of the most important jobs in the judicial branch. It provides more stability. When it comes to removing judges it provides for a clear plan on how that’s going to be handled.”
Chief justices appoint AOC directors, but no Alabama chief justice has completed a full term in office in 25 years, leading to turnover in an office that oversees 2,500 employees statewide, and there needs to be continuity in the position.
“From a day-to-day standpoint, trial judges, clerks and employees are much more affected by the person who is the head of the Administrative Office of Courts than who is chief justice,” he said. “It’s an attempt to have continuity and longevity in the position.”
Ward said the turnover meant some directors didn't known how to work with the Legislature to secure funding.
“They were responsible for advocating on behalf of the court during the budget process,” Ward said. “Sometimes there was a total lack of knowledge of the budget process.”
Ward said the changes to the JIC process were part of negotiations with individuals who wanted to do away with the commission entirely.
“You had judges being removed merely because a complaint was filed against them,” he said. “There should be a removal process for judges that do wrong, but merely because a complaint filed shouldn’t be enough to remove somebody. There should be due process.”
Amendment 3: Changes rules surrounding appointed judges
Amendment 3 deals with state circuit and district judges appointed to fill out the six-year term of a predecessor. The current law requires an appointed to judge to stand for election after serving a year in the position, unless they are facing the end of a term. The new law would push that limit out to two years, unless the appointed judge is facing the end of the term.
The amendment would not apply to probate judges. Rep. David Faulkner, R-Mountain Brook, the sponsor of the amendment, said in an interview the measure was aimed at encouraging attorneys to accept judicial appointments without having to worry about fundraising and campaigning immediately after taking the bench.
"What we’re trying to do is give good lawyers incentive to take judgeships," he said.
Amendment 4: Removes racist, outdated, duplicative language from Alabama Constitution
Amendment 4 would authorize a recompilation of the Alabama Constitution that would remove racist language from the document; delete any repealed or duplicative provisions; consolidate existing economic development language and group local amendments by county of application.
If voters approve the amendment, the Legislative Reference Service, a nonpartisan agency of the Legislature, would draft a list of changes for the Legislature to consider in 2021 or 2022. If approved, the changes would go to Alabama voters for consideration in the 2022 general election.
“What we want to do with this compilation is bring it into the 21st century and be more reflective of the Alabama we are today,” said Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, who sponsored the amendment. “We are a more diverse state, of course.”
The amendment won unanimous approval in both chambers of the Alabama Legislature in 2019. House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, was one of Coleman’s co-sponsors. McCutcheon said in a statement he "proudly co-sponsored the amendment" and encouraged its passage, saying the state constitution "should be inclusive of all the citizens it represents."
"The Alabama of 2020 is much different than the Alabama of 1901, and passage of this amendment will illustrate the progress we have made within the pages of our state constitution," the statement said.
The Alabama Constitution of 1901, framed to disenfranchise Black Alabamians and poor whites, includes several racist provisions. Section 102 of the Constitution forbids interracial marriages. Section 256 of the Constitution directs the Legislature to set up segregated schools.
Federal court rulings and state amendments have nullified most of its more offensive provisions, but the language remains. Removing it has been difficult, thanks to Amendment 111, added in 1956 amid the white backlash to Brown v. Board of Education, which said Alabama did not recognize “any right to education or training at public expense.” Coleman said Amendment 4 does not address that language, which has wrecked previous efforts to get racist language out of the Constitution.
In 2004, Alabama voters narrowly rejected an amendment known as Amendment 2, which would have jettisoned the 1956 language along with the 1901 language.
The amendment drew strong opposition from critics including former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who said removing the 1956 language could lead to tax increases and jeopardize private schools. The amendment fell short by 2,000 votes out of nearly 1.4 million cast.
A proposed amendment in 2012 removed racist language but kept the section denying the right to an education. Black legislators and the Alabama Education Association urged the measure’s defeat, saying retaining the language could complicate efforts to improve public school funding in Alabama. Almost 61% of the state’s voters voted against it.
Amendment 4 will also reclassify local amendments, which make up most of the 948 amendments to the Alabama Constitution, by the county in which they took effect.
Coleman said she hoped approval of the amendment would send a positive message about Alabama to the world.
“It would show the rest of the country of course we have a sordid past, but it’s not who we are today,” she said.
Amendments 5 and 6: Local amendmentsFlorence, Lauderdale counties allowing use of deadly force to protect church attendees, employees
Amendments 5 and 6 are local amendments for Florence and Lauderdale counties in northern Alabama. The amendments allow the use of deadly force to protect a church attendee or employee if the person is at risk of physical harm from someone engaged in a crime involving death, robbery or kidnapping.
The bills are local versions of legislation brought by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, which failed to advance in the Legislature.
“I know in my church we’ve got several people carrying weapons,” Greer said in an interview. “I feel better knowing there are people in there with one.”
Greer said the amendment would not prevent churches from banning guns on their property. A person could face prosecution for unlawful use of force, or for recklessly or negligently injuring another person by their actions. A pretrial hearing would determine whether the person was justified in the use of force.
Critics questioned the need for the bill, noting that many of the provisions of the legislation are already covered by the state’s Stand Your Ground law, passed in 2006. Moms Demand Action, a group that seeks to reduce gun violence, opposes the legislation. The organization said the measures will make people less safe.
“These amendments are both redundant and likely to embolden more Alabamians to shoot first and ask questions later,” the group said.
Greer sponsored the Lauderdale amendment; Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, sponsored the Franklin County amendment. Voters in Colbert, Limestone and Talladega counties will consider local versions of the same provision.
Legislators in Jefferson County voted no on a motion that would have limited the vote on Amendments 5 and 6 to the counties where they would take effect, which led to the measures going on the state ballot.
Greer said he plans to revive a statewide version of the amendments in the next legislative session.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or email@example.com. Updated at 2:47 p.m. Thursday to correct the location of a local amendment regarding guns and churches. It will be in Limestone County, not Lauderdale County.