By Devin Carter
On November 8, the state of Alabama asked voters to consider an amendment to its constitution, which the state hopes will protect the integrity of its elections. The amendment in question, known as Amendment 4, would require any changes to the state’s election laws to be enacted at least six months prior to the next election in order for those changes to apply. Amendment 4 was proposed in response to the 2020 presidential elections, which were rife with controversy from the numerous changes to election law and procedure that took effect shortly before voters took to the polls.
According to State Representative Jim Carns (R), the proposed amendment is designed to ensure that the general public can have greater confidence in the integrity of the state’s election system. According to Carns, this sort of measure would favor the state’s minority party, because it would prevent the majority party from altering election rules in their favor in the time immediately preceding an election. Despite Carns’s enthusiasm, other state officials are more skeptical about Amendment 4. Representative Ralph Howard (D), for example, argued against the proposed amendment in the Alabama House of Representatives by claiming that it would limit the state’s ability to modify its election laws in the event of a second pandemic. Another representative, Mary Moore (D), argued that the proposed amendment was one of the numerous bills Republican-controlled states have been attempting to pass following their defeat in the 2020 presidential election, expressing skepticism towards Carns’s claim that the amendment would favor the minority Democratic Party instead of Alabama’s Republican majority.
The underlying rationale of Amendment 4 can be traced back to the Purcell principle, which amounts to an argument that courts should refrain from changing election rules during the time that immediately precedes an election. Federal courts have relied on the Purcell principle when they have stayed decisions made by lower courts, which would have otherwise changed a state’s election laws and procedures shortly before an election.
The 2020 election was rife with Purcell concerns, particularly after multiple states changed their election laws in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Twenty-nine states ultimately took measures that expanded voting access in the 2020 election, including the expansion of mail-in voting access and early voting. Many of these changes were implemented through executive orders and local election official action, believed to be justified as necessary due to the nationwide pandemic.
There was subsequently a significant amount of litigation targeting these eleventh hour changes to election procedures; one of the more pervasive arguments against those changes was that they usurped the authority of the state legislature to set the manner of elections. Following his defeat, former president Donald Trump filed numerous election challenges that asserted that the 2020 election was fraudulent, using many of the last-minute changes to support his argument. Despite there being no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 elections, many Republicans echoed Trump’s rhetoric.
Thus, while Alabama’s proposed amendment might have originated from a sincere desire to strengthen and uphold public confidence in the state’s election outcomes, it is also possible that this amendment would be used to ensure that the Republican Party of Alabama can keep a stranglehold on the electoral system and hold onto the levers of power in the state. Alabama Democrats expressed these concerns when they voiced opposition to the amendment. Regardless of the ultimate motive behind the amendment, there is little doubt that the proposed change to Alabama’s election law is a direct result of the immense tensions that arose from the 2020 election, which continue to cast a long shadow over the country’s electoral systems.