MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A group's offer to pay churches $6 for every person they help to vote early this year does not violate any law although it might not be the "best practice" for getting out votes, Alabama's elections chief said Monday.
The "New South Souls to the Polls Initiative" is paying churches a $6 contribution "for each documented early vote" to cover the expenses for outreach and transportation to help people vote early by absentee ballot, according to a letter mailed to pastors by Hank Sanders, a former longtime Democratic state senator from Selma who is organizing the effort. It's unclear how many churches were offered the funds.
Sanders said the $6 is intended to compensate groups for transportation, outreach and time to help people vote early and is not tied to how a person will vote.
"It says specifically no person can be paid to vote. This is not about paying anybody to vote. It's about trying to encourage people," Sanders said in a phone interview.
The New South Coalition is a predominately Black political group that is dedicated to the "progressive ideals of freedom, justice and democracy." Sanders said the effort is being run by the New South Alliance LLC, an entity dedicated to get-out-the-vote efforts.
Absentee ballot requests have skyrocketed since the state office loosened rules because of the COVID-19 pandemic. People lined up Saturday in Birmingham and Montgomery to cast absentee ballots via in-person voting after local election officials offered Saturday balloting.
A national Republican group backing Republican Tommy Tuberville in his bid to unseat incumbent Sen. Doug Jones criticized the $6 as a "cash for votes" scheme.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, said he reviewed the situation and determined there is nothing nefarious as long as the $6 is not tied to voting a particular way.
"It's not illegal. It's certainly not a best practice," Merrill said in a telephone interview.
"It does not say you are going to give it to someone to vote a particular way or vote for a particular party or to vote for, or against, a particular initiative, and so there is nothing there that is illegal."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee called it a "desperate and shady cash-for-votes scheme" and noted that a related organization, the New South Alliance, has endorsed Jones and Jones' campaign has given money to the New South Alliance LLC.
"Jones knows his radical message doesn't resonate with Alabamians and has turned to dishonest campaign tactics to pay for votes," National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson Paige Lindgren said in a news release.
Sanders said the effort is in, "no kind of way tied to Doug Jones."
"It's a shame that so many people don't want other folks to vote," Sanders.