Federal lawsuit challenges voter accessibility in Alabama

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. – With COVID-19 case numbers rising in Alabama and an election less than 2 months away, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Alabama. The suit challenges a number of provisions in Alabama voting law, most importantly regarding absentee ballots.

“The requirement for people who are voting by absentee ballot to either have their ballot notarized or for them to sign their absentee ballot envelope in the presence of two witnesses,” explained Caren Short, Senior Staff Attorney with the SPLC. “We’re also challenging the requirement for an absentee voter to provide a photocopy of their photo ID in the absentee ballot application and sometimes in their envelope with their absentee ballot.”

Under those circumstances, the group said, it could be difficult for voters to practice social distancing.

The SPLC is also challenging the state of prohibition on curbside voting.

“We want polling places that decide to offer curbside voting to be allowed to do that as a safer option for people who want to vote in person,” explained Short. “But for various reasons, including COVID-19, related reasons, would prefer not to go inside the polling place.”

The suit was filed on behalf of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, People First of Alabama, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and four individual voters with medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to death or serious illness from COVID-19.

Governor Kay Ivey, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill and the State of Alabama, amongst others, are listed as defendants.

The SPLC argues witness requirements are a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act in that they are a “prohibited test or device” or prerequisite requirement for voters.

Alabama is one of fewer than five states in the country that require two witnesses for an absentee ballot, or a notary.

Short said existing law provides safeguards so that election officials can validate a voter’s credentials, the prerequisites are unnecessary.

“A driver’s license number, the last four digits of your social security number, and signing your ballot, saying that you are who you say you are,” she explained. “And you’re doing that, under the threat of criminal penalties.”

The SPLC said provisions for absentee voters need to be waived for the upcoming run-off election, as well as the general election.

“We’re also looking ahead toward November,” Short added. “Secretary Merrill has allowed anyone who’s worried about contracting COVID-19 to request and receive an absentee ballot for the July election, but he’s not made these provisions available for people past July.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice the Voting Rights Act outlaws practices that deprive Americans of their right to vote because of race and other traits.

The SPLC said the federal law may state that, but the absentee ballot requirements foster voter suppression. Especially considering COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on Black people in Alabama.

“One of our experts in our case explains that racial disparities and serious illness and death due to COVID-19 are inextricably tied to discrimination in healthcare, housing and employment, and the CDC agrees that racial disparities related to COVID-19 result from institutional racism,” said Short. “These laws are not only going to harm people who are more susceptible to COVID-19, older voters, voters with disabilities, but are also going to disproportionately harm black voters in Alabama, and that’s why we brought a claim under section two of the Voting Rights Act,” said Short.

The Department of Justice disagrees. In a court filing this week, the DOJ said witness requirements do not violate the Voting Rights Act.

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