Judge orders changes to Alabama voting laws amid pandemic

Judge orders changes to Alabama voting laws amid pandemic
The Alabama secretary of state's office says as many as 150,000 people could vote absentee rather than go to precincts on Nov. 3. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - A federal court issued a ruling Wednesday intended to better protect voters’ health amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit by People First of Alabama against Secretary of State John Merrill. The lawsuit alleges that the state’s election laws force voters to risk virus exposure.

The lawsuit argues against three provisions in the law that require a notary or two witnesses to sign absentee ballot affidavits, the requirement that absentee voters must submit a copy of their photo ID with an absentee ballot application, and the “de facto ban on curbside voting.”

The plaintiffs argued that these provisions violate the right to vote during a health crisis, as well as federal law, and particularly affect voters who are high-risk, have disabilities, and Black voters.

The federal ruling means Alabama voters will not need a witness or notary to vote by mail if they have an underlying medical condition and provide a statement.

The decision also stipulates that voters 65 and older with an underlying medical condition will not need an ID so long as they provide other identifying information, such as their driver’s license number or last four digits of their Social Security number.

The court decision also lifts Merrill’s ban on curbside voting.

The lawsuit was filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alabama, and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program.

The SPLC says the court’s ruling recognizes that certain Alabama voters are at higher risk for severe complications from COVID-19 and that forcing them to comply with the challenged provisions would “needlessly endanger their lives.”

Multiple attorneys who worked on the case have released statements praising the outcome. One, from LDF senior counsel Deuel Ross, said, “This decision is a huge win for Alabama voters, especially voters of color and voters with disabilities. Given COVID-19, Alabama’s draconian voting rules needlessly place the health and voting rights of Alabamians in danger. No one should be forced to risk their safety to exercise their constitutional right. State and local election officials have a responsibility to ensure that voting is easy and accessible for everyone in the pandemic.”

“Today’s decision provides crucial relief in Alabama’s absentee voting process, allows for curbside voting in counties that wish to provide it, and ultimately will create a better public health situation in Alabama as it conducts an historic election," said Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the SPLC. "We’re deeply hopeful that the secretary of state and county election officials will accept the court’s ruling and begin educating Alabama voters on how they can vote safely and easily for the general election.”

Merrill issued the following statement:

“I am extremely disappointed in today’s ruling in the case of People First of Alabama v. Merrill relating to the November 3 General Election. Judge Kallon’s ruling to disallow the Secretary of State from prohibiting curbside voting undermines the integrity of the elections process and the ability for Alabamians to cast a secret ballot as the chain of custody is then broken. It is important to remember that counties are in no way required to offer curbside voting. In addition, the photo ID and witness requirement components are necessary deterrents for those wishing to illegally influence elections. We look forward to appealing this decision to higher court as we continue fighting for safe and secure elections – free from voter fraud and judicial activism."

The federal ruling comes on the same day Gov. Kay Ivey outlined election changes in the supplemental COVID-19 state of emergency.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said the state will appeal the federal ruling.

“Once again, a federal district court has sided with those making unsupported claims that Alabama’s absentee voter requirements of a photo ID and witness signatures place voters at risk from COVID-19," Marshall said. "In addition to the fact that voters have nearly two months to obtain and fill out an absentee ballot application — not to mention every eligible voter can choose to vote absentee — opponents presented no evidence that voting absentee poses any appreciable risk to voters' safety or that any Alabama voters were unable to cast their absentee ballots in the July 14 runoff elections because of the challenged provisions.

Marshall cited the Supreme Court case Crawford v. Marion County Election Board that the right to vote includes the right to vote in an election where “safeguards exist to deter [and] detect fraud [and] to confirm the identity of voters.” He said Alabama’s current absentee voter ID laws and curbside voting ban currently ensure voter safety and fair elections.

“Back in June, the district court in this case enjoined these important protections for the primary runoff. But the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in, staying that injunction and allowing the State to enforce its laws. We will ask the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and, if necessary, the Supreme Court, to do the same again,” said Marshall. “Voting began weeks ago. And every Alabama voter is entitled to vote under the same laws, not new ones written by a federal court in the middle of voting.”

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