The right to vote is vitally important, and casting a ballot should never require risking your health.
Yet, in the midst of a historic pandemic, that’s exactly where voters across the country find themselves, as officials refuse to amend voting practices to create safe, accessible and socially distanced alternatives to in-person voting at polling places.
For months, it seemed like Alabama would become an egregious example of how not to run elections during a pandemic. Citing baseless concerns about voter fraud – an echo of the dangerous, false and conspiratorial rhetoric so often employed by President Trump – Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill refused to significantly modify voting procedures for this year’s elections. The state’s sole concession, waiving the “excuse” requirement for absentee voting in the upcoming July 14 primary runoff election, did little to address Alabama’s notoriously strict voting procedures – for example, requiring absentee ballots to be witnessed or notarized and requiring photo ID to be submitted with absentee ballot applications.
So, on May 1, we sued. And this week, an appellate court delivered a huge victory for Alabama voters vulnerable to COVID-19, by allowing an order from a lower court to stand that will permit any county probate judge in the state to implement curbside voting – without interference from the secretary of state. The order also lets certain at-risk voters in three of Alabama’s most populous counties bypass the state’s burdensome requirements for absentee ballots.
Our lawsuit, People First of Alabama v. Merrill, was filed in partnership with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. The complaint notes that measures like absentee and curbside voting are particularly important for older voters, voters with disabilities and Black voters, who have been severely and disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Despite making up around one-fourth of the state’s population, Black people accounted for 45% of Alabama’s COVID-19 related deaths at the time the lawsuit was filed.
“This is an important win for Alabama voters at risk for COVID-19,” said Caren Short, SPLC senior staff attorney. “As cases continue to surge across the state – disproportionately impacting Black Alabamians – it is critical that those most at-risk from COVID-19 can vote safely.”
The decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, issued on Thursday, denied an emergency motion filed by Secretary Merrill and the state of Alabama to stay a lower court’s decision, which, for the July 14 election, prevents the secretary from interfering with curbside voting.
The injunction also permits voters in three counties – Jefferson, Lee and Mobile, the home counties of the lawsuit’s individual plaintiffs – to bypass the state’s witness, notary and photo ID requirements for absentee ballots. For voters who live alone or with one other adult, the witness and notary requirement essentially mandates that they violate social distancing guidelines by having their ballot notarized or signing it in the presence of two adult witnesses.
These restrictions are onerous even in normal times; during a historic pandemic, they’re indefensible. The photo ID requirement poses a similar issue, risking the health of voters who must leave their homes because they either do not have an ID or do not have access to home office equipment to make a copy of it.
“As the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals noted, ‘Forcing a high-risk voter to choose between risking her health or life or abandoning her right to vote’ violates the [Americans with Disabilities Act] because it unduly restricts a person with a disability to equal access and enjoyment to the right to vote, which is a hallmark of any democracy,” said Bill Van Der Pol, senior trial counsel for the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program.
The decision is a major victory for Alabama voters who are at higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. The People First of Alabama case is currently scheduled to go to trial in September 2020. Our Voting Rights team continues to fight so that all Alabama voters can vote safely in November.
Voting in Alabama has historically not been easy for many people, to say the least – but there’s no reason that reputation can’t be changed going forward. Victories like this one give us hope that Alabama’s past – and America’s past, for that matter – will not dictate its future.
Photo by Brynn Anderson / AP Images