Skip to main content Accessibility

People First of Alabama, et al. v. John Merrill, et al.

Case Number


As elections approached in Alabama during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state failed to provide safe and accessible voting, potentially disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters. The SPLC and its allies filed a federal lawsuit to compel state officials to make absentee and in-person voting more accessible to protect the health and safety of Alabama voters.

The lawsuit notes that such measures 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.

Among the obstacles facing voters, the lawsuit describes how people voting by absentee ballot are required to sign the ballot in the presence of a notary or two adult witnesses, a requirement that risks the health of many voters living alone and observing social distancing guidelines. The requirement of providing a copy of a photo ID to request an absentee ballot, and possibly again when they cast their absentee ballot, also endangers the health of these voters if they do not have a photo ID or home office equipment to copy it. Instead, they must break their social distancing practice by leaving home to fulfill these requirements.

As for in-person voting, the state does not provide curbside, or “drive-thru,” voting, which would allow voters to cast a ballot without leaving their vehicle.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of People First of Alabama, Greater Birmingham Ministries, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, and four voters with medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to death or serious illness from COVID-19.The lawsuit was filed after the SPLC and its allies sent a letter to Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill on March 19, 2020, outlining the need for a comprehensive plan to safeguard voters through 2020. When the office did not respond, the organizations sent follow-up correspondence on April 17, 2020. The secretary of state’s office again failed to respond.

A district court ruled that Alabama must waive the photo ID and witness requirement for absentee ballots and establish curbside voting for voters with disabilities. However, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the stay, closing the case.