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Telisa Clark, et al. v. John Bel Edwards, et al.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and its allies filed a federal lawsuit against Louisiana officials over the state’s failure to ensure safe voting processes during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. The lawsuit challenges Louisiana’s burdensome requirements surrounding absentee ballots that put the health and lives of voters at risk, particularly older voters and Black voters.

The lawsuit highlights these obstacles, including the requirement to have an excuse to vote by absentee ballot, and the requirement to have another person witness and sign the absentee ballot envelope for the ballot to be counted. The suit also challenges the state’s failure to provide voters with notice and an opportunity to fix – or “cure” – problems with their absentee ballot applications or ballots themselves.

As medical experts predict a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall of 2020, the plaintiffs seek a decision that applies for the remainder of 2020, including the general election and runoff elections in November and December. The lawsuit argues that, in light of COVID-19, the excuse and witness requirements place too great a burden on the plaintiffs’ fundamental right to vote, which is unconstitutional. The litigation also describes how the state’s requirements force some voters to choose between two fundamental rights – their bodily integrity and their vote – a violation of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

COVID-19 has had an especially devastating impact on Black Americans. Black people in Louisiana account for 57% of Louisiana’s COVID-19 deaths, despite making up only one-third of the state’s population. Racial discrimination in health care, education, employment, and other areas of life intersect to make Black Louisianans disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19. As a result, they are also disproportionately harmed by the state’s failure to provide safe voting options.

For example, plaintiff Lakeshia Barnett, who is Black, does not qualify for an absentee ballot under Louisiana law and must choose between casting a ballot and the health of her family, which includes people with conditions that put them at heightened risk of the coronavirus.

The lawsuit challenges the excuse and witness requirements under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because they deny Black voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. The litigation also argues that by failing to provide notice and an opportunity to cure defects in absentee ballot applications and absentee ballots, the state is denying absentee voters their constitutional right to procedural due process.