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Federal judge loosens Alabama absentee voting rules

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Older Alabama voters at risk for contracting COVID-19 shouldn’t have to comply with all the state’s requirements for casting absentee ballots, which disproportionately harm Black people during the pandemic, a federal judge decided Wednesday.

Ruling in a lawsuit filed on behalf of voters with health problems that make them more susceptible to getting sick from the new coronavirus, U.S. District Judge Abdul K. Kallon said that being forced to follow some provisions during the general election could wrongly endanger their lives.

Voters 65 and older with health problems shouldn’t be required to have a notary or two witnesses sign ballot affidavits or to submit a copy of a photo identification; Kallon wrote. Also, counties that wish to allow “curbside voting” should be allowed to do so for those who need it, he ruled.

Otherwise, Kallon wrote, voters face the “impossible choice” of jeopardizing their health or not voting. Providing a statement with driver license or partial Social Security numbers to accompany an absentee ballot is enough, he ruled.

Kallon rejected claims by Secretary of State John Merrill that the state’s interest in protecting the integrity of the election outweighed the worries of people who could contract COVID-19, which is particularly dangerous for people with health problems and the elderly.

Given Alabama’s history of racial bias in voting and other areas including health care, enforcing all the voting rules during a pandemic — which is hitting minorities particularly hard — would disproportionately affect Black voters, the judge said.

A statement by attorneys for voters who challenged the provisions called the decision a victory for state voters.

“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,” said Caren Short, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery.

Merrill’s office said it would appeal.

“It is important to remember that counties are in no way required to offer the illegal activity known as ‘curbside voting,'” Merrill said in a statement. “In addition, the photo ID and witness requirement components are necessary deterrents for those wishing to illegally influence elections.”

Attorney General Steve Marshall announced Wednesday that he will appeal on behalf of the State of Alabama to block the court’s ruling. He said there is no evidence that the state’s current absentee voting process poses a risk to voters’ safety or that any Alabama voters were unable to cast their absentee ballots in the July 14 runoff elections due to the policies in question.

“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 a statement late Wednesday. “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.”

Kallon heard evidence about voting during the pandemic during a hearing in September. Earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a similar decision by Kallon that pertained to the runoff election in July.

Marshall noted that case history and said he hoped for a similar outcome.

“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,” Marshall said.  “We will ask the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and, if necessary, the Supreme Court, to do the same again.”

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