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Justice Department defends Alabama absentee ballot rule

By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama’s requirement to have witnesses sign an absentee ballot is not a violation of the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Department of Justice argued in a brief Monday.

The Justice Department filed the statement of interest in a lawsuit that contends Alabama’s election procedures jeopardize the health of voters — especially older and black voters and those with disabilities — during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Justice Department said Alabama’s absentee witness requirement does not violate the Voting Rights Act. The department did not take a position on any of the plaintiffs’ other claims.

Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said in a statement that while the act outlaws certain practices that deprive the right to vote because of race and other protected traits, it”does not outlaw all voting-related requirements enacted by the states.”

“Alabama’s witness requirement for absentee ballot envelopes does not violate (the Voting Rights Act) …. it is not a literacy test, it is not an educational requirement, and it is not a moral character requirement,” the Justice Department filing said.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program filed the lawsuit on May 1.

Alabama absentee voters are currently required to submit photocopies of their photo identification in addition to signing the absentee ballot before a notary or two witnesses. The lawsuit asks a federal judge to waive those mandates and force the state to offer curbside voting.

The lawsuit notes that many people do not have a way to photocopy their ID or lack identification completely. The existing requirements create a barrier for older voters, black voters and disabled voters who are also among groups most at risk for COVID-19 complications, the plaintiffs said.

African Americans account for nearly 44% of all COVID-19 deaths in the state even though blacks make up about 26% of Alabama’s population.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and be life-threatening.

“No one should have to choose between their life or their vote,” LDF Senior Counsel Deuel Ross said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

Concerns over the coronavirus being spread at the polls have prompted some states to push to expand mail-in voting options and sparked partisan debate over the idea in others.

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