On May 1, 2020, LDF and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP) filed a federal lawsuit against Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, Secretary of State John Merrill, and others over the state’s lack of safe and accessible voting processes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of People First of Alabama, Greater Birmingham Ministries, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, and four individual voters with medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to death or serious illness from COVID-19. The lawsuit requests that the court instruct state officials to make absentee and in-person voting more accessible to protect the health and safety of Alabama voters.
The lawsuit also notes that these measures are particularly important for older voters, voters with disabilities, and African American voters, who have been severely and disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Despite making up around one-fourth of the state’s population, Black people account for 45 percent of Alabama’s COVID-19-related deaths.
Prior to the filing, LDF, the SPLC, and ADAP, in conjunction with Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama State NAACP, previously sent a letter to Secretary Merrill on March 19, 2020 regarding the need for a comprehensive plan to safeguard voters through 2020. When the Secretary’s office did not respond, the organizations sent a follow-up correspondence on April 17, 2020. That follow-up also received no response.
In June of 2020 Alabama broke the single-day coronavirus records four days in a row, demonstrating that transmission was not under control. COVID-19 continues to endanger older voters, Black voters, and voters with disabilities whose pre-existing health conditions make them particularly at-risk for complications and death from the illness.
On June 15 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama issued a ruling that waived onerous absentee ballot requirements in at least Jefferson, Mobile, and Lee Counties – including the requirement that voters have their absentee ballot notarized or witnessed by two adults and the requirement that absentee voters who are 65 and older or disabled mail-in copies of their photo IDs – and lifted the statewide prohibition on curbside voting at in-person polling locations for the July 14, 2020, election. The court’s decision will protect the health and the right to vote of medically vulnerable Alabamians.
On July 17, 2020, Alabama’s Secretary of State announced that no-excuse absentee voting would continue through the November 3, 2020, elections. The announcement is a massive win in the fight for accessible voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Secretary’s decision comes after LDF and co-counsel, filed a July 6, 2020, amended complaint in People First of Alabama v. Merrill, which alleged that the lack of no-excuse absentee voting endangered the lives of high-risk voters in violation of the U.S. Constitution and federal civil rights laws.
This victory also comes despite the Supreme Court’s July 2 stay order, which temporarily blocked a federal court’s preliminary injunction ruling in favor of plaintiffs.