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

Date Filed: 06/15/2020

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.

The ruling provides immediate relief in response to a motion for preliminary injunction filed on May 5 by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP) on behalf of the plaintiffs, People First of Alabama, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and the Alabama NAACP, in the case. The lawsuit was filed 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 and 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 ruling comes prior to any trial proceedings that may take place in People First of Alabama v. Merrill.

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.

The next major election in Alabama will take place on Tuesday, July 14. The deadline to request an absentee ballot for the July election is Monday, June 29.

Since Thursday of last week, Alabama has broken the single-day coronavirus records four days in a row, demonstrating the state does not have community transmission 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. The Court’s ruling waives the witness and photo ID requirement for those voters whose age or medical condition makes them more vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19.

Some Alabama voters, like plaintiffs Robert Clopton, Annie Carolyn Thompson and Eric Peebles, meet multiple characteristics, therefore increasing their risk.

Finding that the plaintiffs demonstrated irreparable harm, the court held that “if the challenged election laws are not enjoined, the individual plaintiffs and similarly-situated voters could likely face a painful and difficult choice between exercising their fundamental right to vote and safeguarding their health, which could prevent them from casting a vote in upcoming elections.”

“No one should have to risk their health to vote. We’re happy that the Court removed Alabama’s needless barriers to voting and that many tens of thousands of vulnerable people will now have a safe means of voting in July,” said Deuel Ross, Senior Counsel at LDF. “What happened in Georgia was a disaster, and the Court’s order will help prevent Alabama from facing a similar crisis.”

“On the thirtieth anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the decision of this Court reaffirms the mandate of the law – people with disabilities shall have equal access to all programs and services,” said Bill Van Der Pol, Senior Trial Counsel at ADAP. “People with disabilities should not be required to choose between two fundamental rights: access to the ballot box and their health and safety.”

While state officials around the South and nation have taken pro-active steps to waive many of the provisions challenged in this litigation, the Court’s ruling follows in the steps of decisions in South Carolina that waived witness requirements and in Oklahoma that waived notary requirements.

“This ruling is not only a victory for our clients, whose pre-existing conditions make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19, but it is also a victory for at-risk Alabamians who should not have to jump over unnecessary hurdles to vote, especially in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the SPLC.

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