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Lawsuit challenges Alabama voting rules during coronavirus pandemic

The lawsuit alleges that Alabama's rules will require people to choose between voting and protecting their health.

MONTGOMERY, Ala — A lawsuit filed Friday challenges Alabama’s election procedures by arguing that restrictions on absentee ballots and a lack of other voting methods jeopardize the health of voters — especially older voters, black voters, and voters with disabilities — during the coronavirus outbreak.

The lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program alleges that Alabama's rules will require people to choose between voting and protecting their health.

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

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

“No one should have to choose between their life or their vote,” LDF Senior Counsel Deuel Ross said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “These burdensome voting requirements weigh heavily on Alabamians during all elections. But requiring voters to comply with these restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic needlessly endangers lives.”

Concerns over coronavirus being spread at the polls has prompted some states to push to expand mail-in voting options and sparked partisan debate over the idea in others. More than 50 people who voted in person or worked the polls during Wisconsin’s chaotic presidential primary last month have tested positive for COVID-19, officials have said.

The Alabama lawsuit names Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and Secretary of State John Merrill as defendants. Merrill said he was not aware of the lawsuit.

“In typical Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) fashion, SPLC has notified the media prior to notifying the intended recipient of this information. Because we have not yet been served, we cannot speak to this information. Additionally, we cannot speak to ongoing litigation, if this is indeed pending litigation,” Merrill said in a statement.

Alabama postponed the March primary runoff until July because of COVID-19.

Merrill has waived the excuse requirement for absentee voting for the July primary runoff election, a move he said should allow more people to vote by absentee if they fear going to the polls. Alabamians are normally only allowed to vote absentee if they are sick, out of town or working an all-day shift.

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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. Of the 279 Alabamians who have died of COVID-19, 122 have been African American. The state has more than 7,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“Black voters in Alabama are more likely to work in jobs that expose them to COVID-19, less likely to have insurance or financial resources, more likely to live alone or with young children, more likely to lack computer or internet access, and more likely to suffer from severe health complications and/or to die from COVID-19 than white voters," the lawsuit stated.