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Alarms raised over county registrars

Bill Britt

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In a time when election security is a topic of hot debate, state policymakers need to carefully examine the role of country registrars according to those who work inside the elections apparatus.

Alarms raised by those who work in voter registration are not over fears of a broad cyberattack leading to a fraudulent election, but that actions within the county board of registrars—where outdated laws give its members expansive autonomous power—are endangering voting rights and wasting taxpayer dollars

This is not to suggest that all registrars are doing an inferior job or are purposefully misusing their office; however, institutional failings inherent in the antiquated statutes opens a wide door for potential abuse.

The State spends around $4,000,000 annually on registrars pay, travel expenses and voter registration initiatives.

Each of Alabama’s 67 county by-laws has a board of registrars generally comprised of three appointed individuals.

Registrars verify and approve voters who are then added to the voters’ roles; they also purge those who they deem inactive or otherwise unqualified.

The movie Selma depicts a scene in which President Lyndon B. Johnson is meeting with Alabama Governor George Wallace in the Oval Office during a time when voting rights are being suppressed in the state.

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During the meeting, Johnson asks Wallace why he doesn’t just let Blacks vote in the State. Wallace replies, “If I only had that power. That belongs to the county registrars.” Johnson pushes Wallace on his assertion that the registrars have all the power, but Wallace stands his ground, saying, “I don’t have any legal power over county registrars, Mr. President; they have their regulations and they adhere.”

This dramatization is not an exaggeration of facts. Alabama’s country registrars are the first and final authority on who votes and who doesn’t in the State of Alabama.

There remains to this day a suspicion, especially among African-Americans, that there is an effort within the state to engage in voter suppression. In Wilcox County, all three county registrars are white, while the county is predominantly African-American.

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For decades, the voting rights of African-Americans and poor whites in Alabama were denied using country registrars as the first line of voter suppression. While The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and subsequent provisions ended blatant discrimination, many concerns remain about how the state carries out voter registration.

While country registrars are no longer free to participate in a wholesale disenfranchisement due to federal laws, they still hold tremendous sway in their counties, often receiving preferential treatment by local legislators and county commissions.

A lack of real oversight has led to a myriad of problems, including disparity of registrars pay, reimbursement for travel expenses, operating outside the opening meetings and more.

While none of the individuals who spoke to APR claim outright voter suppression at the county level, there are many real and perceived opportunities for abuse.

Under state statute, there is a board of registrars in each of the State’s 67 counties, and each board operates with nearly complete autonomy.

“Country registrars have no overlord, no boss and no real direct oversight,” according to one person who works closely with registrars and asks to speak on background because the individual is not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

APR spoke to half a dozen current and former state officials and each says there are inherent and even dangerous flaws in the way the state’s county registrars operate.

County registrars are appointed by the governor, the commissioner of agriculture and industry and the state auditor to four-year terms. But many registrars are appointed numerous times because of the wishes of the county commission or lawmakers in a particular district.

To qualify to serve as a registrar, an individual must be a qualified elector, “residents of the county, shall have a high school diploma or equivalent, and possess the minimum computer and map reading skills necessary to function in the office,” according to Section 17-3-2 of Alabama Code.

These low-skill qualifications are seen as problematic by some who work in the system.

“Some of these people come in not knowing what the job is, they just think it’s a cool part-time gig,” said a state official. “It used to be an easier job, but today it takes real skill and frankly, some just don’t have it.”

Over the years, many registrars have been appointed as a form of political patronage.

“It still happens,” said a county commissioner. “He or she has a buddy on the commission or at the statehouse and they submit their name and nobody questions it.”

A woman who in 2007, was charged with felony voter fraud was recently appointed as a registrar. While the woman, Rosie Lyles, was allowed to plead to a lesser misdemeanor charge in the case, she was still appointed registrar in Hale County because no one ran a simple Google search.

When this issue was raised with the Governor’s office, it was referred to the Secretary of State’s office, which said because the woman was not convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, she was technically still qualified to serve as a registrar.

Registrars can only be removed for cause and that’s a high bar. Only three registrars have been removed over the last 20 years; those removals occurred in Wilcox County, Lawrence County and Russell County under the leadership of Secretary of State John Merrill.

Merrill removes Russell County registrar from office for cause

“They used to just let them get away with whatever,” said a former registrar. “It was too much trouble to remove them so they waited for their term to run out.”

While there are offices that run with peak efficiency, there are still many unqualified registrars, according to individuals APR interviewed.

Updates and Purges

Code of Alabama, Title 17-4-3: allows registrars to purge their computerized voter list continuously and strike a person from the voter list for cause.

17-4-7: charges that the registrars are to update the voter list on a continuous basis and shall meet in January to conduct voter maintenance activities and purge the voter list.

The primary responsibility of a board of registrars is to add and remove voters from the list of voters and this is where there are opportunities for mistakes to open a Pandora’s Box of problems, according to those who work in the system.

“One improper keystroke can place a person in the wrong district,” said a former registrar. “The only way to ensure free and fair elections is if a person is properly placed in the system.”

Other officials share concerns over voter purging. “This is highly skilled clerical work that demands attention to detail,” said a state official.

After a large scale purge, Congressman Mo Brooks, a Republican, and then-State Rep. Patricia Todd, a Democrat, found that they had been marked inactive and stricken from the list. Both were allowed to reenter the system after updating their information according to a report by the New York Times.

There are also concerns that a registrar who uses their state computer for personal pleasure might click on a phishing link or malware that would open the system to hacking.

“Registrars have access to vast information on voters as well as limited access beyond their county which could lead to a hacker being able to see or manipulate the entire state system,” said an individual with direct knowledge of the computer systems. “There are safeguards, but nothing is foolproof.”

Most worry about human error and not cyberattacks, but there are grave concerns that an unqualified or inattentive registrar can do serious harm.

While the Secretary of State says there are no instances of outside manipulation, it remains a possibility.

Work Day and Pay

The Code of Alabama, Title 17-3-8 outlines: sessions of the Board, working days, and special registration days.

Under State, law registrars are paid $80.00 a day and the county commission can augment that pay. While some registrars only receive their state allotment, others earn nearly double that amount.

State law doesn’t clearly define what construes a “work day” for registrars. So there are registrars who don’t adhere to an eight-hour workday.

“You can go in for 15 minutes and call it a day,” said a former registrar. “No one’s watching and no one can do anything about it anyway.”

An Attorney General’s opinion states they must work and model their hours after the county, but some registrars ignore this without consequences.

The number of days a registrar can work also varies from county to county, with some working 122 and others being open over 200 days out of the year.

Beyond daily pay, some counties offer other benefits such as in Morgan and Baldwin counties registrars, maybe afforded health insurance, which is often seen as another political perk.

Registrars are considered state employees for tax purposes but again are accountable to no one.

Travel

Former registrars, county commissioners and state employees say that the state pay for registrars’ travel expenses is an area of severe misuse of taxpayer’s funds.

“Under the guise of training registrars are regularly afforded a state-paid vacation at taxpayers expense,” said a state worker.

Title 17-4-35(13), states that the Voter Registration Supervisor under the Secretary of State’s Office is responsible for training the county Boards of Registrars.

In just the last few years, the Secretary of State’s office has offered official training under a contract with Auburn University. These trainings are held regionally once a year and are approved by the State’s official election officer through the Voter Registration Supervisor. However, individual county boards and the Alabama Association of the Boards of Registrars (AABOR) hold other training sessions for which the State reimburses registrars.

They also paid for other meetings of the Board, but much of it falls into a gray area.

There are numerous AG’s opinions that conclude registrars may be paid travel upon attending to the business of the Board. Other opinions find the Association’s meeting is business of the Board, but the Code doesn’t reference this.

For years the Board of Registrars were looked upon as a collective Board across the State for the purposes of paying expenses, but in some instances, each county board is viewed separately, which makes the AG’s opinions challenging to follow.

There was an incident not long ago according to an insider in which one county board of registrars traveled to a neighboring beach community to hold a meeting. “They traveled less than 20 miles from home stayed overnight at a beach resort and the State paid for it,” said a state employee. “Is that right? Is that good stewardship?”

A former state official lamented, “They should follow State travel laws, but they have zero accountability to anyone and no one seems to be bothered by what they do.”

Attempts to curtail travel abuse has been met with resistance from AABOR and certain lawmakers.

Operating without a Quorum

Code of Alabama, Title 17-3-7, states that all business of the Board must be conducted as a quorum: “The action of a majority of the board of registrars shall be the action of the board, and a majority of the board shall constitute a quorum for the transaction of all business.”

The official business of the Board, by statute, must be done by a quorum of the Board. Most have three members, so at least two must be present to handle their official business described in the Code.

The law requires registrars to meet as a quorum to add or take away individuals from the voter list, but this is not how some county boards operate.

“One person will add voters and then another member will sign off on it with having actually verified it,” said an APR source. “The same is true when removing someone. This is not what the laws say, but that’s what they do.”

If registrars are to, in fact, operate as a quorum, their meetings should be subject to the open meetings act according to an APR source.

After extensive interviews with six individuals who have or currently work in voter registration, it becomes clear that state lawmakers need to take a closer look at the laws that govern voting.

Alabama has a long and troubled past regarding voter disenfranchisement. While none of those individuals APR spoke with voiced concerns of blanket suppression, each raised alarms about various aspects of the whole process, especially a lack of oversight of the county registrars who historically where the vanguard in denying voting rights.

Each interviewee confirmed that many county boards carry out their duties professionally, but there is overall anxiety about the lack of standards and accountability.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Justice Ginsburg’s death will supercharge a heated 2020 campaign

The passing of one of the court’s most liberal justices so close to the Nov. 3 general election has set off a political firestorm as to what president should pick the next justice — President Donald Trump or Joe Biden, should he defeat Trump in November.

Brandon Moseley

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President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden, right, are running for president in 2020. (STAFF SGT. TONY HARP/AIR NATIONAL GUARD AND GAGE SKIDMORE/FLIKR)

Just hours after the death of 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday, conservatives, including the Alabama-based Foundation for Moral Law, said Ginsburg’s passing is an opportunity to reverse the ideological trend of the nation’s highest court.

The passing of one of the court’s most liberal justices so close to the Nov. 3 general election has set off a political firestorm as to what president should pick the next justice — President Donald Trump or Joe Biden, should he defeat Trump in November.

The controversy over when and how to confirm a new justice will likely supercharge an already heated 2020 election campaign. Trump was at a campaign rally on Friday night when he learned about the justice’s death from reporters.

“Just died? Wow, I did not know that,” Trump said. “She was an amazing woman. Whether you agreed or not she led an amazing life. She was an amazing woman. I am sad to hear that.”

Ginsburg, since her appointment by President Bill Clinton, has been bastion of the court’s more liberal wing. The court was divided with four “liberal” justices led by Ginsburg and four “conservative” justices led by Samuel Alito.

Chief Justice John Roberts, though appointed by President George W. Bush, has been the swing vote on a number of major issues since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2018. Her death gives Trump the opportunity to appoint her replacement and potentially shape the direction of the court for decades to come.

Conservatives want Trump to select the nominee and the current GOP-controlled Senate to confirm the Trump appointee.

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The Foundation for Moral Law — a conservative legal group founded by former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore — released a statement saying that Ginsburg’s passing is an opportunity to move the court in a more conservative direction.

“For many years United States Supreme Court has been a bastion for liberal anti-God ideology,” Moore said. “The passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg will be an opportunity to reverse this trend. I’m hopeful that President Trump will immediately nominate a true conservative who understands that our rights come from God and no authority in this country can take those rights from us.”

“This is a very critical time for our country and our future and the future of our posterity depends upon our vigilance and direction,” Moore said.

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Judicial Watch, another conservative legal group, echoed Moore’s statement.

“Judicial Watch sends it condolences to the family of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She had a wonderful judicial temperament that will always be remembered,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “President Trump now has a historic opportunity to nominate yet another constitutional conservative who will honor the Constitution and the rule of law across the full spectrum of constitutional issues.”

“And the U.S. Senate should move quickly to work with President Trump to consider and approve a new justice who will faithfully apply the U.S. Constitution,” Fitton said. “There is no reason we cannot have a new justice by Election Day.”

Trump is expected to put forth a nominee to fill Ginsburg’s seat in the coming days, according to ABC News.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, wrote in a statement that, “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”

But Democratic senators and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, disagree.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” Schumer wrote on social media Friday, parroting a similar quote McConnell used in 2016 when he refused to give then-President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, hearings and a vote for confirmation to the court. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Republicans in the Senate blocked Obama from selecting Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement. Scalia was the most conservative jurist on the court.

Ginsburg was a staunch supporter of abortion rights and voter protections, and she played a major role in upholding Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision protecting abortion rights. She also voted in favor of same-sex marriage and to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

Most political observers expect Trump to appoint a woman to fill Ginsburg’s spot. Political insiders have suggested that Trump believes that appointing a woman to the court could help him with woman, a key swing demographic that will likely decide the next election.

Will the Senate confirm Trump’s appointment before the election or wait until after the public votes? If Republicans lose control of the Senate, could a lame duck GOP majority select the direction of the court on their way out?

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones has been widely criticized for his vote against the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. If the vote comes before the Nov. 3 election, Jones’s decision on whether to confirm Trump’s appointee will be heavily scrutinized.

The questions about the Supreme Court is likely to only further inflame passions on both sides this election cycle.

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Elections

Prisoners quarantined at formerly closed prison kept in unconstitutional conditions, groups say

Conditions are so bad that inmates have been forced to urinate and defacate on themselves because restrooms are not accessible, the complaint alleges.

Eddie Burkhalter

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The male intake area at an ADOC facility. (VIA ADOC)

The Alabama Department of Corrections is violating the constitutional rights of inmates being quarantined in deplorable conditions in the previously decommissioned Draper prison, several civil rights groups wrote in a letter to the state’s prison commissioner.

The ACLU of Alabama, the Southern Center for Human Rights, Alabama Appleseed and other groups in a letter to Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn on Thursday detail those conditions, which include no indoor toilets or running water, repeated power outages, deprivation of regular showers and the requirement of incarcerated men to urinate in “styrofoam cups and plastic water” bottles.

“These conditions fail to meet the most basic constitutional standards and present a substantial risk of serious harm to people already suffering from a potentially fatal disease,” the letter reads. “We therefore request that you immediately cease using Draper to house and/or quarantine COVID-19 patients, and instead house them in medically appropriate settings in accordance with Eighth Amendment standards.”

The groups note that Draper was closed after the U.S. Department of Justice, during its investigation of violence in Alabama prisons, noted Draper as exceptionally “dangerous and unsanitary” with “open sewage” near the entrance, rat and maggot infestations and “standing sewage water on the floors.”

In October 2017, the Justice Department informed ADOC of the department’s shock at the state of the facility and a month later ADOC’s engineer concluded that Draper was “no longer suitable to house inmates, or to be used as a correctional facility,” the letter states.

ADOC reopened a portion of Draper earlier this year to house incoming inmates from county jails being quarantined amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but the civil rights groups note in the letter that ADOC failed to indicate plans to also use a classroom without bathrooms, running water or adequate medical care at Draper to house COVID-19 patients from other state prisons.

The groups allege in the letter that approximately 15 cots are located in the approximately 500 square feet former classroom, where at any given time between 5 and 15 inmates are being kept. The only restroom facilities the men can use are portable bathrooms outside, and the men have to “bang on the classroom windows to get officers’ attention.”

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“Though officers sometimes escort the men when asked, they decline at other times and fail to maintain a schedule; thus, the men do not have access to bathroom facilities when needed,” the letter reads, adding that the men aren’t allowed to use the outdoor restrooms between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“We have further reason to believe that one man was permitted to use the bathroom only three times during a 13-day quarantine. Another man was not taken to the bathroom until his third day at Draper, while another was forced to urinate on himself on multiple occasions after being denied bathroom access,” according to the letter. “One man suffering from diarrhea was forced to wait hours to use the restroom to defecate. Many others could only relieve themselves into styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, portable urinal containers, or trash cans.”

“They had to hold onto urine-filled bottles for hours at a time until they were allowed to leave the classroom to empty them. It is also our understanding that some men held in these conditions did not receive bottles at all; correctional officers simply told these men that they were ‘out of luck,’” the letter continues.

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The letter also details instances of alleged inadequate medical care, including a man who was sent to a local hospital with heart attack symptoms after not receiving his heart medication for several days.

The groups are also unaware of any Inmates leaving Draper who were tested for COVID-19 before being returned to Elmore and Staton prisons, the letter also states.

“We also have reason to believe that many of the symptomatic men at Staton and Elmore have not reported their symptoms to prison staff for fear of being held at Draper in the deplorable conditions described above,” the letter continues.

APR has learned from several sources in recent weeks, who asked not to be identified because they have loved ones in Alabama prisons and are fearful of retributions for speaking out, that many inmates who have symptoms of COVID-19 aren’t reporting those symptoms to prison staff for fear of being quarantined. Those family members are concerned that the disease is spreading much more broadly in Alabama prisons than is known as a result, putting their loved ones at greater risk of contracting the deadly disease.

Many of the concerns expressed in the letter were first reported by AL.com reported on Sept. 13, which found that access to medical care in Draper is limited and the conditions unsanitary.

In a response to AL.com’s questions for that article, an ADOC spokeswoman wrote that inmates at Draper have access to “medical and mental health care, telephones, law library, mail services, and showers.”

“Please remember — Inmates remanded to our custody have been convicted of a crime and handed a sentence to serve time as determined by a court. The unfortunate reality is that he or she, as a result of the crime committed and subsequent conviction, loses his or her freedoms,” ADOC said in the responses.

“This response is unacceptable as a matter of principle, and inadequate as a matter of law,” the letter from the civil rights group states.

“As ADOC knows, the fact of a criminal conviction does not strip incarcerated people of their rights under the Eighth Amendment, nor does it relieve ADOC of its constitutional obligations to the people in its custody, which are to provide them with ‘humane conditions of confinement,’ ‘adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care,’ and ‘reasonable safety,’” the letter continues.

On Sept. 16, ADOC reported that there have been 403 confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates, 21 deaths of inmates after testing positive for COVID-19, and 375 cases among prison staff. Two prison workers have died from COVID-19, ADOC previously said.

As of Sept. 14, there had been 1,954 inmate tests for coronavirus, out of the approximately 22,000 state inmates, according to ADOC.

ADOC on Sept. 16 said that on Thursday the department was to begin rolling out a plan to provide free COVID-19 tests to ADOC staff and contracted healthcare staff using fixed and mobile testing sites.

“In addition, we will test all inmates in facilities that house large numbers of inmates with high risk factors as an enhancement to our current testing protocols,” ADOC said in a press release.

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Elections

Alabama Democrats: Tuberville doesn’t have a plan or experience

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville (VIA TUBERVILlE CAMPAIGN)

The Alabama Democratic Party on Wednesday released a statement slamming Republican Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville for not commenting on Hurricane Sally.

Tuberville is challenging U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, in the Nov. 3 general election.

“Tommy Tuberville said he didn’t have a clue how to address the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, so it isn’t surprising that he hasn’t offered a single word for the Gulf Coast in the face of a life-threatening storm,” said Wade Perry, the executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party. “He doesn’t have a plan or the experience to tackle an actual crisis. Unlike our own U.S. Senator Doug Jones.”

The Jones campaign has seized on the “Tommy Tuberville does not have a clue” narrative, trying to make the argument that Tuberville, a career football coach who has never held a public office before, lacks the experience necessary to represent the people of Alabama in the U.S. Senate.

Jones used that line several times at a Labor Day appearance in Leeds.

“Senator Jones was on the ground in Lee County after devastating tornadoes and worked across party lines to secure emergency relief for farmers and families in the Wiregrass,” Perry said. “He will always be there to help Alabamians navigate a crisis and save lives— he always has, and always will.”

The Tuberville campaign disputed the ADP narrative.

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Hurricane Sally devastated Dauphin Island in Mobile County as well as Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and Fort Morgan in coastal Baldwin County when it came ashore as a category two hurricane with 105 miles per hour winds.

Sally then inundated South Alabama, West Florida and Georgia with heavy rain, leading to localized flooding. Several roads were closed on Thursday across South Alabama due to flooding including in Troy, Andalusia and Opp.

Almost 200,000 Alabama homes lost power due to the storm. Alabama Power crews are still working to restore power to customers who lost power.

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Jones defeated former Chief Justice Roy Moore in a 2017 special election. This was the only time that a Democratic candidate had won any statewide race in Alabama since 2008.

Jones and his allies led an effort to topple the then-existing leadership of the Alabama Democratic Party in 2019. The new chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, State Rep. Christopher England, D-Tuscaloosa, is trying to make the case that times have changed and the state has two viable political parties.

Republicans are targeting Jones, a Democratic senator representing a very red state. Democrats are hopeful that they can hold Jones’ seat and take control of the U.S. Senate.

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Elections

Secretary of State extends absentee voting for Senate District 26 special election

Staff

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Secretary of State John Merrill has officially extended the opportunity for anyone concerned about COVID-19 to apply for and cast an absentee ballot for the Senate District 26 special election.

The special primary election for Senate District 26 will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 17. If necessary, a runoff election will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 15. The general election will be held on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

Any qualified voter who determines it is impossible or unreasonable to vote at their polling place shall be eligible to check the box on the absentee ballot application that is most applicable to that individual.

State law allows the secretary of state to issue absentee voting guidance during declared states of emergency, allowing Merrill to encourage voters to check the box which reads, “I have a physical illness or infirmity which prevents my attendance at the polls. [ID REQUIRED]” unless another box applies.

For the Nov. 17 primary election, the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot is Thursday, Nov. 12. If delivered by hand, absentee ballots must be returned by Monday, Nov. 16. If delivered by mail, absentee ballots must be postmarked by Monday, Nov. 16.

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