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Federal appeals court rules against Alabama in COVID-19 voting case


Judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals turned down the state of Alabama’s appeal to the court over a federal judge’s ruling lifting a statewide ban on curbside voting and waiving certain absentee ballot requirements for voters in at least Jefferson, Mobile, and Lee Counties for the July 14 runoff.

U.S. Circuit judges Jill Pryor and Robin Rosenbaum in the court’s decision Thursday wrote that state officials, including Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, early on dismissed concerns about COVID-19, and that the state in its request failed to show plaintiffs might not win in court over claims that the state’s voting requirements run afoul of the plaintiffs’ Constitutional protections or of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The appeals court refused to lift the injunction ordered by the federal district court.

Appellants fail to explain why voter confidence is not negatively affected by their enforcement of voting restrictions that force Alabamians to choose between voting and potentially contracting a severe or deadly case of COVID-19,” the judge’s wrote in the ruling. 

U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon, in his June 15 opinion, approved, in part, a preliminary injunction filed by the plaintiffs, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc., the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program.

Those groups sued Gov. Kay Ivey and Secretary of State John Merrill, and they seek to implement curbside voting for at-risk citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plaintiffs also asked the court to remove requirements for certain voter IDs and that witnesses sign absentee ballot requests. 

The appeals court judges in their order wrote that the science is “clear and undisputed.”

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COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close- proximity, and it can spread between people who are never physically in the same room because it stays in the air for up to 14 minutes,” the judge’s wrote. 

The photo ID and the witness requirements force at least some Alabamians, including the plaintiffs, to increase their risk of contracting COVID-19 by foregoing nationwide and statewide social distancing and self-isolation rules and recommendations to apply for and successfully vote absentee, the order continues. 

“It’s bad enough that COVID-19 cases can be severe or deadly for people for all ages. But that burden weighs even more heavily on those people who face a higher risk of contracting a deadly or severe case of COVID-19 like the individual plaintiffs here,” the order reads. 

The judge’s also took exception with the state’s argument that Alabama’s photo ID and witness requirements impose “a little bit of work” for Alabama voters. 

“Despite Appellants’ insinuations, that risk isn’t comparable to the normal risk faced ‘when we leave home.’ Sure, anyone may risk getting hit by a bus on the way to a polling station. But that doesn’t mean we set up polling stations in the middle of the street,” the judges wrote. “Appellants’ failure to acknowledge the significant difference between leaving one’s home to vote in non-pandemic times and forcing high-risk COVID-19 individuals to breach social-distancing and self-isolation protocols so they can vote reflects a serious lack of understanding of or disregard for the science and facts involved here.” 

Addressing the state’s argument that Alabama’s photo ID and witness requirements are meant to combat voting fraud, the judges wrote that “according to Plaintiffs’ evidence from the Heritage Foundation, Alabama has prosecuted a total of only sixteen people for absentee-ballot voter fraud since the year 2000.” 

“That suggests that Alabama has not found itself in recent years to have a significant absentee-ballot fraud problem,” the order reads.

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Alabama recorded 1,129 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, a record-high daily increase. The previous high was June 14 when the state added 1,014 new cases. The state’s 14-day rolling average of new cases was also at a record high Thursday at 734.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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