Alabama Accused of Suppressing Votes of Black Students

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (CN) – Four black Alabama students filed a federal lawsuit against state officials Friday, claiming they were told to cast provisional ballots on Election Day even though they registered to vote before the deadline.

(AP Photo/Mike Stewart, File)

The complaint filed in Huntsville federal court alleges that their experiences were not a simple error but an effort to suppress voting at the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, a historically black college.

“Over 175 provisional ballots were cast at the AAMU polling place,” the lawsuit states. “Moreover, the AAMU polling location ran out of provisional ballots multiple times throughout Election Day, leading to hour-plus long wait times to cast provisional ballots and students having to leave without voting.”

Jordan Jackson, Kendra Jones, Merry Matthews III and Simeon Sykes – represented by lead attorney Kerri Johnson Riley and lawyers with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund – sued the Madison County Board of Registrars, its chair Lynda Hairston and Alabama Secretary of State of John Merrill.

The students say the board and secretary of state did not register them to vote and then failed to count their provisional ballots – even though the secretary’s website says they are on the voter rolls.

They claim those actions violate the 14th, 15th, and 26th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution as well as the National Voter Registration Act and the Voting Rights Act.

The students ask that any provisional ballot cast on Election Day by a voter who sent in a registration before the Oct. 22 deadline – including the four plaintiffs – be counted, and that the secretary of state and the office of registrars implement procedures in order to prevent such a situation from occurring again.

Catherine Meza, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement that she hoped the lawsuit would “restore to our plaintiffs the voice” all citizens have when they cast ballots.

“Nothing is more fundamental than the right to vote, and these students, despite complying with all of Alabama’s regulations, were denied that right,” Meza said.

The plaintiffs say they lived in the campus dorms at AAMU and registered to vote in mid-October. Jackson registered to vote around Oct. 14, for example.

The lawsuit notes that AAMU is a historically black college in a county that is 68 percent white.

“Furthermore, of the black registered voters in Madison County, 70.5 percent are 18-21 years old—college age,” suit said.

There are 268,456 registered voters in the county, according to the board of registrars.

Heading into the midterm elections, over 1,000 voter registration forms from AAMU arrived at the board.

“During the weeks preceding the November 2018 election, many AAMU students experienced barriers to registering to vote, which, on information and belief, are attributable to defendants’ actions,” the complaint states. “These included unjustified rejections or delayed processing of students’ voter registration applications and students being placed on inactive status for improper reasons.”

The lawsuit claims a voter registration drive at the University of Alabama at Huntsville – a predominantly white school – did not face similar problems.

As the weeks wound down to the midterm, the students say they heard nothing about the status of their voter registration, including whether there were any problems with the paperwork.

But the day after the election – when Alabamians learned that they had re-elected Kay Ivey as their governor and that Democrats nationwide had taken the U.S. House of Representatives – the four students named in the lawsuit say they found that they were actually on the voting rolls.

Meza, of the NAACP LDF, did not immediately respond Friday afternoon to a request for comment. Neither did Hairston, chair of the board of registers, nor a spokesperson for Secretary of State Merrill.

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