Trial Over Alabama’s Covid-19 Voting Rules Kicks Off

A polling place worker adjusts gloves as she tends to a reception table during a primary election at the First United Methodist Church, March 17, 2020, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

(CN) — The federal trial of a dispute over Alabama’s absentee voting rules during the current global health crisis began Tuesday with an epidemiologist testifying that racial minorities disproportionately suffer from the pandemic.

Dr. Arthur Reingold, testifying in the proceedings in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, held over Zoom, said minorities such as Black Americans tend to hold “lower wage jobs that can’t be done from home,”  and they have experienced greater exposure to the virus, have more difficulty accessing health care and are dealing with underlying issues such as hypertension and obesity that makes the virus more deadly.

The suit, brought by a group of voting rights and disability activists, says even though the Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill expanded who could vote absentee during the Covid-19 pandemic, the state’s requirements to vote by mail were too burdensome for some voters. Along with their ballots, voters had to include a copy of a photo ID and either a signature from a notary or two witnesses.

The state also instituted, according to the amended complaint, a “de facto ban on curbside voting.”

Reingold, chair of the epidemiology division of the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health, said he supported the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations for voting in a pandemic, which told election officials to consider allowing voters to cast ballots from the vehicles outside a polling location.

“Obviously, these are the things that can be done to reduce the number of people to go into a polling location to cast their vote,” Reingold said.

According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, the state has seen 133,606 cases of Covid-19 and 2,277 deaths as of the first day of the trial. It’s a pandemic that will be with Alabama and the rest of the states far past November, Reingold testified, and it would take months for a vaccine — if approved for use — to be widely distributed.

In mid-March, Merrill issued an emergency rule that allowed any voter to vote by mail during the Primary Runoff Election July 14. That rule was later applied to the November general election.

But on May 1, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Southern Poverty Law Center said the requirements to cast absentee ballots fell hard on Black and disabled voters who may lack the technology to copy their photo ID and may be leery of meeting with witnesses or a notary over concerns of contracting the novel coronavirus. 

They challenged the rules under the Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which required plaintiffs to show that the statutes in question disproportionately affect minority voters and that disproportionate effect is because of discrimination.

The lawsuit against the state of Alabama and a group of election officials aims to have the requirements declared unconstitutional for the duration of the pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon, an Obama appointee, issued a temporary injunction in the case in June. The appeal rocketed up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Associate Justice Clarence Thomas stayed the injunction July 2, though four other justices would have let Kallon’s injunction stand.

In briefs ahead of the trial, the state of Alabama argued it was already too late to change the state’s absentee voting procedures.

“Granting relief too close to the time that voting starts — or, as here, after voting will have started — can often create more problems for voters than it solves for them,” the state’s pretrial brief said.

The lawsuit targeted seven of the state’s most populated counties, such as the ones home to the cities of Huntsville, Birmingham and Montgomery. But the state argued in briefs that would only create a patchwork of voting procedures and the confusion that comes with it if the judge were to side with the voting and disability activists. 

Meanwhile, attorneys seeking to roll back Alabama’s requirements have said Alabama’s Secretary of State has previously voiced support of nixing the witness requirement and the state does not compare the copies of photo IDs voters send in to vote by mail to the faces of the voters.

Neither side made opening arguments, rather jumping right into calling Reingold as a witness. As attorneys argued over teleconference, the public listened to a phone call of the audio.

During cross-examination conducted by Jeremy Weber of the state’s Attorney’s General Office, Reingold said there is no innate physiological difference between Black Americans that makes them vulnerable to Covid-19, although there is at least one ongoing study regarding the virus and sickle cell disease.

Annie Thompson, a 68-year-old African American, stopped working as a caregiver and only goes out when she has to because high blood pressure and diabetes makes her at high risk for the virus. She testified during the trial that she does not visit restaurants, go to church or get her hair done, although she takes her dog to a groomer because it has a skin allergy.

Thompson, a voter from Mobile who was named as one of the plaintiffs in the suit, voted in Alabama’s March primary. When she attempted to vote absentee during the July election, her ballot arrived on election day.

She called a friend who worked at the polling location and cast her vote when the polling location was slow.

“Because of Covid and the amount of people voting in November, there will be lines and I don’t want to expose myself,” Thompson said.

Under cross-examination, Thompson said she was unaware her local library offered free curbside notary services. She was asked if she could get a copy of her ID at her local grocery store, or if she could ask her daughter to make a copy at her job, or if she could ask her neighbors to fulfill the witness requirement.

Before, Thompson would have done anything in order to exercise her right to vote, a right she does not take lightly.

“Things are different than they were before Covid-19,” she said.

The trial is expected to run between six to nine days. Tomorrow is the first day Alabama citizens can cast an absentee ballot for the November general election.

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