Lawsuit could affect how people vote in November during the pandemic

As the nation inches closer to what will surely be a contentious presidential election in November, efforts are underway to quash voter suppression and voter disenfranchisement. 

Starting in 2010, some states introduced legislation that put barriers in place that many say specifically target voters of color. A 2013 Supreme Court ruling on Shelby County v. Holder, severely weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act, eliminating the requirement that localities with histories of racial discrimination pre-clear any new voting regulations. That requirement allowed federal authorities to block restrictions making it more difficult for black and brown people to vote.

In Louisiana, only specific people with “excuses” can vote by mail. 

In Florida, a court victory by the Brennan Center for Justice this year overturned the state legislature’s requirement that non-violent felons must “pay to vote.” State voters had overwhelmingly approved an amendment to allow ex-felons to vote, but the legislature added a requirement that they must first clear up any fees and restitution related to their cases. While that case is now on appeal, if it stands, voter rights will be restored to 1.7 million Floridians.

The scare over the COVID-19 pandemic could mean many more voters will stay away from the polls, according to the Brennan Center, within the New York University School of Law. 

The hurdles to voting in the U.S. are many, said Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Her organization sued the state of Alabama in May to compel officials to make absentee and in-person voting more accessible to protect the health of those who wish to vote. The lawsuit particularly calls out those affected, including the elderly, voters with disabilities and black voters who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

The suit claims Alabama failed to provide safe and accessible voting, which could disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters.

“We shortly filed a motion for a preliminary injunction seeking relief for the upcoming election in July for a statewide Republican Senate runoff,” Short said. “We are asking specifically that the excuse requirement be removed.”

 The Secretary of State has since waived the excuse requirement, she said, but there are still barriers in place.

 “We have challenged the witness requirement” that anyone filing an absentee ballot must have it notarized or witnessed by two adults, which could put people at risk for COVID-19 by sending them out to find those witnesses or a notary.

Alabama also has a requirement that to vote with an absentee ballot, voters must include a copy of their state ID, another restriction the SPLC is working to remove.

The requirements lifted by the Secretary of State affect only the July runoff, not the November presidential election, Short said. “We are going to need something after that. We have requested a hearing but have not heard back from the court. The judge could rule without a hearing.”

The most important issue is that these cases be clarified in time to educate voters on what the rules are, so they will know their rights and won’t be afraid to go to the polls or otherwise cast a ballot, Short said.

Sean Morales-Doyle, senior counsel in the Democracy Program for the Brennan Center agrees.

“The number of people using the vote-by-mail system is presumably going to go way up,” he said. “We have concerns about whether states will be prepared and whether people will understand how to use the system. Some don’t have the same access to mail, like those on Native American reservations and homeless people and there are cities with unreliable mail systems.”

There is also false rhetoric being spread about the presence of fraud in the vote-by-mail system, he said. 

“That rhetoric is used by the president and is effective in sewing confusion and doubt,’’ he said. “The more doubt and confusion we have, the less likely people are to participate” in voting.

“We need to simultaneously advocate for the federal election system and make sure people know how to vote and sound the alarm when things go wrong, maintaining confidence and faith in our democracy,” he said. “If people don’t believe it works, it undermines the whole system.”

Fighting false assumptions about fraud, educating voters and pushing back against false claims of fraud will all be part of the education process, Morales-Doyle said.

“The source of my confidence comes from the energy of the voters,” Short said. “The people I saw in line in Georgia when I went to vote (in June), from the veteran poll worker who lit up when he saw the line wrapped around the parking lot for a primary, to the people waiting in line” are signs of hope. “I sincerely hope our election officials can pull it together and give us the election systems that we need. I think it’s going to take a lot of work ahead of time. We have to start preparing now with this pandemic.”