The Mobile City Council unanimously passed a resolution asking the local legislative delegation to consider adding an excuse to the state’s absentee ballot application to allow those impacted by COVID-19 the ability to vote by mail.
When a voter receives an absentee ballot application, the person is asked under the threat of perjury to mark a box containing one of a number of excuses for voting absentee. None of the current excuses include anything related to the coronavirus pandemic.
While other Alabama cities like Birmingham and Montgomery were able to pass resolutions asking legislators to allow for “no-excuse” absentee voting, Mobile’s councilors couldn’t find a consensus on that at a Tuesday, June 2 meeting.
“I could not have supported the resolution if it was for no-excuse absentee voting,” Councilman Joel Daves said.
Council President Levon Manzie said he didn’t have an issue with no-excuse absentee ballots, but was content with the council being able to find consensus.
“If this is the best we can do, then I’m all for it,” he said.
The amended resolution calls on lawmakers to add an excuse for those fearful of spreading a virus or disease, like COVID-19, as part of the ballot application process.
In a phone interview with Lagniappe, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said it is unlikely the resolution would’ve led to any action anyway, as it is up to the Legislature to make changes to absentee ballot requirements and lawmakers had already adjourned their latest session.
However, Merrill said if the issue comes up in the next session he would work with legislators on a solution.
Barbara Caddell, the Mobile-based president of the League of Women Voters, said she finds it hard to believe Merrill’s emergency authority doesn’t allow him to change the absentee voting process this year.
“He’s already modified the excuse,” she said. “We’d like to see him dump the system entirely.”
At the same time, the Alabama League of Women Voters has sued for better access to voting.
In a lawsuit filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, the league is seeking no-excuse absentee voting not only for the upcoming runoff elections, but for myriad municipal elections this year and for the presidential election in November.
The suit argues Merrill and Gov. Kay Ivey’s emergency declaration regarding COVID-19 ends before the Aug. 25 municipal elections throughout the state.
“By failing to exercise his emergency statutory and constitutional authority to order no-excuse absentee voting for all upcoming elections in the year 2020, defendant Merrill has violated the right to vote of plaintiffs and of all qualified Alabama voters guaranteed by [the Alabama Constitution] and their right to exercise the franchise free of undue influence from tumult guaranteed by [the Constitution],” according to the suit. “Alternatively, defendant Governor Ivey has violated plaintiffs’ state constitutional rights and the rights of all Alabama voters by failing to exercise her emergency statutory and constitutional authority to order no-excuse absentee voting for all upcoming elections in the year 2020.”
While absentee ballot applications currently require the would-be voter to provide a limited number of excuses, an excuse related to illness would apply to the COVID-19 pandemic for as long as Ivey’s emergency order remains in place, Merrill told Lagniappe in a phone interview.
Anyone who uses the excuse they are “ill, infirmed and unable to vote” in person will be allowed to vote absentee during the time the emergency order is in effect, Merrill said.
The issue with using an excuse that may not directly apply to a voter’s situation is an affidavit connected with the penalty of perjury is attached, Caddell said. This might keep would-be absentee voters from exercising their rights, even if Merrill says it’s OK this year, she said.
The suit also argues for the state to waive the photo identification requirement to cast an absentee ballot. Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the suit argue the rule requires those at home to possess a printer, copier or scanner in order to duplicate state identification and send it with the absentee ballot application.
“Requiring voters without facilities in their homes to obtain copies of photo identifications will endanger their health and their lives during the coronavirus pandemic by exposing them to potential infection outside their homes,” the suit reads. “Overseas voters and elderly and handicapped voters are already exempt from providing photo identifications with their applications … and the pandemic emergency should exempt all other voters as well.”
Merrill argued he has already worked with Democratic Sen. Rodger Smitherman to tweak the identification requirements for absentee ballots. He said voters will need to attach a copy of their identification when sending in a ballot application.
Caddell said she’s fortunate to have a printer and copier at home, but the process is still confusing.
“[Merrill] has made some things easier, but it’s still confusing and we’d like that changed,” she said. “It made me want to pull my hair out and I don’t have enough to pull out. It’s not that you can’t get [a ballot] — it’s just harder.”
The group also wants the state to modify the deadlines for absentee ballots to Election Day and waive the two witness or notary requirement as well.
“You shouldn’t need two witnesses. I’ve got my husband as one, but then I’ve got to find a neighbor or the mailman or someone, and that’s difficult,” Caddell said. “Getting it notarized — that’s another hoop to jump through. I’m fortunate I have the resources to download and print and copy and find people to be witnesses; not everybody does.”
This story was updated at 10:19 a.m. on June 8 to correct information related to absentee ballots.
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