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Federal judge blocks Alabama voting restrictions ahead of July runoff

Polling the big questions of the 2020 race

Washington — A federal judge in Alabama blocked the state from enforcing a trio of restrictions for absentee and curbside voting for the state's July 14 runoff election amid concerns from voters who say they are at a higher risk of severe illness from the coronavirus.

Four Alabama voters and three organizations challenged the requirements and asked the federal district court to issue an injunction blocking the state from enforcing the measures. The voters said the Alabama election laws at issue — the requirement that absentee ballots must be signed by a notary or two witnesses, the requirement that absentee voters must submit a copy of their photo ID and Alabama's effective ban on curbside voting — ran afoul of their right to vote.

U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon, appointed by former President Barack Obama, sided with the voters Monday in waiving the absentee ballot requirements in at least three Alabama counties and lifting the prohibition on curbside voting at in-person polling locations for next month's election.

The court ruled the "burdens imposed by the challenged election laws on voters at high risk of severe complications or death from COVID-19 are not justified by the state's interests in enforcing the laws."

"No one should have to risk their health to vote," Deuel Ross, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which brought the suit, said in a statement, adding that the order means "tens of thousands of vulnerable people will now have a safe means of voting in July."

The voters who challenged Alabama's absentee ballot restrictions and limitations on curbside voting argued the state's election laws forced them to choose between risking their health by leaving their homes and engaging in person-to-person contact or foregoing their right to vote during the coronavirus pandemic.

But Alabama election officials said the laws were crucial to protect the integrity of its elections by preventing voter fraud and safeguarding voter confidence.

Kallon wrote in his ruling that if the election laws at issue were allowed to be enforced, the plaintiffs in the case and others in similar situations "could likely face a painful and difficult choice between exercising their fundamental right to vote and safeguarding their health, which could prevent them from casting a vote in upcoming elections."

The coronavirus pandemic upended the 2020 election season as officials in many states rushed to expand vote-by-mail and limit in-person voting to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. More than a dozen states delayed their primary elections.

Alabama's runoff was scheduled for March 31, but Governor Kay Ivey postponed it to July 14 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The state, which is among those experiencing a surge in infections, has had more than 25,000 confirmed cases and more than 700 deaths. 

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