Coronavirus, voting absentee in Alabama, and the November election

Oct 8, 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic has changed the way people are voting during the 2020 elections. November’s general election is no different. The option to vote with an absentee ballot has been granted to Alabamians in one of the most-watched presidential elections, but a lot of questions are being raised on the proper way to fill out an absentee ballot application and the absentee ballot itself.  

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Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill has extended the opportunity for any Alabamian concerned about COVID-19 to apply for an absentee ballot for November 3's general election. The race between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden is considered the most-watched contest.

“I think it’s important to realize that Alabama is an absentee excuse state,” Merrill said. “So, when you’re in a situation like we’re currently in, it’s important to accommodate our voters who are concerned about going to polling site across the state...The constitution and the code give me the ability to assign a reason for people to vote absentee when we are in a state of emergency. 'I am unable to appear on site on election day because I am ill or infirmed.' That’s the second excuse on the ballot, and that’s the box we encourage them to check.”

The deadline to register to vote in November’s general election is Monday, October 19. The deadline to submit an absentee ballot application is just 10 days later on October 29. The last day to postmark an absentee ballot is Monday, November 2, the day before the election.

That may sound straight forward, but some voters in Alabama are not following the rules on how to properly fill out the absentee ballot application and the absentee ballot itself.

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To help address some of these commonly made mistakes, APR reached out to Barbara Caddell. She’s President of the League of Women Voters of Alabama. Caddell said it’s easy to get confused on the application and ballot, that’s why it’s important to check and recheck what’s been filled out. 

“They just told me in Mobile County, that the vast majority of the applications that are sent, are sent back because the voter didn’t indicate which election,” Caddell said. “For November, look for the general election.”

Caddell said leaving one question blank could cost a voter their ballot.

“It’s really crucial that people check the election that they want to vote in.” she said. “The blessing is, if you get your application in pretty quickly, they can send it back to you if there’s a mistake, or if something is unclear.”

Moving on to the absentee ballot itself, APR asked Caddell for a step-by-step walk through on how to properly fill everything out once your application has been approved.

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“Presuming that you receive your ballot,” Caddell said, “you get a big packet of information that contains the ballot itself, a set of instructions, and three envelopes. And this is where it gets a little confusing. You mark your ballot, you fold it in half, and then you put it in what’s called a secrecy envelope. Make sure it’s sealed.”

After the secrecy envelope comes the affidavit envelope. Caddell said that’s where most people get confused. 

“The affidavit envelope is so you can swear that it’s you who filled out the ballot, she said. “And in order to authenticate that, you have two witnesses 18 years old or older, or you have your signature notarized.”

Caddell pointed out that if you have an attorney or know a notary and you have internet access, attorneys and notaries are now allowed to witness things via Skype or some other virtual platform, an option that can come in handy if you’re social distancing.

“Once you get your affidavit envelope signed, then you put it in the big envelope that’s already addressed,” Caddell said. “Then you’ll need to put some stamps on it. I believe they’re telling people at the post office it costs $1.20, but to make things easier for people, we’re telling them to put three stamps on it. Then you mail it off!”

Caddell said it’s also important to know that when you’re submitting applications for the ballot, each voter in household must have a separate mailing. That means one absentee ballot application per envelope. Voters can track an absentee ballot once it’s filled it out and send it in. Just visit Myinfo.AlabamaVotes.gov.

All of the instructions Caddell mentioned are printed on the absentee ballot application and the absentee ballot. That also includes mailing in a copy of a valid photo ID, which the Montgomery-based nonprofit legal advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center has been fighting in court the past several months.

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“Despite all Alabama voters being able to select an excuse, there’s still unnecessary requirements for the absentee ballot. That includes a photo ID, two witnesses sign the absentee ballot, or to have your absentee ballot notarized after you’ve voted," SPLC senior staff attorney Caren Short said. 

The SPLC, along with other organizations in the lawsuit against current voting rules, received a victory last week. A federal court ruled Alabama voters will not need a witness or notary to vote by mail if they have an underlying medical condition and provide a statement. 

Short said it’s a victory for those pushing for voting reform during the Coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s hard for those people who are taking every precaution to protect themselves,” she said. “To break those protocols simply to requirements that do nothing to protect the integrity of Alabama’s elections.”

The decision also stipulates that voters 65 and older with an underlying medical condition won’t need an ID, if they provide other identifying information. This could be their driver’s license number or last four digits of their Social Security number. In addition, it lifts Merrill’s ban on curbside voting.

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Another noteworthy mention from the ruling found evidence of voter suppression in Alabama through requiring a photo ID and witness signatures on the absentee ballot.

“So one of the things that the court found was that some of the legislatures who pushed for the photo ID and witness requirements, not to prevent voter fraud, but because they were trying to stop black people from voting,” said Deuel Ross with the Legal Defense Fund.  

Ross said the judge ruled there was enough evidence that these tactics were put in place to suppress the Black vote.

“One of the people who pushed for this legislation in the 1990’s openly stated that the photo ID requirement would harm the Black Power structure in Alabama,” Ross said, “and that a lack of photo ID benefited Black officials.”

Marshall said the state will appeal the federal ruling.

Alabama currently has the fourth-highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the country, and the virus continues to disproportionately infect and take the lives of older voters, Black voters, and voters with disabilities. 

As the election draws closer, the biggest message from voter organizations and advocates is to vote.

“I just want everyone to vote,” Caddell said. “Whether you vote in person, whether you vote absentee. This is a very important election. Every vote matters. No matter how you vote, please vote.”

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