By KIM CHANDLER
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - A federal appeals court on Tuesday blocked a judge’s order that would have lifted witness and photo ID requirements for absentee voting for Alabama voters who are at high risk for contracting a severe case of COVID-19.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the order previously issued by U.S. District Judge Abdul K. Kallon that lifted the absentee ballot rules for voters 65 and older with an underlying medical condition. The appeals court left in place an order allowing counties to offer “curbside voting” if local officials choose to do so.
The stay came after Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill appealed the ruling that loosened absentee ballot rules. He called the ruling a “win for the people of Alabama.”
“The photo ID and witness requirements are necessary deterrents for those looking to commit voter fraud, and I am glad the 11th Circuit has recognized their importance in safeguarding the elections process,” Merrill said.
The court left in place part of the ruling allowing curbside voting, a method plaintiffs argued would be a safer way for people with health concerns to vote.
“Although we are pleased that counties will be allowed to offer curbside voting on Election Day, we are deeply disappointed with the Eleventh Circuit’s reinstatement of the witness and photo ID requirements. We are still considering next steps,” Deuel Ross, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said in a statement.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program filed the lawsuit challenging Alabama’s voting rules on behalf of older voters with health concerns.
Merrill said he doesn’t know any county planning to provide curbside voting for the Nov. 3 election, but he still intends to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court so it can’t be offered.
Alabama requires absentee ballots to be accompanied by a voter affidavit that is either notarized or signed by two witnesses and voters must submit a copy of their photo ID with their absentee ballot application.
Kallon ruled last month that being forced to follow some provisions - such as meeting someone to witness the ballot or obtaining a copy of their photo identification - would make older voters face the “impossible choice” of jeopardizing their health or not voting.
Alabama argued the provisions are needed to combat voter fraud and that the risks are minimal. The state’s injunction request criticized plaintiffs' “lack of imagination” in terms of fulfilling the requirements.
“Neither Plaintiffs nor the court quantified this risk or explained why it was unavoidable. Nor could they, because no voter need put her life on the line when she can, for example, simply meet two masked neighbors outside for a few moments while they watch each other sign an absentee ballot,” lawyers for the state wrote in their request to block Kallon’s ruling.
In striking down the absentee ballot rules for the November election, Kallon noted the state’s history of discriminatory practices toward Black voters who are also seeing disproportionate infection and death rates from COVID-19.
“The racial bias caused the enactment of discriminatory policies which resulted in Black Alabamians having less access today to resources they need to be healthy-like food, doctors, health insurance, and a clean environment - all of which have contributed to the higher COVID-19 infection and death rates for Black individuals. It also led to Black Alabamians lacking resources critical to safely adhere to the witness requirement during the pandemic,” Kallon wrote.