The following statement is by Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, and comes in response to testimony by Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill and Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin to the Subcommittee on Elections of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on House Administration:
“It is not constructive for the secretaries of state in Alabama and Louisiana to continue arguing against a non-existent proposal of ‘federal mandates’ to transition to an ‘all-mail election’ in every state. The U.S. House of Representatives is not considering this, and advocates like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) are not advocating it. What does need to happen is that states must remove barriers to vote-by-mail and increase their capacity to handle that increased absentee voting so that no voter in 2020 has to choose between participating in democracy and protecting their health.
“Specifically, while Secretary of State Merrill is entitled to his opinions, the undeniable fact is that Alabama remains a leader in voter suppression in the United States – a profoundly disappointing distinction given the state’s centrality in history in the fight for voting rights and civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Nearly fifty years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) was passed, it was Shelby County, Alabama, after all, that brought the case to the Supreme Court that gutted the heart of the VRA. A five-four majority on the Court misguidedly decided that discrimination in voting was a thing of the past, and the results of that decision today are clear: closed polling precincts in areas with high proportions of Black people and people of color, discriminatory photo ID laws, and voter roll purges. COVID-19 and the need for social distancing magnifies stressors already on our elections and creates additional ones.
“Secretary Merrill routinely touts total voter participation numbers in the state, but the highest proportion of voters ever participating in an election in Alabama came in 2008 – 6 years before Merrill had won election to his office and nearly 5 years before the Shelby County decision by the Supreme Court. The voter registration numbers he regularly cites are purposefully misleading – a result of reading a number on a voter file with old, invalid, and duplicative registrations.
“Alabama has no early voting and normally requires an excuse to vote by mail absentee. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic this year, Secretary Merrill has allowed all voters to check an existing excuse related to physical illness when requesting an absentee ballot for July elections. But no such guarantee has been made for elections in the fall. And in all elections this year, voters must still overcome onerous, unnecessary hurdles that potentially put their health at risk.
“In May, the SPLC joined with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program to challenge in federal court election laws, including the witness requirement and prohibition on curbside voting, so that no one in Alabama has to choose between participating in democracy and protecting their health or the health of their loved ones. The groups await a decision.
“In order to cover-up the ineptitude of the Louisiana Legislature to a national audience, Secretary Kyle Ardoin erased recent history and his own work to improve elections in his state. It was extremely disappointing to watch.
“Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic this year, Secretary Ardoin’s first Emergency Election Plan for upcoming primaries allowed for any Louisianan to request an absentee ballot if they cited COVID-19. The plan also waived the unnecessary and burdensome requirement to have a witness sign one’s absentee ballot. But the relevant Louisiana legislative committee blocked that plan, citing unsupported and unfounded allegations of voter fraud.
“Today in his testimony, Secretary Ardoin should have called out and corrected the disinformation about voter fraud in absentee voting peddled by the president and by Louisiana legislators who derailed the secretary’s first Emergency Election Plan. He did in in April 2020 when he said to The Advocate: ‘I think some of their concerns are not steeped in all the facts that were presented to them today.’ Instead, he didn’t even mention his first plan today.
“Secretary Ardoin’s second Emergency Election Plan ultimately passed the legislature – ironically through members voting by mail. While it increases early voting opportunities, the plan is plainly insufficient to address health concerns for remaining 2020 elections. The plan fails to address existing burdens in Louisiana law, including those that require an excuse to vote by absentee ballot, require absentee voters to have a witness sign their absentee ballot, and fail to provide a process for absentee voters to cure defects in their absentee ballot so that they can be counted.
“To address this and protect the health of voters in the state, especially Black voters and older voters, the SPLC joined with the Fair Elections Center and Arnold & Porter in May to challenge these failings in federal court. The case has been consolidated with another similar challenge and a hearing has been scheduled for later this month.”