Mid-summer, every big election year, Montgomery activist Kynesha Brown’s after-work schedule starts to fill up.
In normal times, Rollin to the Polls, the grassroots voter mobilization organization she helped start as part of her work with Montgomery’s Delta Sigma Theta Alumnae Chapter, would be running voter registration drives, vote reclamation clinics for Alabamians convicted of felonies and rides to the polls for voters who need them.
But this year, the organization’s well-laid summer scheduling came to a screeching halt. With door-knocking and in-person events rendered unsafe due to the coronavirus pandemic, Rollin to the Polls resorted to internet education campaigns and only a few drive-thru registration drives, staffed by volunteers wearing facemasks.
Social distancing rules present another challenge for Brown and voting rights organizers across Alabama and other states: helping potential voters worried about the health risks of in-person voting navigate complicated absentee ballot rules.
“The way our absentee system is set up is a kind of voter suppression,” Brown said. “ I want to at least help people successfully cast a ballot.”
On Tuesday, Alabama will be among three states to hold their first election of the coronavirus pandemic – a primary runoff that includes a Republican Senate nomination race between football coach Tommy Tuberville and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The winner will face Democrat Senator Doug Jones, who won Sessions’ former seat in a 2017 special election on the back of strong support from Black voters, especially Black women.
The runoff will act as a test run to gauge the states’ preparedness for November’s general election, but after the U.S. Supreme Court backed a restrictive set of absentee balloting procedures last week, Alabama’s voting rights advocates are worried that Tuesday’s election – like recent primaries in Georgia, Wisconsin and Kentucky – could be a dismal preview.
“We would think with the pandemic it should be elected officials’ top priority to make voting easily accessible,” Brown said. “If voting wasn’t so important, people would not try to make it so difficult.”
Brown and other activists have been fighting to register voters in vulnerable states for years, with renewed diligence since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Their campaigns are key to countering a tradition of Black voter suppression dating back to the 15th Amendment, which extended the right to vote to Black people in 1870.
Alabama – the birthplace of the civil rights movement in the 60s – has long been criticized for its suppressive voting policies. It was one of several states that instituted blatantly suppressive literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses, which made it one of the original targets of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
While those overtly racist voting policies no longer exist, activists say the state is still blocking potential voters. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently called Alabama “one of the most difficult states for an eligible voter to register and successfully cast a ballot,” taking aim at Secretary of State John H. Merrill’s sweeping voter roll purges and reluctance to open up absentee balloting restrictions.
In March, Merrill and Gov. Kay Ivey adjusted the state’s primary runoffs, pushing them from March 31 to July 14. They also allowed voters concerned about contracting or spreading COVID-19 to vote absentee. But critics say that Merrill’s absentee ballot rules – requiring a photo ID plus the signatures of two witnesses or a notary – disproportionately target vulnerable people, especially Alabama’s Black residents.
On May 1, a coalition of organizations including People First of Alabama, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and Greater Birmingham Ministries sued Merrill over these provisions. A federal district court ruled in favor of People First and issued an injunction allowing officials across the state to organize curbside voting and lifted the absentee ballot provisions in three counties, saying that the requirement of two witness signatures and a photo ID ran “afoul of fundamental right to vote.“ But on July 2, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the injunction in a 5-4 decision. For Tuesday’s runoff, the policy will hold.
Voting rights activists knew the battle would be difficult with such a critical election. But this year, the pandemic and rapid changes to voting policy make their job even tougher.
“A lot of folks don’t have printers. A lot of folks don’t even have internet,” said Cara McClure, a Birmingham-based veteran activist who runs the nonprofit Faith & Works. “It’s just another effort to make it hard on people.”
In early June, McClure’s nonprofit started a food delivery program paired with voter registration, focusing on those who live in Alabama’s housing authorities and projects and are most likely to be impacted by COVID-19.
“We went to the communities where we felt needed it most. And we tried to focus on food deserts,” McClure said. “And then we get them to register to vote.”
By delivering directly to people, she says she can engage those who normally wouldn’t attend a voter registration drive and might not be online.
She launched several digital initiatives since the pandemic hit, but says the delivery program allows her to look at vulnerable voters face-to-face – a rare opportunity during the lockdowns.
“Nothing is better than that intimate feeling, to have that conversation with people and ask them: ‘What do you care about?’” she said.
In addition to social media outreach and a few drive-thru events, Rollin to the Polls has been hosting online events for local politicians, in hopes that a near-to-home focus will help drive up turnout.
“We have to work from our communities on up. If we don’t get it right there, no one at a higher level is going to help us,” said Montgomery Delta Sigma Theta Alumnae chapter president Cassandra Brown.
Across the country, voter mobilization groups are struggling to add absentee ballot education to their regular registration drives, even as the pandemic renders traditional event outreach and door knocking strategies unsafe. Last week, Kentucky election officials announced that more than 15,000 absentee primary ballots – more than 5% – were rejected in the state’s two most populous counties alone, thanks to missing signatures, late mailings and other simple procedural issues.
Unlike Alabama, Kentucky won’t require photo ID until a new law goes into effect in November, and doesn’t require witness signatures unless the voter signs with a mark. Alabama’s added layer of ID and signature requirements might only keep even more votes from being counted.
Alabama’s absentee ballot rules are in line with a national, decade-long trend that experts say disproportionately affects voters in poor communities and communities of color. As part of what experts call a Republican strategy to discourage Democrat’s access to the polls, 24 states have placed new restrictions on voting. Flawed voter roll purges and criminalizing voter registration drives are among other strategies that helped to suppress minority votes in recent elections.
But Secretary Merrill insists that the outcry over absentee voting restrictions is overblown, and even opportunistic: “You’re either an idiot or you have a hidden agenda,” he told GroundTruth, referring to those who say it’s too difficult to make a copy of their photo ID. “[Liberals] don’t want to let a good crisis go to waste.”
Merrill, who says combating voting fraud is a top priority, is confident that, like in the last three presidential elections, Alabamians will break voter turnout records.
For tomorrow’s runoff, Merrill predicted a 17-22% turnout, compared to 15% in the 2017 special primary for U.S. Senate. As of Monday morning, over 43,000 absentee ballots were requested, with less than 27,000 returned. 18,729 ballots were cast in the March 3 primary.
But voting advocates say the restrictions are an overreaction that will do more to hurt turnout than they’re worth in security.
“Imposing these restrictions on voters is like amputating your arm because you have a hangnail,” said Caren Short, a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit absentee ballot voter fraud.”
Short and her team are spearheading a lawsuit they hope will lift restrictions on absentee ballots before November. After the injunction was lifted on July 2, they filed another, more aggressive complaint, adding Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute – a civic engagement nonprofit – and three individual plaintiffs to the case. The amended complaint seeks an order preventing the state and local election officials from enforcing absentee voting restrictions for the 2020 elections, as well as an immediate lift to the curbside voting ban.
“For November’s election, everyone who wants to vote absentee should be given the chance,” Short said.
In the meantime, voter mobilization activists are doing what they can to get potential voters up to speed on the current policies.
While Rollin to the Polls won’t be providing rides to polling stations for Tuesday’s runoff due to COVID-19 concerns, they will resume the service for November’s election. But by then, Brown hopes, Alabama’s voting activists will convince Merrill to waive current absentee ballot rules.
Still, even with this year’s increased get out the vote efforts, Alabama’s activists worry their work won’t negate the combined effects of the pandemic and restrictive policy.
“But we’ll keep going,” McClure said. “We always do.”
Megan Botel and Isaiah Murtaugh are Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellows with The GroundTruth Project. This story is part of a larger reporting effort on voting rights in America presented with support from the Jesse and Betsy Fink Charitable Fund, Solutions Journalism Network and MacArthur Foundation.
Haley Bosselman contributed to this report.