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Recent Developments in Voting Restrictions and Mail-in Voting

Voting ballot: Absentee voting by mail with candidates and measures on paper and pen with glasses
By Richard Dahl on July 14, 2020 10:33 AM

There have many developments in recent weeks involving voting restrictions and mail-in voting as the Nov. 3 general election nears. Here is a summary:

Massachusetts OKs Voting by Mail

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has signed into law a bill that will allow all state residents to vote by mail for the state's Sept. 1 primary and the Nov. 3 general election.

The temporary measure, a response to the coronavirus pandemic, gives state residents the right to vote by mail without restriction.

In addition, the legislation allows early in-person voting for the primary, between Aug 22 and 28, and for the general election, between Oct. 17 and 30

SCOTUS Says Yes to Absentee Voting Restrictions in Alabama

The U.S. Supreme Court blocked an order that would have made it easier for voters in three Alabama counties to vote by absentee ballot in the state's July 14 primary runoff election.

Several groups and individuals had filed suit, claiming that Secretary of State John H. Merrill's refusal to relax requirements for absentee ballots and broaden the availability of curbside voting during the coronavirus pandemic placed an unlawful burden on the right to vote.

The Court's unsigned brief said the order will remain in effect while appeals move forward.

Wisconsin Voting Restrictions Upheld

A federal appeals court in Wisconsin has upheld restrictions on early voting and residential requirements.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit overturns a 2016 federal district court ruling that these restrictions discriminated against African Americans.

The Appeals Court decision restores the requirement that voters must live in a district for at least 28 days instead of 10. It also restored a limitation on early voting to weekends at only one location in each municipality.

Heavy Use of Absentee Ballots in West Virginia Primary

More than half of the 436,000 votes case in the West Virginia primary election in June were by absentee ballot. By historical contrast, only about 3% of votes cast in general elections in West Virginia are absentee.

Nevertheless, there is uncertainty about what West Virginia will do for the general election this year. Absentee voting rules were restricted this year following an emergency declaration by Governor Jim Justice due to the coronavirus pandemic. The state's future response to the pandemic will likely determine the rules as the general election nears.

Minnesota Health-Care Workers Serve as Election Judges

In Minnesota, health-care workers stepped up to help administer absentee ballots to residents in nursing homes and other facilities for the state' June primary election.

Ordinarily, election judges are sent to these facilities. However, due to the coronavirus epidemic, some jurisdictions are being allowed to train health-care workers to do the job.

Blue Earth County Elections Administrator Michael Stalberger said that the health-care workers received "an abbreviated version of election judge training ... so that they understand the basics of election law."

Delaware Says Yes to Vote by Mail

Delaware Governor John Carney has signed into law a bill that will allow all state residents to vote by mail this year.

Officials estimated that half of the votes cast in the September primary and the November general election will be by mail.

In Tennessee, First-Time Voters Must Cast Ballots in Person

Despite a judge's ruling that all Tennessee voters be able to cast absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, state officials say they are requiring first-time voters in the state to cast their ballots in person.

A state court judge in Nashville ordered the expansion of absentee voting for all residents in early June, but did not address whether it applied to first-time voters. The state attorney general's office responded by saying that the traditional rule requiring first-time voters to cast ballots in person or register in person before voting absentee would continue.

SCOTUS Says No for Now to Texas Vote-by-Mail Expansion

The U.S. Supreme Court won't allow Texas Democrats to greatly liberalize the state's vote-by-mail rules before its July 14 primary runoff election. In refusing to fast-track a decision, however, the Court's action means that the case could be back before the November general election.

Texas law only allows people to vote by mail if they are over 65, in jail, will be out of the country during the election period, or have a disability or illness. With the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, Texas Democrats argued that all residents should be able to avoid voting in person.

A federal judge agreed in May, ruling that all voters qualify for mail-in ballots during the pandemic. But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, quickly put that ruling on hold. With the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to fast-track the Democrats' effort, the case now goes back to the 5th Circuit and an uncertain fate.

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