Uncertainty Looms Over Validity Of Some Jefferson County Absentee Ballots

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Jefferson County voters wait in line to cast absentee ballots in person at the downtown Birmingham courthouse Saturday, October 17, 2020.

Miranda Fulmore, WBHM

There was confusion and concern Monday among some voters in Jefferson County over whether their absentee ballots would be counted in the November election.

Earlier this month, an unknown number of county residents cast their absentee ballots using a waiver that did away with the state’s witness or notary requirements for voters with certain medical conditions. That waiver was since ruled invalid by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reinstated the witness requirement about two weeks ago.

County officials said in a statement Monday that ballots postmarked on or before October 13 will be counted. But residents who returned ballots with the waiver postmarked after that date were instructed to call the county’s absentee election manager.

However, the phone number listed on the notice went to a different county office: civil court. The person who answered said she couldn’t help and that voters would need to call a different phone number — one that wasn’t publicized — for answers.

The statement said the county had a course of action ready for absentee ballots filed with the waiver since the latest court ruling.

“Jefferson County Absentee Elections Manager, Jackie Anderson Smith, has a plan in place to address and contact voters that are identified to correct any deficiencies,” the statement said. “All of this is being done in consultation with the Alabama Secretary of State’s office.” 

But Secretary of State John Merrill, reached by phone Monday evening, said ballots without signatures or a notary received outside of September 30 through October 13 — the window during which the waivers were valid — will not count.

According to Buzzfeed, which first reported the story this past weekend, voting rights groups sent a letter to Jefferson County on Oct. 21 asking that voters be notified of the issue and given a plan to “cure” their ballots.

The county’s statement Monday said it published the order reinstating the witness requirement and that no more waivers were mailed after Oct. 13.

Merrill said the county should have separated ballots cast with a waiver from those that weren’t after the ruling reinstating the requirement. That would have made it easier to know how many ballots were in question and quickly identify those voters. But it’s unclear whether local officials did that.

“I don’t know what they were doing,” Merrill said. “I know what they were told to do.”

Merrill said those voters caught in the balance could cast a provisional ballot in person on Election Day. Otherwise, Anderson Smith, the absentee election manager in Jefferson County, would need to determine whether there’s another way to “cure” ballots cast after the ruling. That might involve affidavits signed in person with witnesses at the county courthouse.

Merrill was vexed by U.S. District Judge Abdul Karim Kallon, who issued the ruling to waive the requirement for witnesses or a notary during the pandemic.

“You know what’s frustrating is when you have a liberal activist jurist who inserts him or herself in the elections process,” he said, “and whenever someone does that and changes the rules in the middle of the process, it causes confusion.”

Statewide, more than 206,000 absentee ballots have been returned for the November election, a record for Alabama.

Jefferson County has had a difficult time keeping up with large numbers of voters showing up to cast absentee ballots in person and processing hundreds of pieces of voter mail each day. County commissioners voted to open the courthouses in downtown Birmingham and Bessemer two Saturdays this month to try to accomodate more voters.

Efforts to reach Jefferson County election officials Monday night were unsuccessful.

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