Virginia sued over witness requirement for absentee ballots

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union on Friday asked a federal court to block Virginia election officials from requiring that absentee voters find a witness to watch them sign their ballots, citing the social distancing guidelines prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a lawsuit filed on behalf of three voters and the League of Women Voters, the ACLU argues the witness requirement could force absentee voters who live alone to choose between not voting or risking their health by asking another person to come to their homes to witness their signatures.

Under state law, any voter who submits an absentee ballot by mail must open the envelope containing the ballot in front of another person, fill out the ballot and then ask the witness to sign the outside of the ballot envelope before it is mailed.

The lawsuit says the witness requirement could cause “massive disenfranchisement” of Virginia voters. Virginia is one of 11 states that require absentee voters to have witnesses.

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The ACLU’s move is part of a broader campaign from voting rights groups and Democrats to ease restrictions on absentee voting, arguing it’s the safest way to cast a ballot amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Many Republicans — most prominently President Donald Trump — oppose such efforts, citing the risk of voter fraud. Among the other states with a witness requirement is Wisconsin, the site of a chaotic election earlier this month, where Democrats unsuccessfully tried to postpone the contest because they argued it was too hard for voters to get absentee ballots in time.

“It’s just another attempt by the Democrats to make voter fraud easier,” said John March, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia.

There is no evidence of widespread mail voting fraud. The most prominent recent fraud case occurred in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District in 2018, when a consultant hired by the GOP candidate was linked to an effort to tamper with absentee ballots.

Davin Rosborough, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said the witness requirement will have a disproportionate effect on residents over 65, who are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Almost one-third of Virginia residents over 65 live alone, he said.

Rosborough said the the witness requirement could also adversely affect people with disabilities and black Virginia residents, who live alone in larger percentages than the population as a whole.

“Those voters are being placed in a really difficult situation where either they are risking their health by going to vote in person or have to find somebody who lives outside of their home to break that 6-foot (social distancing) boundary or not have their vote counted,” Rosborough said.

The ACLU is asking the court to prevent the state from enforcing the witness requirement while COVID-19 emergency orders are in place or community transmission of the virus is occurring. Virginia’s primaries for federal offices are scheduled for June 23.

The lawsuit was filed by the national ACLU and the ACLU of Virginia in U.S. District Court in Lynchburg. It names the Virginia State Board of Elections and its officers, and Christopher Piper, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, as defendants. A spokeswoman said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

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