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ACLU Sues Top Election Officials Over Signature Requirement

Election official behind sign
An election official during the 2020 Democratic primary. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia’s current absentee ballot rules could lead to “massive disenfranchisement” during the COVID-19 pandemic and should be altered, the ACLU of Virginia argued in a lawsuit filed on Friday. 

The organization says a law that requires voters to recruit a witness to certify their mail-in absentee ballots needs to be suspended ahead of the June 23 Congressional primaries. 

“This requirement will likely prevent thousands of eligible Virginians from casting ballots, with particularly heavy burdens on older Virginians, Virginians with disabilities, and African-American Virginians,” the lawsuit says.

The papers the ACLU filed with a U.S. District Court in Lynchburg named the three members of Virginia’s Board of Elections and Chris Piper, commissioner of the Department of Elections. The suit was filed on behalf of three voters and the League of Women Voters.  

Attorneys for the ACLU argue that Virginia’s signature requirement during the pandemic violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution as well as Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. They say the current law would effectively disenfranchise people living alone, many of them elderly or otherwise at-risk of contracting COVID-19. 

State code gives Piper the ability to “designate alternative methods and procedures” of handling ballots in the event of an imminent emergency that harms qualified voters’ ability to cast votes. 

“We really hope the Commissioner and Board of Elections will act and make this case moot,” said Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.

Neither Piper nor Board of Elections Commissioner Bob Brink immediately responded to requests for comment. 

The suit follows similar action in Wisconsin ahead of that state’s presidential primary. A judge there waived the state’s witness requirement ahead of the vote.

William and Mary law professor Rebecca Green said that courts in Virginia may want to give the legislator or election officials a chance to act before intervening. 

“I think a court is a little less likely to be sympathetic in Virginia for the simple reason that there’s time,” she said.

John March, spokesperson for the Republican Party of Virginia, called the lawsuit “just another example of Democrats increasing the likelihood of voter fraud.”

Gastanaga said the felony charge for voter fraud remained “a pretty significant disincentive.” A commission created by President Donald Trump to investigate widespread voter fraud disbanded without finding evidence of that in the U.S.

Virginia is one of 11 states with the witness requirement, according to the ACLU.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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