WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine announced today that he is leading a group of 17 state Attorneys General in supporting a challenge to several vote-by-mail requirements in Mississippi that threaten the health of voters and could suppress the vote. The lawsuit, filed by a group of Mississippi voters and voting-rights organizations, challenges strict limits on vote-by-mail eligibility, a notarization requirement for mail-in ballot applications and mail-in ballots, and a signature matching requirement for mail-in ballots run by untrained officials, with no opportunity for voters to remedy non-matching signatures. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in Parham v. Watson in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, the multistate coalition opposes these requirements, arguing that states have a responsibility to tailor their election rules to protect voter participation and voter safety during the pandemic. The brief also argues that vote-by-mail fraud is extremely rare and that making voting more accessible does not lead to widespread fraud. This is AG Racine’s latest effort to protect voting access nationwide, having recently led coalitions to stop voter suppression in Texas and South Carolina.
“States have a responsibility to ensure voting is safe and easy for their residents, and especially during this pandemic, they must protect voters’ health and encourage participation in the November election,” said AG Racine. “State Attorneys General will continue to fight to expand access to mail-in ballots and counter efforts that suppress the vote and endanger public health.”
Election experts project that voter turnout in the general election this November could be the highest in over a century. Amid the pandemic, many voters will seek to comply with public health experts’ instructions to practice social distancing and limit person-to-person contact. As a result, states across the country have modified their election procedures to protect both voter participation and the health of voters and election workers.
In August 2020, several Mississippi voters and voting-rights organizations filed a lawsuit challenging three aspects of the state’s vote-by-mail requirements:
- Excuse requirement: This requirement permits only certain individuals—for example those traveling outside of their county on Election Day or voters over 65—to vote by mail. Voters under 65 who want to follow public health guidance and avoid in-person interactions during COVID-19 are not allowed to request an absentee ballot for that reason.
- Notarization requirement: Mississippi requires voters who would like to vote by mail to get their applications notarized. The state also requires absentee ballots themselves to be notarized. This means that even voters who qualify to vote by mail—including people over 65—must interact with notaries in person twice and risk possible COVID-19 exposure.
- Signature matching: Mississippi verifies mail-in ballots by comparing voters’ signatures on the mail-in ballot envelope against those on the absentee applications. Election officials who conduct these comparisons, however, are not trained as handwriting experts and are not provided objective criteria for comparing signatures. When signatures are deemed not to match, Mississippi does not alert voters or afford them an opportunity to remedy their ballots, unlike most jurisdictions that conduct such matching.
In the amicus brief, the coalition supports the plaintiffs’ challenge to Mississippi’s unsafe vote-by-mail requirements because:
- States have a responsibility to protect voter participation and voter safety: The Supreme Court has recognized that states have the power to regulate elections and must do so in ways that preserve the right to vote. During the pandemic, states and localities have enacted reasonable measures to preserve their residents’ access to voting while limiting in-person interactions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is highly contagious. The vast majority of states are permitting all voters to vote by mail amid the pandemic; many have sent vote-by-mail applications to every registered voter; others, like the District, plan to affirmatively send ballots to all registered voters; and some have relaxed notarization and witness requirements for mail-in ballots.
- Vote-by-mail fraud is very rare and increasing voting accessibility does not increase voting fraud: Since 2000, over 250 million people in all 50 states have voted using mail-in ballots, and in 2018 alone, over 31 million Americans—or about 25.8 percent of voters—cast their ballots by mail. Moreover, five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—already have all-mail voting systems where every registered voter receives a ballot in the mail. Despite the prevalence of voting by mail, officials at the state and federal level have consistently found no evidence of widespread fraud.
- States have mechanisms to protect the integrity of elections: States have many mail-in voting safeguards available to them, including using ballots with a unique bar code that, once returned and scanned, prevent the voter from casting another ballot in the election. Signature matching can also help ensure election integrity, but it must be done correctly with signature matching software, bipartisan reviewers trained in signature verification, and outreach to voters flagged with mismatched signatures. Currently, at least 21 states that rely on signature matching provide voters notice and an opportunity to remedy ballots deemed to have mismatched signatures
The brief is available at: https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-10/Parham-v-Watson-Amicus.pdf
AG Racine is leading today’s friend-of-the-court brief and is joined by Attorneys General from California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.
Protecting Voter Participation
In August 2020, AG Racine filed a lawsuit and secured a preliminary injunction stopping U.S. Postal Service cuts that threatened the right to vote for millions of Americans planning to vote by mail during the pandemic. This month, he also led an 18-state coalition at the Supreme Court opposing South Carolina’s witness requirement for mail-in ballots, a requirement that would put voters’ health at risk during the pandemic. In September, AG Racine also led a multistate coalition to defend a Texas county clerk’s decision to send mail-in voting applications to registered voters. Recently, AG Racine also led coalitions of Attorneys General opposing unfair voting restrictions against returning citizens in Florida and North Carolina.
Voting in the District of Columbia
District residents can find information about registering to vote and voting by mail or in person in the November election on the D.C. Board of Elections website: www.dcboe.org. In the District, all active voters will be mailed a ballot. Voters can return their mail-in ballot by mail using the enclosed prepaid envelope, but it must be postmarked by Election Day and arrive no later than Nov. 13. Voters can also drop off their ballot at one of dozens of drop box locations before 8:00 p.m. on Election Day or at one of the vote centers during early voting or on Election Day. Mail-in ballots will start to arrive during the first week of October, but if voters do not receive a ballot by October 21, officials recommend planning to vote in person.
If voters don’t plan to vote by mail, they can find convenient early vote and Election Day vote centers online, which will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. during early voting and from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Election Day. Registered voters can vote at any of the vote centers during early voting and on Election Day.
OAG also recently published a D.C. Voter Checklist to encourage residents to make a plan to vote.