• November 28, 2020

A New Poll Tax? An Alabama Notary says Racism Persists at the Ballot Box

 A New Poll Tax? An Alabama Notary says Racism Persists at the Ballot Box

“I’m Voting Today.” By Rob Boudon, via CC

BIRMINGHAM, ALA. – When my new boss at a law firm encouraged me to become a notary, I didn’t really know what they actually do. But who says no to a boss? Not me. I was in for a lesson in southern living. Turns out, in addition to administering oaths of office and verifying identities for legal documents, notaries are part of Alabama’s absentee voting process. 

I never tried to vote absentee while previously living in Oklahoma and then Missouri, but this year, I joined throngs of my fellow Americans who quickly learned many states have onerous, nonsensical, and seemingly racist sets of rules for anyone who physically can’t or simply doesn’t want to (possibly because of the pandemic swirling about) vote in-person on Election Day. 

I quickly found a quirk (well, ‘quirk’ feels too gracious…) down here. Alabama requires voting to be secure, two witnesses for absentee ballots, or one notary. The law was passed in the nineties with a specific aim at disenfranchising Black voters who had successfully used absentee voting to increase turnout, United States District Judge Abdul K. Kallon recounted in a September ruling

By September, it was clear many states expected to break records for the number of absentee ballots requested and cast. I felt an additional sense of purpose to get my new driver’s license, register to vote, and walk my notary application over to the probate court for approval. 

I asked the National Notary Association – a trade group for us state-sanctioned signers and sealers if they knew of people becoming notaries in order to assist voters. While there’s been a “steady rise” in the number of notaries ahead of the 2020 election, according to a spokeswoman, that growth is more likely due to people looking for supplemental income and an overall increase in demand for wills and estate planning (not exactly a ringing endorsement of America’s pandemic response). 

While a spike in notaries isn’t because of voting, maybe it should be. Voters in 12 states are required to have someone witness or notarize their ballots; while some officials have lightened rules for the duration of the pandemic, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Missouri have retained requirements for many voters. And though most states ban charging a fee for notarization of a ballot, loopholes remain, leading to comparisons of a modern-day poll tax. It sure feels that way to this outsider, and I’m not alone. 

“This is simply a solution in search of a problem,” Caren Short, a senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The News Station.

Most Alabama voters are able to take the state’s witness route, though by no means all. When I offered notary services on social media, I got several requests from people who, for one painful or practical reason or another, couldn’t find witnesses and were worried about the prospect of standing in line on Nov. 3rd or of not casting a ballot at all.

What are elections officials so worried about? Alabama’s Secretary of State John Merrill did say last year that the lack of no-excuse absentee voting in the state was “long-outdated,” but the state has gone to court to defend its current rules throughout 2020.

Republicans (including President Donald Trump himself) frequently say voter fraud is rampant and that current voting policies help sniff out bad ballots, but the truth is fraud is very rare. In 2007, the Brennan Center for Justice issued a report debunking many so-called instances of voter fraud. A decade later, in 2017, the group wrote that “it is still more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud.”

Alabama notary signatures can theoretically be identified and verified by probate court records, but Short of the Southern Poverty Law Center says she’s not aware of an effort to verify or cross-reference witnesses on ballots. 

“The notary requirement is designed to ensure that the person is who they say they are,” Short says. “But there are already plenty of safeguards in the application itself and on the ballot, that tell the clerk this is the person who has registered under this name, under this Social Security number, under this address, with this driver’s license number…” 

Short says Alabama has been unable to effectively argue in court that notary requirements prevent voter fraud or support election security. 

“So we’re going to continue, as we have in years past, to seek to remove these hurdles,” Short vows. 

Witness and notary requirements hearken back to the South’s recent past of explicit voting discrimination. Requirements that voters have someone vouch for their identity or pay a poll tax were theoretically outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But taken along with policies in Alabama and in other states that added voter ID requirements, purged voter rolls, and closed polling places, advocates say effects often fall disproportionately on poor, elderly, and especially non-white voters.

“Anytime we have a voting mechanism that makes it harder for people to participate without any good reason, that is voter suppression,” Josh Douglas, a law professor and elections expert at the University of Kentucky, told The News Station. 

Yet some voters in 2020 are still asked to pay to vote.

Missouri has allowed people under the age of 65 to vote remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state bans notaries from charging for absentee ballots, but they can charge for ballots in the expanded mail-in category. Bennett Nelson, a sophomore at the Ohio State University who is from the St. Louis area, told The News Station that a UPS agent charged him $5 for his absentee ballot.

“I did feel like it was way more of a hassle than it needs to be,” Nelson, who still isn’t sure his ballot met all the requirements, says.

Some states and localities do allow voters to “cure” mismatched signatures or witness information, but it isn’t necessarily a straightforward process. Alabama doesn’t have an official curing process, but Jefferson County elections officials who initially told some voters they could submit an absentee voting ballot without a notary or witness signature have said they will work to contact voters after courts overturned that pandemic-inspired waiver.

Jefferson County, Alabama, where I live, rigged an absentee in-person process for voting for people who are nervous about the US Postal Service’s ability to get their absentee requests and ballots in front of officials in time to be counted. 

Earlier this month, it took me two tries and several hours to get my ID photocopied, sign an affidavit, mark a ballot, and get it witnessed by county courthouse staff.

Alabama already has shattered its previous record for absentee voting. The staffers told me they believe more than 500 people a day have attempted the process since it began in early October. 

Likewise, Mississippi has witnessed record absentee voting but it has barely relaxed its rules; only people who are going to be away from their home area on Election Day, those over the age of 65 and people with disabilities are allowed to vote absentee in person or by mail, though legislators did add a tiny exception for caregivers of people with COVID-19. Voters are required to have both their request and their absentee ballot notarized – the strictest requirement in the nation. 

“We may see record turnout in many states, including some with higher restrictions, but that does not mean people still aren’t having their votes suppressed due to these restrictions,” Douglas, the law professor, says. “I hope running an election without some of these requirements and not having voter fraud will demonstrate they’re not needed.”

As a notary, I am involved in milestone events in many people’s lives, including voting and civic engagement. But we really shouldn’t have a system where you need my stamp to help you vote safely. I’d be able to help society more if I were just signing off on divorces, or – better yet – stamping smiles onto the faces and hearts of soon-to-be newlyweds. Voters are adults; they know how to vote. The question is: Why are some state governments still afraid to have all their resident’s voices counted? 

Ruth Serven Smith

Ruth Serven Smith

Ruth Serven Smith is originally from Oklahoma and is a proud Midwesterner. She is currently based in Birmingham, Alabama. Her journalism work includes a three-year stint as a reporter and editor for the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Virginia; and work in Columbia, Missouri; Kansas City; and Indianapolis. She can be found on Twitter at @ruthservensmith

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