AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The legal fight over voting rules has intensified ever since the pandemic hit. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed as Democrats seek to remove barriers to mail-in voting and Republicans try to preserve laws they say protect against fraud. For those fighting to lift barriers, major targets include witness and signature requirements for absentee ballots. And as we look at how the coronavirus is reshaping this year's election, NPR's Pam Fessler reports on how seemingly innocuous rules could affect the outcome.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: When South Carolina voters cast absentee ballots, they usually have to get a witness to sign the envelope. It's one of about a dozen states that require either that or a notary signature. But it's a hurdle, as Brenda Williams, a voting rights activist, explained to one voter she helped during South Carolina's March primary.
BRENDA WILLIAMS: Like I said, if I don't sign my part of this, then they will throw your ballot out.
FESSLER: She warned that without her signature and address on the envelope, his ballot would be rejected.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It won't be counted?
WILLIAMS: It would not be counted at all, ever.
FESSLER: But earlier this week, a federal judge said that witness requirement put voters' health at risk. She suspended it for the June primary. Williams was a plaintiff in the case, one of dozens around the country challenging similar absentee ballot rules. Dale Ho of the ACLU worked on the suit, along with similar ones in Missouri and Virginia.
DALE HO: We know that these signature requirements have already affected thousands of voters during the pandemic, and our concern is that they'll affect thousands or even tens of thousands more as the election cycle continues.
FESSLER: He noted that last month, Wisconsin rejected more than 14,000 absentee ballots in its primary because they didn't have witness signatures. And Ho says the requirement doesn't seem to serve much purpose, something even South Carolina election officials have admitted.
HO: They're not relied on by the state in any way to try to verify the authenticity of someone's vote. It just seems like a hoop that they force people to jump through.
RONNA MCDANIEL: In this time of uncertainty, we need to have faith in our election process.
FESSLER: But Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, says such rules are needed to protect against voter fraud. The RNC has launched an aggressive campaign to fight efforts by Democrats to remove the requirements as states expand mail-in voting in response to the pandemic.
MCDANIEL: We believe that many of the lawsuits that they have initiated would destroy the integrity of our election.
FESSLER: And that's the debate going on right now in many courthouses and state legislatures. As the nation prepares for November, Democrats and their allies are challenging witness requirements in North Carolina, Minnesota, Alabama and elsewhere. They also want states to give voters a chance to fix their own signatures if there are any problems. Earlier this month in Oklahoma, voting rights groups successfully challenged a law requiring that absentee ballots be notarized, only to see this happen a few days later.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHRIS KANNADY: The worst thing that you can do is fraudulently vote. To me, it's akin to stolen valor. And this is the way we prevent that from happening.
FESSLER: Oklahoma Republican Chris Kannady led colleagues in the State House to restore the notary requirement, much to the chagrin of Democrats like Monroe Nichols, who called it part of a broader effort to suppress low income and minority voters.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MONROE NICHOLS: Ever since any American has gained the right to vote, there's been an effort to restrict that right from another American.
FESSLER: The fighting is intense and passionate because both sides think it could affect the outcome of the November elections. Studies have shown that young, minority and new voters who lean Democratic have their absentee ballots rejected more often than older white voters. David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri, questions the need for some of the rules. He notes that Missouri requires absentee ballots to be notarized even though local election clerks check the voter's signature to make sure the ballot is valid.
DAVID KIMBALL: I think it certainly has the effect of discouraging absentee voting. So maybe that's part of the goal, too.
FESSLER: And with absentee and mail-in voting such a big deal this year, anything that affects who gets to use it will matter a lot.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.