The Eleventh Circuit Rejects Alabama’s Interpretation of The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act

In United States v. Alabama, No. 14-11298 (Feb. 12, 2015), the Eleventh Circuit held that the State of Alabama’s election scheme was incompatible with the requirements of The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) because the Act requires that absentee ballots be provided to overseas citizens and military voters forty-five days before any federal election and, in Alabama, only forty-two days were provided for runoff elections.

Under Alabama law, if no candidate in a primary election gained a majority of votes, then there must be a runoff election forty-two days after the primary election.  The United States alleged that this scheme was incompatible with UOCAVA.

The United States brought suit against Alabama seeking to enjoin the State from holding federal runoff elections forty-two days after federal primary elections because to do so would violate § 20302(a)(8)(A) of the UOCAVA requirement that a state must transmit a ballot to absentee military or overseas voters forty-five days before a federal election.  Alabama relied on § 20302(a)(9) which requires that states establish a written plan to provide for absentee ballots in a sufficient amount of time to vote in a runoff election to argue that there is a different rule for states with regard to runoff elections.  The Court was unconvinced.

The Court first analyzed the structure of § 20302(a)(8).  It began by pointing out that the text of the statute states that “when a qualifying UOCAVA voter requests an absentee ballot from the state at least forty-five days before ‘an election for Federal office,’ the state is required to transmit a ballot to the voter forty-five days in advance of an election” The statute goes on, in § 20302(a)(8)(A), to explicitly address exemptions.

In the Court’s view, the plain language of the statute suggested that it applied to any federal election including runoff elections.  The Court, relying on precedent and Webster’s Dictionary, explained that the term “an election” is generally understood to mean “any election”  Further, the Court reasoned, Congress has demonstrated an ability to limit a statute in § 20302(a)(8)(A) and in other provisions in the statute, none of which included a limitation favoring Alabama’s interpretation.  Additionally, the court pointed out that Congress included express exemptions that did not include run-off elections in § 20303(a)(8)(A).  In that subsection, Congress provided one exemption, and the court reasoned that, had it intended to create a run off exception, it would have done so in that subsection.

The Court next explained that the statute also provides for additional requirements for particular types of elections and that § 20302(a)(9)  is such a provision.  The Court stated that the purpose of this section is simply to require that states establish a plan explaining how they will transmit ballots in compliance with UOCAVA in the instance that there is a runoff election.  The Court went on to explain that the phrase “sufficient time,” is not used superfluously in the text of this subsection because it applies to all federal runoff elections including those that have received a hardship waiver allowing them a timeline that is shorter than forty-five days long.

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