Federal judge weighs lawsuit over Georgia voting problems

EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

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EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

A lawsuit asking a judge to correct problems with Georgia’s elections reached a packed federal courtroom Monday, where election officials argued that the case should be thrown out because a new state law could solve issues with voting machines, voter registration cancellations and election security.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones didn't immediately rule on the motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed by allies of Democrat Stacey Abrams in the days after she lost last year's election for governor to Republican Brian Kemp.

Jones questioned the state's argument that a recent overhaul to election laws invalidates the lawsuit, which accuses the government of managing a broken system with unreliable voting machines, incorrectly canceled voter registrations and many other obstacles to voting.

Kemp signed a bill this month that calls for new voting machines that print paper ballots, extends the time before registrations are canceled and places limitations on precinct closures.

“The system worked,” said Josh Belinfante, an attorney for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. “There were concerns raised. … The state fixed them.”

But a lawyer for Fair Fight Action, an organization founded by Abrams, said the recent legislation falls far short of fixing deep-seated voting difficulties. The plaintiffs blame Kemp, who was Georgia's top elections official during the race, for failing to safeguard the election and train poll workers.

“The buck stops at the secretary of state,” said the attorney, Elizabeth Tanis. “He has the responsibility to control what those county (election) officials are doing.”

Supporters of Abrams filled about 50 seats in the courtroom and overflowed into the hall while about 15 attorneys sat in front of Jones as they showed charts and binders outlining the case.

The lawsuit is seeking federal court intervention into Georgia’s elections, alleging an array of issues that undermined voting rights.

The legal complaint points to long lines on Election Day, erroneous cancellations of absentee ballots and voter registration purges of those who didn't participate in recent elections. It also cites flaws in election management, including delays because voting equipment ran out of batteries and provisional ballots being withheld from some voters.

Attorneys for Georgia's government said that the courts shouldn't intervene because state legislators addressed many of the problems this year when they passed House Bill 316, which calls for paper ballots and curtails voter registration cancellations. A separate measure, House Bill 392, requires the state to improve election security.

Jones gave each side until May 6 to file legal arguments supporting its position, and he could decide whether to let the case continue soon afterward.

“I”m going to rule as fast as I can, but I have to be fair,” Jones said.