AJC Watchdog: DC lawyers, liberal groups push 6th District lawsuit

With the nation’s most closely watched congressional race headed to a runoff in June, a D.C.-based voting rights advocacy group is pressing in federal court to reopen voter registration.

It is the latest legal maneuver for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. The non-profit law firm dates back to the Kennedy administration, but it’s been very active in Georgia since the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act four years ago.

The 6th District lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, claims Georgia violated of federal law by closing down voter registration March 20 and failing to reopen it for the upcoming runoff election in June.

The lawsuit claims to protect the voting rights of historically disenfranchised minority and immigrant voters. As a result, it’s a move that almost certainly would benefit Democrat Jon Ossoff over Republican Karen Handel for Georgia’s 6th District seat.

The group has asked for U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Batten, who was nominated to the bench by President George W. Bush, to issue an emergency injunction reopening registration for the race. A hearing is set for next Thursday in Atlanta.

John Powers, one of the group’s lawyers assigned to the case and a former official in the U.S. Justice Department’s Voting Section, said the suit isn’t aimed at getting anyone elected.

“Obviously the lawsuit will provide opportunities for all voters to register, regardless of party,” he said. “Partisan interests have nothing to do with this lawsuit.”

Impact on registration unclear

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office oversees elections across the state, has vowed to fight the lawsuit and he's probably not buying the whole non-partisan thing. When the suit was filed last week, Kemp's office blasted it as a "completely political effort to attack Secretary Kemp."

Kemp has tangled with the Lawyers' Committee a bunch of times over the past four years and derided them publicly as a "liberal group of lawyers from Washington, D.C."

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the state chapter of the NAACP and several progressive groups like the Third Sector Development, a non-profit founded by Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta. But the lawsuit also picked up Jill Boyd Myers, a Sandy Springs resident and registered voter who sold her home in the 5th District in late February and closed on her new home in the 6th District less than a month later — but two days after the state’s deadline to alter her registration.

The timing meant she was not allowed to vote in the April 18 special election because her move was not within the allowed 30-day time limit. But it also means she cannot vote more than 60 days later in the June 20 runoff — that’s what the lawsuit says is illegal under federal law.

“I’m not going to say that any case is a slam dunk,” said Julie Houk, another of the committee’s lawyers on the case. “We feel very confident that the law is on our side here.”

With so much money pouring into both Congressional campaigns, reopening the voter registration period could have a significant impact on the result. Or maybe not.

Despite the intense media attention, new registrations in the 6th District were among the lowest in the state prior to the special election . If Batten orders the state to reopen registration, the campaigns would have less than three weeks to register new voters before a new 30-day window would close. Of course, anyone like Myers who had registered after the state's March deadline would be eligible, too, but no one has been sinking precious campaign funds into registration drives that may not matter.

Suits in Chatham, Hancock counties

Houk said Georgia isn’t a special target of the committee. But the group has been very active in Georgia in the four years since the Supreme Court struck down protections against racial discrimination embedded in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Those protections required changes in voting practices and boundaries in Georgia and other mostly Southern states with a history of discriminatory practices to get federal approval.

Since then, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Texas and a number of other states that have gone “whole hog” altering laws, eliminating precincts, purging voter rolls and changing district boundaries since the Supreme Court released them from pre-clearance restrictions, Houk said.

In the absence of federal oversight, civil rights and voting advocacy groups have partnered with the Lawyers’ Committee to fight state and local election officials in court.

In October, a federal judge ordered Chatham County to reopen voter registration for a few extra days after lawyers for the committee argued that registration should be extended to make up for days that county offices were closed due to Hurricane Matthew.

In 2015, the committee filed suit claiming Hancock County election officials improperly removed black voters from the rolls ahead of a racially tinged election in Sparta. In March, Hancock County settled the lawsuit , agreeing to restore the voters and inform the Lawyers' Committee of any additional eligibility challenges for the next five years.

In 2014, the committee challenged Kemp's handling of tens of thousands of new voter registrations around the state. Several counties included in the lawsuit settled with the committee. Kemp won that case in state court , but earlier this year he settled a federal lawsuit making similar accusations also brought by the Lawyers' Committee.

But the lawsuits keep coming. The committee filed suit Monday claiming a bill passed in the General Assembly in 2015 changing the lines of House Districts 105 and 111 constitute a "racial gerrymander enacted for the purpose of electing and protecting white Republican incumbents."

Like the other suits, Kemp is listed as a defendant and the NAACP is a plaintiff. The stakes are high on this one, since a loss for the state would challenge the practice by the state’s ruling party of adjusting district lines to protect its majority.

As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.