While all states are required by federal law to routinely update their voter lists, Georgia’s laws are stricter than most.
Georgia is one of nine states with a law known as “use it or lose it,” which allows registrations to be canceled after voters fail to participate in elections for several years.
“Georgians should not lose their right to vote simply because they have not expressed that right in recent elections,” Fair Fight CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo said. “Georgia’s practice of removing voters who have declined to participate in recent elections violates the United States Constitution.”
Fair Fight, founded by allies of Democrat Stacey Abrams after her defeat in the election for governor last year, is suing the state over obstacles that voters faced last year, including registration cancellations, long lines, precinct closures and rejected absentee ballots.
Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Georgia's voter lists must be maintained to ensure they're accurate.
“Proper list maintenance is not only required by long-standing laws but is also important in maintaining the integrity and smooth functioning of elections,” Raffensperger said. “Georgia has registered nearly a half-million voters since the last election, clear proof that we are doing things to make it easy for people to vote.”
In his ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones said he could still order election officials to quickly reinstate canceled voters long before their registrations would be needed in an election. Jones will reconsider the issue during a court hearing Thursday.
“It appears that any voter registration cancellations can be undone at a later date,” Jones wrote in his order. “The court’s ruling is based largely on defense counsel’s statement (at today’s hearing) that any voter registration that is canceled today can be restored within 24 to 48 hours.”
This year's cancellations come after Georgia removed over 500,000 registrations in July 2017, the largest single removal of voters in U.S. history.
Under a new state law, election officials notified voters by mail before canceling their registrations, a step that didn’t exist two years ago. Voters had 30 days to save their registrations by returning enclosed postage-paid postcards.
The notifications and other outreach efforts, including text messages to voters from four Democratic presidential candidates, appear to have saved about 4,000 voter registrations from cancellation.
After publishing a list of 313,000 names set for cancellation in October, about 309,000 registrations were to be removed Monday night, according to the secretary of state's office.
The cancellation list doesn't show racial disparities, with the number of black and white voters roughly matching their proportion of the state's registered voters, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Several voters said in court documents filed by Fair Fight that their names shouldn’t have appeared on the state’s cancellation list.
“I voted in the 2016 presidential election and have lived at my address for over 18 years,” said Deepak Eidnani of Alpharetta. “I do not understand why I was included on the list of voters who are inactive and might be removed from the rolls.”
Another voter, Keme Hawkins of Chamblee, said his address had been incorrectly changed in the state’s voter registration system even though he hadn’t moved and he had voted in last month’s elections. He received a cancellation notice before Thanksgiving.
“I was shocked,” Hawkins said. “I was shaken when I opened that mailing. It was scary. I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re trying to make me inactive.’ ”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an Ohio case last year that states can't cancel voter registrations based only on inactivity. Election officials must also mail notifications before registrations can be canceled, as Georgia did this year.
The problem with removing inactive voters is that they may not have moved away and they would otherwise be eligible to participate in elections, said Kevin Morris, a researcher for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
“These ‘use it or lose it’ laws make it harder for folks who only get excited every couple of years to come out and cast a ballot,” Morris said. “These are folks more on the fringe of the political system. They’re precisely the types of voices we want to be incorporating in elections.”
The issue before Jones on Monday was whether inactive voters can be removed from the rolls after seven years or nine years.
The Georgia voters scheduled to be canceled Monday night were declared “inactive” after three years in which they failed to participate in elections, contact election officials, respond to election officials’ mail or update their registrations. Then their registrations were voided after they missed the next two two general elections.
A change in state law this year lengthens the period before voters become “inactive” from three years to five years.
Attorneys for Fair Fight said in court Monday that election officials should have applied the new state law retroactively, giving voters two more years before they could be canceled.
But a lawyer for the secretary of state’s office said in a deposition last week that the law doesn’t apply to voters who were already inactive.
If election officials retroactively applied the law, about 50,000 registrations that have been inactive for more than nine years would still be canceled, Bryan Tyson, an attorney for the state, told Jones in court. That leaves 70,000 voters whose registrations could be restored under the longer period.
U.S. District Judge Steve Jones allowed Georgia’s voter registration cancellation to move ahead Monday night, but he is still reviewing the case.
Jones will hold a hearing in federal court Thursday to consider whether inactive voters should have had nine years instead of seven years before being removed from the state’s list of registered voters.
Jones said in court Monday that he would consider ordering canceled voters to be quickly reinstated.