Federal lawsuit demands health protections for Georgia primary voters

Andrea Settles practices completing a ballot on one of Fulton County’s new voting machines during a mock election held at Sandy Springs Library in February.

Andrea Settles practices completing a ballot on one of Fulton County’s new voting machines during a mock election held at Sandy Springs Library in February.

A federal lawsuit is seeking emergency changes to Georgia's June 9 primary election — including another postponement and a switch to hand-marked paper ballots — because of the health risk from the coronavirus.

The lawsuit, filed Monday by an election integrity group and five voters, said Georgia's new voting touchscreens could spread the illness to voters at precincts.

Though unprecedented numbers of voters are expected to mail their ballots this election, in-person voting locations must remain open, according to state law. More than 586,000 voters had requested absentee ballots through Monday.

A judge should delay Georgia’s primary by three weeks, abandon touchscreens, allow curbside voting, create mobile “pop up” early-voting locations, permit vote centers on election day and provide protective equipment to poll workers, the lawsuit said.

MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia

MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak

“Voting is one of our most fundamental rights, but we must be able to vote safely in these unprecedented times,” said Aileen Nakamura, a plaintiff in the lawsuit from Sandy Springs. “County election offices are working overtime to try to deal with the deluge of mail-in ballot requests while worrying about the new challenges that in-person voting presents.”

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has moved the presidential primary twice, saying June 9 was the latest possible date it could be held without missing deadlines for runoffs and the Nov. 3 general election.

He also sent absentee ballot request forms to Georgia's 6.9 million active voters, encouraging them to avoid human contact at precincts.

“Groups across the country are disingenuously using a crisis to push their failed policies through the court system,” Raffensperger said Tuesday. “Georgia voters deserve to have options. During this time, I have taken unprecedented steps to expand awareness of no-excuse absentee ballots, as well as encourage the counties to maintain a clean and healthy in-person experience.”

Gwinnett County poll worker Joyce Davis assists Steven Roberts of Lawrenceville as he prepares to cast his ballot during early voting for the presidential primary at the Gwinnett Voter Registrations and Elections office building in Lawrenceville in March. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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But the 132-page lawsuit alleges his actions are insufficient to prepare for the ongoing danger of the coronavirus, especially if a new wave of infections arrives after Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday allowed gyms, barbershops and other businesses to reopen starting Friday.

The state on Monday reported 86 COVID-19 deaths in the previous day, the most recorded in Georgia in a 24-hour period.

MORE:Read the lawsuit

The Coalition for Good Governance, an organization focused on election security and voting rights, said it filed the lawsuit so voters don’t have to choose between their health and voting rights.

The group has long fought in federal court for paper ballots filled out with a pen, arguing that Georgia's voting computers are an election security threat. That lawsuit is ongoing.

Voters will touch potentially contaminated surfaces at precincts when they check in, handle voter access cards handed to them by poll workers and tap screens, according to the new lawsuit. Cleaning surfaces after each voter is impractical because the voting equipment manufacturer, Dominion Voting Systems, recommends turning off touchscreens before they’re wiped down.

If the election were delayed, the lawsuit said election officials would have more time to recruit poll workers to replace those who have been quitting. For example, Lee County in hard-hit South Georgia has lost nearly 50% of its poll workers.

Besides postponing the election and expanding in-person voting options, the lawsuit also asks for voters to be directed to wear masks and stand 6 feet apart from each other. In addition, clear plastic barriers should be erected between poll workers and voters, the lawsuit said.

“Poll workers are scared and voters are deeply distrustful,” said Joy Wasson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit from DeKalb County. “County election officials have not been adequately supported and need more time and resources to prepare.”

Raffensperger has said he realizes that coronavirus-related problems will likely remain when in-person early voting begins May 18. “But elections must happen in less-than-ideal circumstances,” Raffensperger said this month when he delayed the primary.