U.S. judge denies bid to restore 98,000 purged Georgia voters

Jeff Brown (right), his wife Melony Brown (left) and their son Palmer Brown, leave Campbell Middle School after Jeff and Melony casted their ballots during Election Day in Smyrna, Tuesday, November 5, 2019. Both Jeff and Melony were able to cast their votes while Palmer, 18, who recently missed the registration date, was unable. Palmer plans on registering and voting in the upcoming 2020 elections. ALYSSA POINTER / APOINTER@AJC.COM
Jeff Brown (right), his wife Melony Brown (left) and their son Palmer Brown, leave Campbell Middle School after Jeff and Melony casted their ballots during Election Day in Smyrna, Tuesday, November 5, 2019. Both Jeff and Melony were able to cast their votes while Palmer, 18, who recently missed the registration date, was unable. Palmer plans on registering and voting in the upcoming 2020 elections. ALYSSA POINTER / APOINTER@AJC.COM

A federal judge on Friday denied an effort to restore 98,000 Georgia voters who were removed from the state’s voter rolls this month because they haven’t participated in elections for more than eight years.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones' ruling upholds the cancellation of these inactive voters under Georgia's "use it or lose it" law, which allows election officials to remove people who didn't vote or respond to mailed notification letters.

Jones wrote in a 32-page order that the plaintiffs, led by the voting rights group Fair Fight Action, failed to show that the cancellations violated the U.S. Constitution. Jones wrote that the plaintiffs could still ask the Georgia Supreme Court to interpret the state law about inactive voters.

In all, nearly 287,000 registrations were canceled this month because those registered either moved away or stopped participating in elections. An additional 22,000 inactive voters were initially removed but reinstated by the secretary of state's office because those voters had contacted election officials in early 2012, before the cancellation cut-off date.

“Judge Jones upheld Georgia’s decision to continue to maintain clean voter rolls,” said Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. “Despite activists’ efforts and lawsuits that only waste taxpayer dollars, Georgia is continuing to ensure every eligible voter can vote and voter lists remain accurate.”

Fair Fight Action, founded by allies of Democrat Stacey Abrams after her loss to Republican Brian Kemp in last year’s election for governor, is considering additional legal action.

“The court expressed its serious concern that there needs to be an immediate and accurate interpretation by the state court” of Georgia’s voter registration cancellation law, said Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight Action. “We urge the secretary of state to return the canceled voters immediately.”

The issue in federal court focused on 98,000 inactive voters who haven't participated in elections since 2012, but did vote or make contact with election officials in the two previous years.

Those voters 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 general elections.

A change in state law this year lengthens the period before voters become "inactive" from three years to five years.

Fair Fight Action argued that the new state law, House Bill 316, should apply to voters who were previously declared inactive.

“The answer as to how HB 316 applies to the voters who were already on the state of Georgia’s inactive elector list … is not clear cut, and both plaintiffs and defendants have offered reasonable interpretations for how HB 316 affects the voters at issue,” Jones wrote. “… The court would be remiss not to express its serious concern that there needs to be an immediate and accurate interpretation by the state court of HB 316.”

Jones wrote that as a federal judge, he wouldn’t interpret state law, but he said Fair Fight Action can seek emergency relief from the Georgia Supreme Court.

The cancellations represent 4% of Georgia's 7 million registered voters. More than 350,000 new voters registered this year, primarily when they obtained driver's licenses under Georgia's automatic voter registration program.