Judge rules Gwinnett doesn’t have to open early-voting locations sooner

BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Gwinnett County will not have to open its satellite early-voting locations a week early, after a federal judge ruled Monday afternoon in a suit filed by several civil rights groups.

The Gwinnett County NAACP, the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda filed suit Thursday, saying the county’s operation of one polling place in the first week of early voting for the Democratic presidential primary violates the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Grimsberg denied the groups’ request that Gwinnett open some or all of its seven satellite voting locations this week, saying that having one polling place for the first of three weeks of early voting was “at worst” an “inconvenience.”

John Powers, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said the lack of additional locations may cause long lines or prevent people from coming to the elections office in Lawrenceville to vote because of heavy traffic.

A response the county filed in federal court Monday morning said the organizations “cannot show any irreparable harm” to voters and that the lawsuit was filed too close to the start of voting; polls were open for six hours before the first hearing on the suit began Monday.

For the March primary, Gwinnett is holding 18 straight days of early voting at its main elections office in Lawrenceville; that period began Monday morning and ends March 20. Starting March 9, the county plans 11 days of early voting at seven satellite locations across the county.

The Gwinnett County Board of Registrations and Elections asked the county Board of Commissioners to fund 18 days of early voting for the presidential primary at the Lawrenceville office and at all seven satellite locations in August. The request was denied when the county budget was approved in February. County staff recommended the denial citing delayed deliveries of new voting machines, which cut into training time for poll workers. The budget does include longer early-voting periods at satellite locations for the general election in November.

Some of the satellite locations are not yet ready for early voting to begin because of electrical upgrades needed to accommodate the new voting machines, according to a sworn statement from Lynn Ledford, a division director overseeing the elections office and a former elections director for 17 years. The satellite locations require 364 poll workers, who are prepared to start March 9, but not earlier, Ledford said.

While the county has steadily expanded its availability of early voting over the past few election cycles, the staggered openings of polling location are not new. For multiple election cycles, the county has started its early voting at the Lawrenceville office before opening satellite locations anywhere from a few days to more than a week later.

For the May 2018 primary election, early voting began in Lawrenceville on April 30, and it expanded to satellite locations on May 12. Voting in Lawrenceville occurred for 17 days and at other locations for six days. The county offered 18 straight days of early voting in Lawrenceville for the March 2019 MARTA referendum, and satellite locations were open for 12 days.

The case is likely over with Grimsberg’s ruling, Powers said. The organizations are waiting to see what Gwinnett’s early-voting schedule looks like for the May primary election, as the county has not decided whether it will have early voting at all locations for the full three weeks. The May primary covers races from the local to congressional level, while the March primary only involves the presidential race.