Hearing set in lawsuit over Georgia’s voter registration deadline

A federal judge has set a 10 a.m. Friday hearing in Savannah over a lawsuit seeking to reopen Georgia’s voter registration due to Hurricane Matthew.

Voter advocates filed the suit Wednesday just before midnight, arguing that an emergency extension of the registration deadline was needed because some coastal residents forced to flee last weekend's storm did not have enough opportunity to submit applications.

The suit requests an extension through Oct. 18 for residents of Chatham County, where local government offices were closed for what would have been the last six days of the voter registration period that ended on Tuesday. It also suggests that the extension could be made available to residents statewide.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the state's top elections official, had urged residents in the path of the storm last week to take advantage of the state's online and mobile voter registration access points. He traveled Wednesday to coastal Georgia to check on election preparations ahead of the Nov. 8 presidential contest, and his office said he was encouraged by the tour and believes local officials are good-to-go with early voting set to begin Monday.

His spokeswoman, Candice Broce, said Kemp had initiated a number of registration awareness efforts, including outreach to voting-age high schoolers. He recently released voter education videos in several languages and has actively touted new ways to register — including a pilot program this year allowing residents to register via text.

“We have been preparing for this election for over a year, and the office’s ramped-up outreach efforts on social and traditional media have delivered incredible results,” Broce said. “For these reasons, we find it difficult to reconcile these groups’ claims against what we have seen and heard in our service to Georgians across the state.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, the suit noted that Chatham, which includes Savannah, has more than 203,000 citizens of voting age and that more than 40 percent of them are African Americans and Latinos — groups historically underrepresented on the rolls.

The county was one of six under a mandatory evacuation order, and the homes of more than half its residents lost power during the storm. Several communities within the county, such as Tybee Island, suffered widespread property damage and flooding.

The complaint alleges that by failing to extend the deadline, the state violated residents’ constitutional right to vote as well as provisions of the National Voter Registration Act that require states to receive and process voter registration forms 30 days prior to Election Day.

The Georgia NAACP, the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda and the New Georgia Project brought the suit, with help from the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The groups all said in the suit that the storm and related office closures forced them to cancel or curtail planned registration efforts in Chatham County that otherwise could have resulted in people joining the voter rolls.

Kemp in a statement released last Thursday ahead of the storm noted a number of election registration offices had closed in coastal counties, and that the hurricane may delay mail service in some areas, potentially also delaying processing of paper voter registration applications. He did not, however, offer to extend Tuesday's deadline.

“We had hoped that Georgia would do the right thing by its citizens and not penalize aspiring voters impacted by Hurricane Matthew,” Kristen Clarke, the Lawyers’ Committee’s president and executive director, said in a statement. “There is no right more important than the right to vote, and this suit seeks to ensure that those who wish to exercise that right are not arbitrarily blocked by the vicissitudes of a hurricane and the hardened stance of elections officials.”

The extraordinary circumstance of such a major storm disrupting services so close to the registration deadlines for states including Georgia, Florida and South Carolina has been subject to intense debate over the last several days.

A number of Georgia advocates over the weekend of the storm had expressed concerns about the state’s impending deadline, saying coastal residents fleeing the storm — including more than 500,000 people under mandatory evacuation — would not have the time and resources to meet it.

In Florida, where a mandatory evacuation forced more than 1.5 million residents away from the coast, a similar lawsuit prompted a federal judge on Wednesday to order an extension of the state’s voter registration deadline by a week — until next Tuesday.

South Carolina voluntarily extended its original voter registration deadline — which was supposed to have been last Saturday — into this week as the storm approached.

In North Carolina, where severe flooding caused by the storm has left several coastal counties underwater, state election officials announced Wednesday they planned to keep their voter registration deadline this Friday.