Watchdog: 6th District runoff latest skirmish in voting rights war

Rodney King (left), volunteer with New Georgia Project and Corbin Spencer (right), field director of New Georgia Project, help Rueke Uyunwa registering to vote for the District 6 runoff on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Rodney King (left), volunteer with New Georgia Project and Corbin Spencer (right), field director of New Georgia Project, help Rueke Uyunwa registering to vote for the District 6 runoff on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

These past two weeks have been great for shareholders in the clipboard industry as an army of volunteers canvassed Georgia’s 6th Congressional District registering voters ahead of the June 20 runoff between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff.

The last-minute push for new voters came as a result of a federal lawsuit brought against the state by a coalition of civil rights groups claiming the state violated federal law by closing down registration for the special election too early. The constitutionality of Georgia's voter registration law is still undecided, but a federal judge issued an order reopening registration for the race for two weeks while the case grinds forward.

The lawsuit is another salvo in the endless back-and-forth over voting rights in the state, a battle that has its roots in Georgia’s darkest history.

For much of the 100 years following the Civil War, Georgia’s ruling Democrats used poll taxes, literacy tests and plain old violence to depress voter turnout among its black residents. In 1949, the Georgia Legislature threw the state into chaos when it passed a law backed by Gov. Herman Talmadge requiring periodic re-registration of every voter in a stated attempt to disrupt bloc voting by African Americans. The law was abandoned, not because it was wrong, but because local governments refused to bear the costs of registering all voters before every election.

That history in Georgia and other Deep South states led to a federal requirement that states with a history of racial discrimination get any changes to voting laws approved in advance by the Department of Justice. But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that requirement, noting its its opinion that a lot has changed in the last half century in Georgia and the other pre-clearance states.

“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the five-justice majority. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

The decision released decades of pent-up frustration as state lawmakers across the South and elsewhere began introducing long-sought changes without jumping through federal hoops on the front end.

"It doesn't mean that we don't still have to follow the law or that we won't get sued if we don't follow the law," Secretary of State Brian Kempsaid when the decision came down. "It just shifts the burden from us having to prove to other groups having to prove (discrimination) — and that's huge for the taxpayers of Georgia."

Seven lawsuits in 18 months

While the federal government no longer had sign-off rights to state voting changes, the Voting Rights Act still allowed citizens to challenge those changes in federal court. As a result, civil rights groups have mounted challenge after challenge to changes large and small in Georgia.

In the past 18 months, the state NAACP and a variety of other civil rights groups have filed at least seven lawsuits against state and local officials protesting polling locations, shortened early voting periods, altered voter registration procedures or district lines, and other ballot issues.

“There are a lot of problems in Georgia, and we’re taking steps to cure those problems,” said Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Defenders say the state is well within its rights to pass common-sense voting laws, especially when those laws are designed to protect the integrity of the ballot. In 2005, Georgia became one of the first states to require a photo ID to vote, and opponents howled that it would depress turnout among vulnerable populations, including minorities and the elderly. The law was tangled up in court for three years, but when the state began enforcing it minority turnout increased.

Other states have not escaped charges of racial bias. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear North Carolina's appeal of a 2016 lower court ruling striking down that state's voter ID bill. That bill was drafted by Republican lawmakers the day after the state was released from federal pre-clearance requirements.

The lower court ruling found North Carolina lawmakers drafted the legislation specifically to target African-American voters; whom, the court noted, rarely voted Republican.

Corbin Spencer (foreground), field director of New Georgia Project, and Rodney King, volunteer, walk through a neighborhood to canvass registering voters for the District 6 runoff on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. The rush is on to register voters in Georgia’s 6th district, following a judge’s decision to reopen registration as part of a lawsuit against the state. It’s the latest in a series of lawsuits and street-level actions by liberal groups and civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the ACLU to push for more open access to the ballot box. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

New voters, early voting rises

Where Republicans in Georgia have tried to use the new freedom from federal oversight to chip away at permissive voting laws, they have not always been successful.

In 2014, Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, introduced a bill allowing cities to trim early voting from three weeks to one week. The bill, supported by lobbyists from the Georgia Municipal Association as a cost-saving measure, passed the House amid howls of protest from civil rights groups and negative national press. But the bill died when the House and Senate could not come to an agreement on a compromise version.

In February, Kemp settled a lawsuit brought by the civil rights groups and the Lawyers' Committee by agreeing not to reject voter registrations when information on the forms do not strictly match information in state and federal databases. The lawsuit claimed the "exact match" requirement would disproportionately harm minority voters.

But Georgia is setting records on registering voters and early voting, two key components of the left's argument for voter suppression. Prior to the presidential election last fall, more than 2 million Georgians cast their ballots early. And after the election, Kemp announced a record number of Georgians had voted, either by voting absentee, early voted or on Election Day. And, in Georgia at least, the popular vote went to President Trump.

Kemp, long considered a possible Republican candidate for governor, hailed the accomplishment with partisan notes.

"After a year of liberal groups accusing me of voter suppression, Georgians were mobilized to go to the polls in record numbers," Kemp said.

Kemp credited his office’s online voter registration system for the massive turnout. But Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, said history would indicate that credit for improvements in Georgia’s ballot access don’t often go to politicians.

“The state didn’t get here on its own,” she said. “I think that our large-scale voter registration efforts and consistent advocacy and willingness to do battle and advocate in court and advocate in the media and with the secretary of state is part of what got us here today.”

The New Georgia Project is one of the groups often named as a co-plaintiff in suits against state and local election authorities. In the absence of federal pre-clearance requirements, Ufot said groups like hers are needed.

Needed or not, what is clear is that Georgia’s history of struggling over ballot issues is also likely its future.