Capitol Recap: Georgia election disputes now in lawyers’ court

(Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
(Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

A roundup of news about government and politics in the Peach State

Judge scales down 2018 voting suit

Voting lawsuits have been keeping the state’s lawyers busy, but a federal judge recently lessened their load in case going back to the 2018 race for governor.

Fair Fight, a voting organization that Democrat Stacey Abrams founded following her loss to Republican Brian Kemp in the governor’s race, filed the suit. The group hoped to make fundamental changes to elections, taking on voter registration purges, ballot cancellations and long lines.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones threw out many of Fair Fight’s claims, ruling against challenges to registration cancellations and ballot rejections involving problems such as mismatched signatures or missing information. He also rejected claims that too few voting machines were available and poll worker training had been inadequate.

The case will still involve allegations concerning Georgia’s “exact match” voter registration policy, voter list accuracy and absentee ballot cancellations, for example, when a voter requests a mail-in ballot but then tries to cancel it when going to the polls to vote in person.

The state’s “exact match” policy prevented 53,000 Georgians who tried to sign up to vote from having their registrations accepted before the 2018 election. Registrations were placed in “pending” status for several reasons, including a missing hyphen, an extra space or the use of a nickname in official government records.

Jones’ ruling included a rejection of Fair Fight’s challenge to Georgia’s “use it or lose it” law, which cancels voter registrations if potential voters don’t participate in elections for several years. Jones wrote that canceled voters aren’t significantly burdened because they can re-register to vote.

State election officials canceled about 534,000 Georgia voter registrations in 2017 and 287,000 registrations in 2019 because records showed the registrants had changed their addresses, mail was undeliverable or they didn’t vote for several years. The lawsuit alleged that some voters never moved and didn’t receive a notice before their registrations were canceled.

“The court finds plaintiffs have not shown that the process is applied differently to any class of voters,” Jones wrote.

New restrictions on ballot drop boxes under Senate Bill 202, Georgia's new wide-ranging election law, are one source of complaints listed in a lawsuit filed against the state by Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
New restrictions on ballot drop boxes under Senate Bill 202, Georgia's new wide-ranging election law, are one source of complaints listed in a lawsuit filed against the state by Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

New voting law prompts even newer lawsuits

It’s been less than three weeks since Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law Senate Bill 202, but the overhaul of Georgia’s election system has already seen its fourth and fifth lawsuits.

The first of those two suits came from Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta. It takes issue with limits on ballot drop boxes, new ID requirements, restrictions on absentee ballot application mailings and a shorter deadline to request absentee ballots.

The suit states that Asian American voters in Georgia will suffer a disproportionate impact since they cast absentee ballots at higher rates than other racial groups in 2020.

The new law limits the location of drop boxes to inside early voting locations, and they are only available during voting hours. Absentee applicants must provide a driver’s license number, state ID number or other documentation when requesting an absentee ballot.

The other suit was filed by organizations that mailed millions of absentee ballot request forms to Georgia voters last year. They allege that SB 202 illegally curtails their voter outreach and violates their free speech protections under the First Amendment.

SB 202 only allows groups to send absentee ballot applications to Georgians who haven’t already requested a ballot or voted. The restriction followed complaints from voters who said they received multiple letters asking them to request absentee ballots, even after they had already done so.

Under the law, organizations will have to check public election records to make sure they aren’t sending repeated ballot request forms to voters. If they don’t, it could get pricey — they would face a fine of $100 for each duplicate absentee ballot application that’s processed by county election offices.

“This law makes it virtually impossible to run vote-by-mail application programs that help Georgians cast their ballots,” said Tom Lopach, president of the Voter Participation Center and the Center for Voter Information, two of the plaintiffs in the suit.

The first three lawsuits were filed to oppose drop box restrictions, ID requirements, absentee request deadlines, provisional ballot disqualifications and a ban on volunteers providing food and water to people waiting in line to vote.

Voting groups end legal challenge to purges

On another legal front, several voting rights groups dropped their lawsuit challenging the removal of nearly 200,000 people from Georgia’s voting rolls.

The groups — the Black Voters Matter Fund, the Transformative Justice Coalition, the Rainbow Push Coalition and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project — voluntarily dropped the suit last week.

In December, when they filed the suit, they alleged that the state had removed tens of thousands of voters from the list because it believed they had moved away when, in fact, they had not. It also challenged a provision in state law that allows Georgia to purge voters who do not cast ballots for many years.

That same month a federal judge in Atlanta rejected the groups’ request for a preliminary injunction seeking to restore voters to the list.

Coca-Cola's denunciation of Georgia's new election as "unacceptable" has prompted a boycott by eight members of the state House. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Coca-Cola's denunciation of Georgia's new election as "unacceptable" has prompted a boycott by eight members of the state House. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

A Coke boycott at the Capitol? It’s a real thing

Eight Georgia legislators have a message for one of the state’s iconic businesses: Things would go better without Coke or Coke Zero or Diet Coke or even Fanta.

The lawmakers — state Reps. Victor Anderson, Matt Barton, Clint Crowe, Stan Gunter, Dewayne Hill, Lauren McDonald III, Jason Ridley and Marcus Wiedowerdemanded in a letter to Coca-Cola that it remove its products “immediately” from their offices.

Coca-Cola provides the drinks free of charge to state and federal lawmakers from Georgia, who typically offer them to visiting constituents.

That, however, is too high a price to pay for the eight state House members, apparently as bitter as Tab over Coca-Cola’s decision to join fellow Atlanta-based business giant Delta Air Lines in opposing the state’s new election legislation, Senate Bill 202.

The overhaul includes new ID requirements for mail-in ballots, curbs the use of ballot drop boxes, gives the Republican-controlled Legislature more control over local elections and bans outside groups from giving water and food to voters in line. It also expands weekend voting before general elections in some counties.

Delta has frequently found itself in the General Assembly’s doghouse for raising objections to legislation such as “religious liberty” bills. As a result, certain tax breaks for the airline often come and go like so many arrivals and departures. For example, following Delta’s denunciation of SB 202 as “unacceptable” and “based on a lie” of widespread voter fraud in November’s presidential election, state legislators attempted to rescind the airline’s tax break on jet fuel. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, however, never brought the measure up for a vote.

But this is less familiar territory for Coca-Cola.

The legislators suggested a way out for Coca-Cola, but it may not be easy. They advised the beverage maker to “read the bill, share its true intentions and accept their role in the dissemination of mistruths.”

If that happened, they wrote, “we would welcome a conversation to rebuild a working relationship.”

But will that relationship ever regain that lost effervescence?

Faith leaders put their boycott on hold

Religious leaders have pushed the pause button on their plans for a boycott against companies they felt had not vigorously opposed the new election law.

Bishop Reginald Jackson of the AME Sixth Episcopal District, which includes Georgia, said he will wait until after a planned virtual meeting with the executives of some of Georgia’s biggest firms to decide whether to go ahead with the boycott.

“Hopefully, we won’t have to give the signal,” Jackson said. “We want these companies to speak out publicly against this legislation, to use their lobbying resources to fight voting restrictions in other states and to publicly support federal legislation to expand voting rights.”

Jackson said he spoke with executives from Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines shortly before they came out against the law. He said he plans to deliver similar messages to executives with Aflac, AT&T, Home Depot, the Southern Co. and UPS during their virtual call.

Conservatives warn they could respond to firms that speak out by also hitting them financially.

“If they want to boycott us, why don’t we boycott them,” U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said on Fox News. “This is the only thing that will teach them a lesson. If Coca-Cola wants to only operate in Democrat states and have only Democrats drink them, God love ‘em.”

Gwinnett County Solicitor Brian Whiteside said he has no intention of  prosecuting people for handing out food and water to voters waiting in line, a misdemeanor under Senate Bill 202, Georgia's new election law. “It’s unjust to criminalize giving someone some water,” Whiteside said. (Photo by Phil Skinner) AJC FILE PHOTO
Gwinnett County Solicitor Brian Whiteside said he has no intention of prosecuting people for handing out food and water to voters waiting in line, a misdemeanor under Senate Bill 202, Georgia's new election law. “It’s unjust to criminalize giving someone some water,” Whiteside said. (Photo by Phil Skinner) AJC FILE PHOTO

Gwinnett solicitor refuses to enforce voter food ban

Saying “it’s unjust to criminalize giving someone some water,” Gwinnett County Solicitor Brian Whiteside announced that he has no intention of prosecuting people under the state’s new election law who give out food or water to people waiting in line to vote.

Part of the law that Republicans pushed through the General Assembly makes it a misdemeanor to give away food or water within 150 feet of the outer edge of a polling place or within 15 feet of any voter in line.

Whiteside, a Democrat, said in a press release that the provision has “no rational, legal basis.”

If others choose to go forward with prosecutions over the food-and-water provision, hundreds of lawyers are ready to respond.

Noah Pines said that the day after Gov. Brian Kemp signed the election overhaul into law, he initially invited 10 to 20 colleagues to join the Facebook group “Georgia Lawyers Against Voter Suppression.” The latest count shows 470 in the group.

Pines said he formed the group to demonstrate to legislators and prosecutors “that there is an army of us ready to fight for anyone charged with this ridiculous law.”

Pines, whose client list includes former DeKalb County Sheriff Jeffrey Mann and Garret Rolfe, the fired Atlanta police officer charged in last summer’s fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks, estimated about 300 of those in the group are fellow attorneys.

Politico reports that in the first quarter of the year, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene took in $3.2 million, which it called a "staggering sum." Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Politico reports that in the first quarter of the year, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene took in $3.2 million, which it called a "staggering sum." Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Greene raises big money, but foes aren’t hurting for cash

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has proved adept at monetizing controversy.

Politico’s Huddle newsletter reports that she raised $3.2 million in the first quarter of 2021. Quoting “a source close to her campaign,” Huddle says the haul came from roughly 100,000 donors. The official Federal Elections Commission report has not yet been filed.

To give that cash haul a sense of scale, Huddle offered this:

“That is a staggering sum of money for a House member, especially for a freshman who is more than a year out from her next election. For context, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), then a freshman, raked in $728,000 in the first quarter of 2019.

“Greene appears to have actually benefited from all the controversies that have consumed her first few months in office. She directly fundraised off of Democrats’ decision to kick her off her committees for past incendiary rhetoric and warned her supporters that Democrats are trying to expel her from Congress.”

But Greene may also be helping her opponents pile up greenbacks.

Democrat Marcus Flowers, a U.S. Army veteran and former government contractor who is running as a centrist, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that since March 1 he’s raised roughly $500,000 from a pool of more than 20,000 donors.

Sure, $500,000 doesn’t seem like much stacked up against Greene’s $3.2 million take, but Flowers isn’t the only Democrat sensing an opportunity in Greene’s deeply conservative district in northwest Georgia.

More than a dozen potential candidates have taken initial steps to run for the seat.

Some senior Democrats caution that the party faces long odds in 2022 — in addition to the usual hit that the president’s party takes in a midterm, the GOP will be strengthening its hand when the Republican-dominated General Assembly undertakes redistricting later this year. It might be better, they say, to direct that money toward Democrats in other congressional races. Good options could include the 6th and 7th districts, where Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux may be vulnerable after recently flipping what had been reliable GOP districts.

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