Court rejected Georgia voting rights case, but laws have changed since 2018

Voting and registration laws revised ahead of this year’s election

When a judge shot down a sweeping voting rights lawsuit, he ruled against allegations that several Georgia election laws were illegal and discriminatory just five weeks before another election.

The claims that originated in the 2018 election ultimately failed in court last week, but plaintiffs led by Fair Fight Action say the case influenced changes to Georgia voting laws during the four-year court battle.

While defenders of Georgia’s election laws reject the idea that the lawsuit made a difference, there’s no doubt that the voting landscape has evolved.

Since the lawsuit was filed days after Democrat Stacey Abrams’ loss to Republican Brian Kemp, Georgia has replaced its voting machines, updated absentee ballot cancellation practices, changed “exact match” voter registration laws and created rules designed to prevent long waits at polling places.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the defendant in the lawsuit, said Abrams and Fair Fight can’t take credit for parts of new state laws they opposed after both the 2018 and 2020 elections.

“Georgia elections continue to see record turnout … despite efforts of Ms. Abrams and her allies,” Raffensperger said Monday. “Her unfounded claims have not improved nor secured our election systems at all.”

Leaders of Fair Fight, the voting rights organization Abrams founded after the 2018 election, said the lawsuit highlighted problems in Georgia and forced state legislators to act.

“In the four years that this suit has been pending, meaningful strides have been made to improve ballot access and eliminate obstacles voters face to becoming and staying registered to vote and casting their ballot,” Fair Fight CEO Cianti Stewart-Reid said. “By fighting on behalf of voters, we have forced accountability among our elected officials, even without judicial relief.”

The cost to taxpayers of defending the lawsuit in federal court was nearly $6 million, according to the attorney general’s office. Fair Fight declined to reveal its litigation costs.

The judge who decided against Fair Fight on all counts wrote in his ruling that the case wasn’t entirely one-sided.

“This is a voting rights case that resulted in wins and losses for all parties over the course of the litigation and culminated in what is believed to have been the longest voting rights bench trial in the history of the Northern District of Georgia,” lasting 21 days, wrote U.S. District Judge Steve Jones, a nominee of President Barack Obama.

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

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

The lawsuit started as a broad effort to overturn alleged obstacles to voting, including voter registration purges, absentee ballot rejections and long lines at polling places.

Several rulings reduced the claims, and the plaintiffs last week lost on those issues as well, dealing with “exact match” voter registration rules, absentee ballot cancellation practices, and voter registration verification of suspected felons and new U.S. citizens.

Though the 21-day trial included dozens of people who testified about voting difficulties in Georgia, few of them were actually unable to vote.

“At the end of the day, they weren’t able to show injury to voters from any law, despite all the rhetoric around the claims that they had,” said Bryan Tyson, an attorney who represented the secretary of state in the case. “What I hope will happen is that the updates in the law give voters confidence in the election officials who work hard, day in and day out, to get this right.”

The Georgia General Assembly in 2019 revised the state’s “exact match” law, which flagged new voters for inconsistencies in name spellings, often because of hyphens of apostrophes, a policy that disproportionately affected Black voters.

About 69% of voters covered by “exact match” were Black, but Jones wrote that the policy was not an infringement on voting opportunities. Under the updated law, those voters aren’t prevented from registering but must provide additional ID before they can vote.

Legislators also lengthened the time before infrequent voter registrations can be canceled, created a process to help voters correct rejected absentee ballots in time to be counted, and purchased a statewide voting system before the 2020 election that prints out a paper ballot to help verify the accuracy of electronically counted ballots.

About 22,000 voter registrations were reinstated in late 2019 after Fair Fight challenged how much time had to pass before they were removed from the rolls.

In addition, the secretary of state’s office updated poll worker training for how to help voters who never received their absentee ballots in the mail.

“Make no mistake: If this court’s opinion were a report card on Georgia’s election system, that system has earned an ‘F,’” said Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Without overturning Georgia laws, Jones suggested changes in how it handles registrations of felons and new citizens.

Jones wrote that Georgia’s process of identifying potential felons, who aren’t allowed to vote in Georgia, “severely burdened voters” in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s free speech and due process protections. But he didn’t find a violation by the secretary of state’s office because county election offices are ultimately responsible.

Several witnesses testified that their voter registrations were canceled because they had been incorrectly labeled as felons based on the secretary of state’s identification process. Jones wrote that it would be better if the secretary of state’s office stopped identifying felons based only on last name, date of birth, gender and race, which results in false matches.

Jones also suggested that the secretary of state’s office regularly use a national database to verify citizenship and remove potential hurdles for new voters. The secretary of state’s office has said it is discussing that change after a citizenship check earlier this year verified 63% of people whose registrations were pending because citizenship still needed to be verified.

The plaintiffs haven’t decided whether to appeal, but newer cases over Georgia’s voting laws are still alive in federal court.

Several lawsuits are fighting Georgia’s voting law passed last year, Senate Bill 202, which limited ballot drop box availability, imposed new rules for absentee voting and banned handing out water and food to voters waiting in line.

So far, a judge has upheld almost all of the law for this year’s election, with the exception of a ruling that invalidated some restrictions on photography of ballots outside of polling places. Those cases will continue to be considered in court after the election.