Voting organizations argued in federal court Monday that Georgia’s ban on handing out snacks and water to fatigued voters should be blocked, telling a judge they have a free-speech right to encourage participation in elections.
Meanwhile, defenders of the law passed last year said it protects voters from attempts to influence their decisions in the moments before they cast their ballots, especially after food trucks parked outside polling places during the 2020 presidential election and U.S. Senate runoffs.
U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee questioned whether the goal of voting organizations was truly nonpartisan. An email presented in court showed the group Vote.org describing the food trucks as “our last chance to reach Georgians before they vote.”
“Are they helping someone because they’re thirsty, or because they want to determine control of the U.S. Senate?” Boulee asked.
The court hearing was the latest battle over Georgia’s voting law, Senate Bill 202, which made it a misdemeanor to hand out food and beverages to voters waiting in lines that sometimes lasted for hours, especially during the 2020 primary and the first days of early voting in the presidential election.
Under the law, no one can distribute food and drinks to a voter who is in line, within 25 feet of a line or within 150 feet of the outer edge of a polling place. Food and water could be distributed outside those boundaries, and poll workers are allowed to set up self-service water receptacles.
Rhonda Briggins of the public service organization Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., one of the plaintiffs in the case, said it distributed granola bars and pretzels to voters to help them vote — not to persuade them to vote for one candidate or another.
“It’s to encourage people to stay in line. We’re the cheerleaders to ensure people exercise their right to vote,” Briggins testified. “At no point are we telling people who to vote for. ... Line relief is for everyone who’s there.”
Witnesses for the defense said the law was justified in setting clear boundaries that ensure waiting voters in polling places are free from interference. Campaigning near polling places was already illegal before the voting law, which extended limitations to refreshments.
Ryan Germany, general counsel for the secretary of state’s office, said the food trucks at polling places went too far.
“It really felt like campaigning within that buffer zone,” Germany said.
Georgia’s complete ban on food and drinks is the strictest in the country, according to attorneys for the plaintiffs. New York prohibits distributing refreshments to voters unless they’re valued at less than $1, and Montana’s restriction applies to candidates and their surrogates, preventing them from handing out snacks.
At one point, Boulee asked whether giving out filet mignon to voters would go too far, a point that an attorney for the plaintiffs agreed with. Distributing steaks would send a different message to voters than giving them pretzels and peanuts, said the attorney, Davin Rosborough.
The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction that would invalidate the restrictions on handing out food and drinks during this November’s elections. Boulee could rule in the coming weeks.
Boulee has already ruled on other parts of Georgia’s voting law in advance of this year’s elections.
Boulee, who was appointed to the court by then-President Donald Trump, has upheld the law’s limits on advocacy organizations’ mass mailings of absentee ballot application forms to voters and a requirement that voters request absentee ballots at least 11 days before election day. He ruled against another provision of the law that would have prohibited photographing or recording ballots outside of polling places, including during vote counts, recounts and audits.
Several lawsuits challenging the voting law are ongoing, including its limits on ballot drop boxes, requirements for additional ID to vote absentee and a process for state takeovers of county election boards.
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