Georgia seeks dismissal of Fair Fight voting rights case

Josh Belinfante, an attorney for for the state, moved Thursday to throw out a federal voting rights case challenging Georgia’s “exact match” voter registration policy and absentee ballot cancellation practices. Belinfante is pictured during arguments in a 2019 case before the Georgia Supreme Court. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Josh Belinfante, an attorney for for the state, moved Thursday to throw out a federal voting rights case challenging Georgia’s “exact match” voter registration policy and absentee ballot cancellation practices. Belinfante is pictured during arguments in a 2019 case before the Georgia Supreme Court. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Defense says testimony hasn’t proved voting violations

Voting rights groups failed to prove in court that Georgia’s election policies disenfranchise voters, an attorney for the state told a federal judge Thursday, asking him to dismiss the case one month into a trial.

The move to throw out the voting rights case was the first opportunity for the defense to counter testimony against Georgia’s “exact match” voter registration policy, absentee ballot cancellation practices and registration errors.

The trial is the culmination of 3 1/2 years of litigation since allies of Democrat Stacey Abrams, led by the voting group Fair Fight Action, sued the state after her loss to Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 election for governor.

Josh Belinfante, an attorney for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, said the trial showed minor problems facing voters — but not significant voting hurdles that would require court intervention to change election procedures.

“What we have are ordinary and widespread burdens that are not significant,” Belinfante told U.S. District Judge Steve Jones in a motion for a directed verdict. “Waiting in line for 30 minutes isn’t a burden that justifies court review.”

At one point, Belinfante argued that the role of the courts isn’t to guarantee a flawless election.

“True,” Jones responded. He plans to rule Monday on whether to dismiss some or all of the plaintiffs’ claims.

ExploreVoting rights trial opens with disputes over Georgia election hurdles

Lawyers for voting organizations responded that they had demonstrated systemic inaccuracies that hinder the registrations of new U.S. citizens and require ID verification for minor inconsistencies, such as names that include hyphens or apostrophes.

Under Georgia’s “exact match” rules, the registrations of about 47,000 potential Georgia voters were flagged in the state’s voting system as needing ID verification as of last year. The plaintiffs say the policy is racially discriminatory because nearly 70% of the voters affected by “exact match” were Black.

“You cannot simply cite the prospect of fraud to justify policies that put a burden on voters,” said Ishan Bhabha, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “It is the secretary’s responsibility to have safeguards that protect voters.”

During the trial so far, the plaintiffs presented testimony from 25 voters, along with 22 other witnesses including poll watchers, church leaders, expert witnesses and election officials.

Some naturalized U.S. citizens testified that election officials hassled them for documents proving their eligibility because their registration records hadn’t been updated. Other voters said they had to jump through hoops to vote in person after they didn’t receive absentee ballots they had requested.

One voter, Andre Smith, lost his registration twice because election officials incorrectly identified him as a felon. The state’s name-matching procedures confused him with a different person who had the same name.

But Belinfante said voting problems were isolated, and no voters testified that they were unable to cast ballots because of name spelling issues in the 2020 election.

“They tried to find people, but they actually can’t find anyone who had an issue in the election,” Belinfante said. “It is quite small and not a constitutional violation ... much less any intentional act of discrimination.”

Unless Jones dismisses the case entirely when he rules Monday, the trial will continue afterward with the start of the defense’s case. If it’s not thrown out, a final verdict is expected this summer, after Georgia’s primary election.

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