Georgia voting rights trial to begin after years of heated elections

Lauren Groh-Wargo speaks to members of the press outside the Richard B. Russell Building in Atlanta as Fair Fight Action filed a federal voting rights lawsuit in November 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Lauren Groh-Wargo speaks to members of the press outside the Richard B. Russell Building in Atlanta as Fair Fight Action filed a federal voting rights lawsuit in November 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Judge will decide case filed by Fair Fight following 2018 race

One of the most prominent voting rights cases in years is going to trial Monday, testing allegations that Georgia’s election policies illegally obstructed voters from casting their ballots.

The long-awaited trial will highlight complaints about voting problems in the 2018 and 2020 elections, bringing a parade of voters and election officials to federal court to testify under oath about their experiences.

The case has been building for 3 1/2 years since it was filed by Fair Fight Action, a group Democrat Stacey Abrams founded following her loss to Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 election for governor. Now it will be decided by a judge as both candidates are running again.

The lawsuit targets Georgia’s “exact match” voter registration rules and inconsistent absentee ballot cancellation practices, which the plaintiffs say created difficulties that disproportionately affected Black voters.

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Voters surge to the voting machines first thing in the morning at Park Tavern in Atlanta on Nov. 2, 2021. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Voters surge to the voting machines first thing in the morning at Park Tavern in Atlanta on Nov. 2, 2021. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Voters surge to the voting machines first thing in the morning at Park Tavern in Atlanta on Nov. 2, 2021. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The defendants in the case — Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and state election officials — say they’ve already defeated many of the claims in earlier court rulings, leaving a narrow and flimsy case.

Voting rights advocates such as Shavonne Williams, a minister from the Augusta area, said a victory in the case would prove that Georgia created illegal obstacles that inhibited fair and representative elections.

“It would be a huge moment for voting rights if the court does the right thing,” said Williams of the group Faith in Public Life. “You can’t have true representation if everybody isn’t allowed to vote. Of course there’s barriers to voting in Georgia.”

But Georgia election officials will contend that voting procedures follow the law and provide easy access, even for those who are required to take additional steps to verify their identities or wait for poll workers to issue them a ballot.

Jason Torchinsky, a Washington-based Republican election attorney, said the lawsuit has already fallen short of its ambitions of exposing widespread voting problems. Since a judge threw out much of the case last year, he said its remaining parts take aim at reasonable requirements that affected relatively few voters.

“There aren’t the hundreds of thousands of so-called disenfranchised folks that they initially alleged,” Torchinsky said. “You sort of shake your head at the Trumpian nature of some of the initial allegations compared to what is actually left to go to trial.”

The trial could last about a month and feature dozens of witnesses, including dismayed voters, election officials and preachers. Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is expected to testify by video.

The case targets four voting procedures in Georgia:

  • “Exact match” voter registration rules that require ID verification if there’s a mismatch with a name spelling, sometimes because of a transposed letter, missing hyphen or apostrophe. Those registrants can cast a ballot after they provide identification. Before the 2018 election, nearly 47,000 voter registrations were put in “pending” status, about 70% of which were from Black residents.
  • Citizenship verification requirements that hold up the registrations of new U.S. citizens whose information hasn’t been updated in driver’s license databases. Those potential voters can cast a ballot if they provide documentation proving their citizenship.
  • Inconsistent absentee ballot cancellation practices when voters chose to instead vote in person, resulting in voters being refused a ballot, told to cast a provisional ballot or sent to the main county election office.
  • Voter registration errors when county election offices incorrectly typed information or removed registrations.

Raffensperger, Georgia’s top elections official, said the lawsuit is frivolous.

“Almost all of Abrams’ claims have already been dismissed, and the remaining ones are nowhere close to what she alleged in her nonconcession speech” after the 2018 election, Raffensperger said. “Her three-year ‘stolen election’ campaign has been nothing more than a political stunt to keep her in the national spotlight, and it’s a disservice to voters.”

When opening arguments begin Monday, it will be the first voting rights case to go to trial in Atlanta’s federal court in at least a decade.

Fair Fight plans to call voters as witnesses to tell their stories about how Georgia’s voting regulations either prevented them from voting or made it more difficult to do so.

“We have highlighted real voters and their challenges because we believe that is one of the most effective ways to demonstrate the barriers in Georgia’s elections system,” said Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director for Fair Fight Action. “We will continue to amplify the voices of voters at trial, when Georgians from across the state will testify about the obstacles they faced trying to exercise their fundamental right to vote.”

The case will be decided by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones in a bench trial, meaning there will be no jury.

Jones dismissed many of Fair Fight’s claims last year, ruling against challenges to registration cancellations, too few voting machines, inadequate poll worker training and ballot rejections. Before that ruling, court proceedings in 2019 resulted in the reinstatement of 22,000 inactive voter registrations out of 300,000 registrations that had been removed from the rolls.

During the trial, Fair Fight will attempt to prove that Georgia officials violated voting rights that are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s protections of free speech, equal protection and nondiscrimination in elections. The case also alleges violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racially discriminatory voting laws.

But attorneys for the state have said the case is meritless.

They wrote in court documents that alleged voting problems are limited in scope and don’t create any unconstitutional burdens on the ability to cast a ballot. They also contend that voter registration verification is mandated by federal law, and there’s no evidence of discriminatory intent in how Georgia applied that law.

If Jones rules in Fair Fight’s favor, he could order election officials to change how they administer elections. Any decision could be appealed, and Raffensperger said he would fight the case at the U.S. Supreme Court if he loses.