Judge considers suppression claims in broad Georgia voting rights suit

Voters line up to cast ballots Jan. 5 at the Park Tavern located at 500 10th St N.E. in Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Voters line up to cast ballots Jan. 5 at the Park Tavern located at 500 10th St N.E. in Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

So much has changed in Georgia over the past two years, including new voting laws and the election of Democratic U.S. senators, that a federal judge should reject a lawsuit alleging rampant voter suppression, attorneys for the state said Tuesday.

The lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Steve Jones to rule in their favor in the case that has been pending since Democrat Stacey Abrams lost the 2018 election for governor to Republican Brian Kemp.

But attorneys for Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group founded by Abrams that filed the suit, told Jones that Georgia’s elections continue to disenfranchise voters through voter registration cancellations, absentee ballot rejections, long lines and poll closures.

Jones didn’t immediately decide Tuesday on the state’s motion for summary judgment, a key step before a potential trial. He questioned whether he has the authority to consider anything beyond the secretary of state’s voter registration cancellation practices because county governments handle most election functions.

Josh Belinfante, an attorney for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, said voter suppression allegations are just as unsubstantiated as fraud claims pushed by President Donald Trump.

“Whether we are looking for the ghost of intentional racial discrimination or the ghost of voter fraud, it doesn’t materialize,” Belinfante said. “The evidence is not there based on how elections are run in Georgia now.”

Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said many Georgia voters, especially Black voters, faced the same voting obstacles as they did in 2018.

Voters had to deal with rejected absentee ballots, long lines in the 2020 primary and the cancellation of 287,000 registrations in late 2019, many of them through the state’s “use it or lose it” law that purges voters if they don’t participate in elections for several years, she said.

“Voting should not be a test of how much you’re able to sacrifice and how much you can endure to make your voice heard,” Lawrence-Hardy said. “None of these policies and practices have meaningfully changed since then and now.”

After the 2018 election, the Georgia General Assembly passed election laws in response to concerns about voting rights and access.

The laws lengthened the time before inactive voter registrations could be canceled, ended an “exact match” policy that kept voter registrations pending when there were minor discrepancies in voters’ names, and required new voting machines that print out paper ballots.

In addition, lawmakers simplified absentee ballot envelopes and gave voters until three days after an election to correct problems with their absentee ballots.

Much of the court argument Tuesday, conducted online via Zoom, focused on whether Raffensperger’s office is responsible for elections problems.

The secretary of state’s office provides Georgia’s voting equipment and trains election supervisors, while county election officials are in charge of processing voter registration applications and absentee ballots.

“This is a top-down system. The secretary of state bears responsibility for this,” said Ishan Bhabha, an attorney for Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the senior pastor is U.S. Sen.-elect Raphael Warnock. “It is on the secretary of state, and when it breaks they point to the counties, and when it works, they point to themselves.”

Attorneys for state election officials said the 2018 election is long over, election laws have changed since then and turnout reached record levels in Georgia’s presidential election and runoffs.

“Where is the evidence that shows that the problems continued in the changed environment that exists today?” asked Bryan Tyson, who represents the secretary of state’s office.

Jones will weigh whether the case is moot and whether the secretary of state’s office can be held responsible for the plaintiff’s claims about implementation of Georgia laws or election practices. He could rule in several days.

In Other News