Judge in Georgia voting rights trial is asked to change ‘exact match’

Fair Fight finishes its case after calling 47 witnesses

Voting rights groups rested their case Wednesday in a trial challenging Georgia’s election policies, calling for a federal judge to order changes to voter registration and absentee ballot procedures that hindered some voters.

The plaintiffs in the case, led by Fair Fight Action, told the judge that testimony from 47 witnesses over the past month showed that “exact match” registration rules and absentee ballot cancellation practices violate voting laws.

“Without the federal protection of the court, more and more voters will be burdened,” said Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “These voter witnesses are the tip of the iceberg.”

The voting rights trial is nearing a conclusion 3 1/2 years after the lawsuit was filed following Democrat Stacey Abrams’ loss to Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 election for governor. Next, the defense will present its side before the judge rules.

Only at the close of their case Wednesday did the plaintiffs reveal their proposals for how the judge could correct voting problems in Georgia.

“Exact match” registration rules, which require ID verification for minor inconsistencies in a name’s spelling, should be eliminated, Lawrence-Hardy said. All voters must show ID anyway, and she said “exact match” creates an unnecessary burden that has a disproportionate racial impact because 70% of flagged voters are Black.

“The disparity, frankly, is outrageous,” Lawrence-Hardy said.

She said citizenship verification should be improved after an audit by the secretary of state’s office found that 63% of voters flagged as potential noncitizens were actually U.S. citizens. The plaintiffs said registrations should be checked against the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program.

In addition, the plaintiffs are seeking improved training to ensure absentee voters who decide to instead vote in person can cast ballots, and they requested more rigorous methods when identifying potential felons who are ineligible to vote in Georgia.

But the defendants will argue in court Thursday that the plaintiffs haven’t proved their case. They plan to ask U.S. District Judge Steve Jones for a verdict in their favor.

Josh Belinfante, an attorney for the secretary of state’s office, said at the beginning of the trial that plaintiffs wouldn’t succeed in their effort to show that “democracy failed.”

“The evidence will establish, however, that plaintiffs fall short of proving that hypothesis,” Belinfante said during an opening statement last month. “There is no evidence to support the claim of disenfranchisement by Georgia election officials.”

During 15 days of testimony, 25 voters or potential voters testified, along with poll watchers, church leaders, expert witnesses and election officials. The trial also included deposition testimony from Gov. Brian Kemp, who explained his prior concerns about Democrats’ minority voter turnout efforts.

Jones is also considering another issue: whether Georgia’s voting law passed last year violated his previous order from 2018 that absentee ballots couldn’t be rejected because of an incorrect or missing date of birth. He ruled at the time that birth dates alone weren’t a valid criteria for invalidating ballots.

Georgia law changed last year through Senate Bill 202 to restore dates of birth to the information voters must provide on absentee ballot envelopes. Jones said he plans to rule on that topic Friday.