Judge strikes down part of Georgia voting law that banned photography

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

A federal judge ruled against a broad ban on photographing voted ballots Friday, throwing out a part of Georgia’s new election law while allowing the rest of it to stand.

The decision is the first time a judge has invalidated a section of the 98-page voting law, which also limits ballot drop boxes, requires more ID to vote absentee and allows the state government to take over county elections.

U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee rejected the law’s sweeping prohibition of photographing or recording any filled-out ballot, finding that such far-reaching restrictions violate freedom of speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Boulee upheld other parts of the law fought in the lawsuit, including a requirement that voters request absentee ballots at least 11 days before election day and a prohibition on election observers communicating information to anyone other than election officials.

“The court recognizes that a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy that should be granted sparingly, especially when it enjoins enforcement of a statute, but finds it is appropriate here given the constitutional rights at stake and plaintiffs’ satisfaction of the requisite burden,” Boulee wrote in a 39-page order.

Boulee’s decision came in a lawsuit filed by the Coalition for Good Governance, an election security organization that contested Georgia’s voting law, Senate Bill 202, before this fall’s upcoming municipal elections.

Seven other lawsuits opposing the law, including a case by the U.S. Department of Justice, are also pending.

ExploreHow Georgia’s voting law works

The restriction on photography would have prohibited election observers, journalists and the public from recording an image of a ballot at any point in the voting process.

The ruling allows photographing ballots while they’re being counted, recounted or audited.

It remains illegal to photograph completed ballots in polling places while voting is underway, according to a separate Georgia law.

Attorneys for the state failed to justify a “blanket prohibition” on photography, even if those limitations helped preserve ballot secrecy and prevent fraud in some circumstances, Boulee wrote.

“The court’s striking of the photography ban was an important first step in demonstrating that SB 202 is an overreach by lawmakers who prefer ballots to be counted behind closed doors, blocking the important oversight of the press and public,” said Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the lead defendant in the case, said he’s confident that the bulk of Georgia’s voting law will withstand court scrutiny.

“This decision is a clear victory for Georgia voters and an acknowledgement that the critical safeguards put into place after last year’s election are reasonable and do nothing to make voting harder,” Raffensperger said.

The judge sustained several other requirements of the voting law, including earlier deadlines for absentee ballot applications, restrictions on election observer communications, a prohibition on intentionally observing a voter casting a ballot and a ban on observers estimating the number of absentee ballots cast.

The ruling also preserved the law’s prohibition on taking pictures of voting machine screens while votes are displayed, saying the law could protect ballot secrecy and prevent vote payment schemes.

“After careful scrutiny, the federal court upheld the key provisions of SB 202 that expand access to early voting and improve security of our election process. Great day for Georgia!” House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, wrote on Twitter.

Boulee’s ruling prevents the government from enforcing photography restrictions because the plaintiffs showed a substantial likelihood they will ultimately prevail, and they would suffer irreparable injury in upcoming elections unless he intervened.

The underlying lawsuit by the Coalition for Good Governance also challenges the ability of the State Election Board to replace county elections management, a process the board started Wednesday when it launched a performance review of Fulton County’s elections. Boulee hasn’t ruled on the takeover provisions of the voting law.

Boulee’s decision Friday was the second time he has issued a ruling. He had previously upheld contested parts of the voting law as early voting was underway for special elections held in July.