Theater workers challenge Georgia election law’s absentee request deadline

Lawsuit relies on a little-used provision of the Voting Rights Act
A woman opens and and sorts absentee ballots at the DeKalb County Elections Office in Decatur in  January 2021. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A woman opens and and sorts absentee ballots at the DeKalb County Elections Office in Decatur in January 2021. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

A recent lawsuit by TV and theater workers exposes a conflict between Georgia’s new voting law and a federal requirement allowing more time to request absentee ballots.

Georgia’s election law has mostly survived court challenges in the 2 1/2 years since Republican legislators passed limitations on mail-in voting following Donald Trump’s defeat.

But the case by an Atlanta theater workers’ union could succeed where other court claims have fallen short.

The lawsuit attempts to invalidate a part of Georgia’s voting law that set a deadline to request absentee ballots 11 days before election day. Previously, voters could apply for absentee ballots until the Friday before an election.

Under an amendment to the Voting Rights Act passed in 1970, voters who will be absent from their home jurisdictions on election day are entitled to cast absentee ballots in federal elections if they apply for ballots at least seven days ahead of time.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“Georgia’s new absentee ballot deadline violates the Voting Rights Act by drastically reducing the period in which Georgians can apply for an absentee ballot,” said Uzoma Nkwonta, an attorney for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 927. “So many Georgia voters, including the IATSE members we represent, often have to travel around and outside Georgia on short notice. These voters may not know that they will need to vote absentee until shortly before election day.”

Defenders of Georgia’s election law say the earlier deadline protects voters from receiving absentee ballots too late to be mailed out, returned and counted.

Absentee ballots are rejected unless they’re delivered to county election offices by 7 p.m. on election day, according to state law.

“Liberals’ actions seek to disenfranchise the thousands of Georgia voters who depend on the Postal Service to deliver their ballots in time to be counted,” said Mike Hassinger, a spokesman for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. “The deadline for requesting an absentee ballot is in place to ensure that ballots can be sent, marked and returned in time to be counted.”

The IATSE lawsuit is the latest legal attempt to undermine Georgia’s 2021 voting law, which limited the number of ballot drop boxes, added ID requirements for absentee voting, banned handing out food and water to voters waiting in line, and allowed unlimited challenges of voters’ eligibility.

Most other court cases against the voting law, including a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, rely on the Voting Rights Act’s protections against racial discrimination or the U.S. Constitution’s broad requirements of due process and equal protection.

But the IATSE claim is different because it points to a direct contradiction between state and federal deadlines.

“The new cases highlight the untapped potential of voting rights provisions that have rarely been tested in court, despite being on the books for over 50 years,” states an article by Democracy Docket, a liberal website founded by attorney Marc Elias, whose firm represents the IATSE plaintiffs.

Credit: Daniel Varnado

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Credit: Daniel Varnado

Most of Georgia’s voting law has remained intact during preliminary court battles, with a few exceptions.

U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee, an appointee of Republican President Donald Trump, previously blocked criminal penalties for violations of the ban on distributing food and drinks to voters within 25 feet of any voter standing in line, though he upheld the limitation on refreshments within 150 feet of the outer edge of any polling place.

Boulee also prohibited counties from rejecting ballots of voters who didn’t write their correct date of birth on absentee ballot envelopes, and he struck down the law’s broad ban on photographing filled-out ballots outside of polling places, such as during audits and recounts.

Boulee upheld the law’s earlier absentee ballot deadline in a ruling last month that found insufficient evidence to show the law was discriminatory against Black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

The IATSE lawsuit, which relies on a separate part of the Voting Rights Act, has been assigned to a different judge, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg, an appointee of Democratic President Barack Obama who is overseeing an election security lawsuit.

Court cases over Georgia’s voting law, Senate Bill 202, could go to trial next year.