Voting rights trial opens with disputes over Georgia election hurdles

Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, an attorney for Fair Fight Action, speaks outside the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in Atlanta, GA., on Monday, April 11, 2022. Today marked the first day of the long awaited Fair Fight Action v. Raffensperger trial. (Photo/Jenn Finch)

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Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, an attorney for Fair Fight Action, speaks outside the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in Atlanta, GA., on Monday, April 11, 2022. Today marked the first day of the long awaited Fair Fight Action v. Raffensperger trial. (Photo/Jenn Finch)

Opening statements focus on whether Georgia burdens voters

A major voting rights trial launched Monday with allegations that Georgia has erected “a series of roadblocks” to casting a ballot, and a response that the case attempts “a wholesale attack” on the state’s election system.

Opening statements by each side marked a stark contrast in the federal trial, where a judge will hear testimony over the next month to determine if Georgia’s elections procedures illegally burden eligible voters.

It’s the first voting rights case to make it to trial in Atlanta’s federal courts in at least a decade, the culmination of a lawsuit filed by allies of Democrat Stacey Abrams after her close loss to Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 race for governor.

As the trial begins 3 1/2 years later, Abrams and Kemp are again running for governor, but a decision in the case isn’t expected until after Georgia’s May 24 primary.

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Voters cast ballots at Park Tavern in the runoff election for Atlanta mayor on Tuesday, November 30, 2021. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Voters cast ballots at Park Tavern in the runoff election for Atlanta mayor on Tuesday, November 30, 2021. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Voters cast ballots at Park Tavern in the runoff election for Atlanta mayor on Tuesday, November 30, 2021. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

“Through no fault of their own, eligible voters in Georgia face roadblock after roadblock as they try to exercise their right to vote, as we witnessed in 2018 and have continued to witness over the years since,” said Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, the lead attorney for plaintiffs including the voting group Fair Fight Action. “It just shouldn’t be this hard to cast a vote that counts in Georgia.”

The lawsuit is opposing “exact match” rules for verifying voter registration information, inaccurate voter registration records and inconsistent absentee ballot cancellation practices.

Defenders of Georgia’s elections told the judge that the case is a politically motivated effort whose claims won’t stand up to legal scrutiny.

“You’re going to hear from very few people who actually could not vote,” said Josh Belinfante, an attorney representing Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and the State Election Board. “You will not hear about systemic incompetence by election officials.”

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones threw out much of the case last year, ruling against challenges of long lines, inadequate poll worker training, ballot rejections and the state’s “use it or lose it” policy of canceling outdated registrations.

But substantial parts of the case remain to be decided, especially those contesting “exact match” procedures that disproportionately affected Black voters.

Under “exact match,” potential voters are required to verify their ID if there’s a mismatch with a name spelling, sometimes because of a transposed letter, missing hyphen or apostrophe. Before the 2018 election, about 70% of nearly 47,000 voter registrations flagged by “exact match” were from Black residents.

Attorneys for the state said there’s no burden on mismatched voters because they can cast ballots if they show the same types of photo ID that’s already required of all voters for in-person voting.

The lawsuit also opposes Georgia’s citizenship verification requirements when new U.S. citizens attempt to register to vote for the first time. If their information hasn’t yet been updated in driver’s license databases, they are required to provide documentation proving their citizenship.

In addition, the case accuses the secretary of state’s office of failing to adequately train local election officials in how to cancel absentee ballots of voters who 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.

Further, the lawsuit targets mistakes made by local election officials when entering or deleting voter registration information, creating problems for those voters.

“Those human errors are not part of some plot to disenfranchise,” Belinfante said.

The first witness for the plaintiffs, Jessica Livoti of the domestic worker organization Care in Action, said Georgia’s voting policies make casting a ballot difficult for those flagged by registration errors.

“It’s scary, it’s hard, and they don’t know how to navigate it,” said Livoti, a board member for the group.

As the courtroom drama played out down the street, Raffensperger held a news conference at the state Capitol announcing an effort to ask law enforcement officials to investigate people who may not have been U.S. citizens when they tried to register to vote.

Raffensperger, a Republican seeking reelection, said a review identified 1,634 possible noncitizens who attempted to register to vote, though citizenship checks prevented them from actually casting a ballot.

During the trial, dozens of voters, preachers, election officials and experts plan to testify, and then Jones will consider how to rule. The plaintiffs in the case allege Georgia officials violated voting rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racially discriminatory voting laws.

Several church leaders who are also plaintiffs in the case watched from the courtroom audience as the trial got underway.

“I’m glad we have some preachers here because I’m going to need some prayer by the time this is over,” the judge said.