Abrams-backed election lawsuit goes to court in Georgia

ATLANTA (AP) — As she completed her first run for Georgia governor in 2018, Stacey Abrams announced plans to sue over the way the state election was conducted. More than three years later, when she makes another attempt at the governor’s mansion, the lawsuit is brought to trial.

Abrams’ November 2018 lawsuit, filed by Fair Fight Action, alleged that state officials “grossly mismanaged” the election by disenfranchising some citizens, particularly those on low incomes and people of color. The lawsuit originally called for a major overhaul of the state’s elections, but its scope was severely narrowed after the state made changes that addressed some allegations and others were dismissed by the court. The trial is scheduled to begin Monday.

Even if US District Judge Steve Jones sides with the plaintiffs, it’s unclear whether that will affect this year’s election. Jones and other federal judges were reluctant to order last-minute changes, noting that the Supreme Court had repeatedly said federal judges should not change the rules “on the eve of an election.”

In the months leading up to the 2018 election, Democrat Abrams accused her Republican opponent in the gubernatorial race, then Secretary of State Brian Kemp, of using his position as Georgia’s chief election chief to further voter suppression, an accusation Kemp has vehemently denied.

In the more than three years since this fiercely contested contest garnered national attention, attention to Georgia’s elections has only increased. Issues during the 2020 primary drew sharp criticism. Later that year, former President Donald Trump insulted state officials who refused to reverse his narrow loss in the state’s general election. And the nation watched closely in January 2021 as two Democrats removed the state’s two incumbent Republican US Senators.

Scores of GOP-led state lawmakers passed election legislation last year after Trump fueled false claims that widespread fraud led to his 2020 defeat. Georgia’s bill, which Kemp signed into law a year ago, was one of the most comprehensive. Among other things, the state’s action reduced the window for requesting mail-in ballots, stripped the secretary of state of power and severely restricted the use of mail-in ballot boxes in Atlanta’s populous and Democratic-voting metropolitan areas. Constituency groups and US Department of Justice promptly sued; these lawsuits are pending.

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Georgia Republicans passed legislation this year that allows the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to conduct investigations into alleged election misconduct.

Meanwhile, Abrams, a state legislator who was little known outside of Georgia when she ran for office four years ago, has become a household name and star in the Democratic Party. As the only Democrat running for governor, she will face Kemp again in November when he fends off a key challenge from former US Senator David Perdue.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger accused Abrams and her allies of trying to undermine the integrity of Georgia’s elections.

“Her three-year ‘stolen campaign’ was nothing more than a political ploy to keep her in the national spotlight, and it does a disservice to Georgia voters,” he said in an emailed statement.

Fair Fight says it works to advance suffrage and support progressive candidates across the country, and its PAC has raised more than $100 million since its inception. It filed the lawsuit along with Care in Action, a nonprofit organization that advocates for domestic workers. Several churches have also joined as plaintiffs.

Fair Fight collected testimonies from people who said they had trouble voting. The lawsuit cited several alleged problems, including the removal of eligible voters from electoral rolls under a “use it or lose it” policy; the state’s so-called exact match registration rules; an insufficient number of voting machines in some counties; and a lack of adequate training for electoral officials. It asked a federal judge to find that election procedures in Georgia violate the US Constitution and federal law.

“Since the beginning of this lawsuit, we have highlighted real voters and their challenges because we believe it is one of the most effective ways to show the barriers in the Georgian electoral system,” Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director of Fair Fight, said in a per Emailed statement She added that voters from across the state will testify in court about obstacles they face in voting.

Some of the alleged problems have been addressed through changes in state law. For example, a 2019 law called for replacing the state’s outdated voting machines. The new system was rolled out nationwide in 2020.

In February 2021, Jones dismissed portions of the lawsuit, saying some allegations have been rendered irrelevant by changes in state law or the plaintiffs’ lack of standing. Among them were some of the allegations about voting machines and voting technology, as well as the security of voter lists and questions about polling stations. The following month, Jones dismissed claims targeting the “use it or lose it” policy and some allegations of inadequate training for poll workers. He also dismissed some claims related to provisional and postal elections.

The issues remaining for the process have to do with the “exact match” policy, the statewide voter registration list, and the in-person cancellation of absentee ballots. The plaintiffs allege that the Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs and members of the State Electoral Committee “denied and restricted the voting rights of Georgians” in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the US Constitution.

As part of the Exact Match policy, information from voter registration applications is matched with information held by the State Department of Driver Services or the Federal Social Security Administration. If there is a discrepancy, the prospective voter must identify themselves to county officials before they can cast a regular vote.

Plaintiffs say data entry errors or differences as minor as a missing hyphen or apostrophe can trigger a mismatch, and naturalized citizens can also be incorrectly labeled as noncitizens when records are out of date. These issues disproportionately affect people of color and may depend on where a person lives because counties do things differently, the plaintiffs say.

The nationwide voter registration database is “flawed,” the plaintiffs say, resulting in voter registrations being erroneously deleted or key information being incorrect. The plaintiffs say that this could prevent voters from voting or force them to overcome unreasonable burdens.

The plaintiffs also say election officials are not trained enough to annul a postal vote when someone votes in person instead, which can result in voters being turned away or forced to cast a provisional ballot.

State attorneys argue that the claims in the lawsuit “are not supported by any evidence.” The number, geographic scope and severity of the alleged voter problems identified by the plaintiffs “do not rise to a level sufficient to establish an unconstitutional burden on voting in Georgia,” prosecutors wrote in a filing. In addition, they argue that the alleged issues mentioned are not the responsibility of the state officials named in the lawsuit.