Abrams-backed lawsuit ahead of Georgia election goes to court

ATLANTA (AP) — A lawyer representing critics of Georgia’s electoral system said state officials have erected “a series of roadblocks” to voting through their policies and practices. A prosecutor countered that the critics were trying to prove to the state that “democracy had failed” but lacked the evidence.

The statements came Monday as a court case began in a federal lawsuit originally calling for a major overhaul of Georgia’s electoral system. The scope of the lawsuit was narrowed significantly as some allegations were addressed by changes in state law and others were dismissed by the court. The lawsuit was filed in 2018 by Fair Fight Action, an organization founded by voting rights activist and Democratic nominee for Georgia governor Stacey Abrams, just weeks after Abrams narrowly lost her first run for governor.

The bank trial – meaning there will be no jury – will be presided over by US District Judge Steve Jones and is expected to last four or five weeks. Jones said he doesn’t expect to govern before the May 24 state primary.

In her opening remarks, Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, an attorney for Fair Fight and the other plaintiffs, conjured up the image of US Rep. John Lewis marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to campaign for the right to vote in 1965 battle. The congressman, who died in July 2020, had planned to be the plaintiffs’ first witness at the trial, Lawrence-Hardy said.

“Voting is also a bridge. It’s the most fundamental path to democracy,” she said. Because of the actions of state election officials, she said, “Georgia eligible voters are facing roadblock after roadblock as they try to make that journey.”

The secretary of state and state election committee have made it difficult for Georgians to register to vote, stay registered and cast a vote that counts, she said.

When Abrams ended her bid for governor in 2018, she said that under the watch of her victorious Republican opponent, former Secretary of State Brian Kemp, “democracy in Georgia had failed.” That’s a hypothesis Fair Fight and its allies have been trying to prove ever since, prosecutor Josh Belinfante said.

State officials take any claims of disenfranchisement or encroachment on voting rights very seriously, Belinfante said. The plaintiffs fail to prove their hypothesis in part because they overlook “the hard work of everyday Georgians,” the poll workers who toil under difficult conditions and “just want to do things right,” he said.

The lawsuit first said that state election officials “grossly mismanaged” the 2018 election in a way that disenfranchised some citizens, particularly low-income people and people of color. The issues remaining for the process have to do with the state’s “exact match” policy, the statewide voter registration list, and the in-person cancellation of absentee ballots. The plaintiffs allege violations of the US Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As part of the Exact Match policy, information from voter registration applications is compared to information held by the State Department of Driver Services. The “flawed matching methods” used by the state inevitably produced flawed results, Lawrence-Hardy said. Critics of “exact match” have long said that data entry errors or differences as minor as a missing hyphen can trigger a mismatch, and that naturalized citizens can also be falsely flagged when records are out of date. The issues are disproportionately affecting people of color, naturalized citizens and residents of certain counties, Lawrence-Hardy said.

Evidence will show that 98% of Georgians had no problem with politics and the other 2% can vote upon presentation of a photo ID, which every voter must do, Belinfante said. The exact match policy has also become “less stringent” due to litigation and a 2019 law, he said.

Lawrence-Hardy also claimed that the nationwide voter registration database was riddled with errors, and government efforts to purge voter rolls of ineligible voters too often resulted in voters’ registrations being erroneously deleted or critical information being incorrect. Belinfante acknowledged some unfortunate mistakes but said there was no evidence the state was intentionally disenfranchising voters.

Plaintiffs’ counsel argued that counties have different procedures for overturning a mail-in ballot when someone votes in person instead, putting some voters under unnecessary strain. State officials are aware of these issues, which can result in voters being turned away or forced to cast a provisional ballot, she said.

Belinfante said a 2019 law clarified the process for canceling a postal vote at a polling station and manuals for poll workers have been updated.

Lawrence-Hardy told the judge that as the trial progressed, he would be hearing from people who had voting problems, as well as experts who have researched voting in Georgia.

Belinfante said the judge will hear from very few people who failed to vote in 2018 and even fewer who struggled in 2020. Election officials will testify about ongoing measures to ensure the integrity of the state’s voting system and improve the voter experience, he said.

Fair Fight filed the lawsuit along with Care in Action, a non-profit organization that advocates for domestic workers. Several churches have also joined as plaintiffs.