Georgia’s controversial 2021 voting reform survives preliminary legal challenge

A federal judge in Georgia this week declined to temporarily block the state’s controversial voting rules that several voting rights and civil rights organizations say will disenfranchise Black voters during the 2024 election.

U.S. District Judge JP Boulee ruled Wednesday that the U.S. Justice Department and voting rights groups failed to support their claims that Republican lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Black voters in 2021 by enacting new ID requirements for mail-in voting and imposing restrictions on absentee voting Shorten drop boxes, shorten the deadline for requesting mail-in ballots and increase criminal penalties for handing out refreshments to voters waiting in line.

Boulee wrote in a 62-page ruling that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses and other evidence did not warrant a court order.

“This court cannot find that plaintiffs have presented sufficient evidence that the Legislature foresaw or knew that SB 202 would have a disparate impact on minority voters,” he wrote.

Barring an imminent overturn of Boulee’s court ruling, the rules state lawmakers created in the sweeping 2021 election legislation will remain in effect for the 2024 election cycle.

The plaintiffs in Kemp v. Sixth Circuit of the American Methodist Episcopal Church are Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the Georgia Muslim Voter Project, the Georgia Advocacy Office, which advocates for people with disabilities, and several other organizations. They allege that Republican state officials crafted rules designed to make it harder for Black voters, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups to cast their ballots.

The motions for a preliminary injunction were filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Department of Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Defense Fund.

The case is a consolidation of several election lawsuits filed following the passage of omnibus bill SB 202 by Republican lawmakers in Georgia in March 2021. After the disputed 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump supporters filed several unsuccessful lawsuits alleging widespread fraud, with claims ranging from illegal ballot stuffing to rigged electronic voting machines as reasons why Democratic nominee Joe Biden won in Georgia by nearly 12,000 votes.

The plaintiff coalition argues that the state’s restrictions on absentee voting, line warming and provisional ballots violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which protects voters from discrimination based on their race and color.

Alaizah Koorji, associate counsel at the Legal Defense Fund, said in response to Boulee’s decision that Black voters will continue to face obstacles due to provisions “aimed at weakening Black political power.”

“This was an interim decision by the court, and we will continue to steadfastly challenge voter suppression to ensure that Georgia’s election laws comply with the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution,” Koorji said.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the court’s rejection of the injunction shows that the DOJ is unlikely to prove in court that the new voting law is discriminatory.

Raffensperger has promoted the new ID requirements as an objective way to make elections more secure. And the earlier deadline for absentee ballot applications will prevent more Georgians from receiving their ballots until after Election Day, he said.

“The court has confirmed what we have said all along,” he said. “SB 202 strengthens election integrity while increasing opportunities for Georgia voters to cast their ballot.”

New rules were introduced after the 2020 election

Because the 2020 election cycle coincided with a pandemic public health emergency, state election officials adopted an emergency rule making absentee ballot drop boxes available to voters.

At that time, local poll workers were able to determine on their own responsibility how many mailboxes were accessible 24 hours a day, as long as they were kept in secure containers and monitored via video surveillance.

The 2021 election law revision requires each county to provide at least one drop box for voting, but also limits the maximum number of drop boxes and restricts access indoors and during early voting hours.

Atlantans Diane Latham (l) and Holly Frew handed out water bottles and snacks to voters during the 2020 early primary election in Fulton County’s College Park Library District. This type of line-warming activity is no longer allowed after a federal judge upheld a provision of Georgia’s 2021 election reform. John McCosh/Georgia recorder

SB 202 replaced the signature verification process on mail-in ballots with a requirement that voters provide their driver’s license or other state ID number. The law also shortened the time frame for requesting absentee ballots from the Friday before Election Day to a deadline of 11 days before.

The plaintiffs allege that the practice of volunteers handing out food and water to voters caught the attention of Republicans after it became a popular form of voter participation in Black communities during the 2018 and 2020 elections.

Republicans sought to restrict mail-in voting after a sharp increase in mail-in voting among Black voters in the 2018 and 2020 elections, the plaintiffs allege in their lawsuit.

During a federal court hearing in Atlanta on Sept. 26, Augusta Democratic Sen. Harold Jones testified about a rushed 2021 legislative session that featured nearly 50 election bills culminating in the submission of a 90-plus page SB 202 with just five days left There was time left for the law to be passed.

In Wednesday’s court order, Boulee references late Republican House Speaker David Ralston’s 2020 warning that sending absentee ballot applications to every registered voter would harm conservatives’ chances.

Boulee also wrote that Democratic lawmakers supported several provisions in SB 202 that would require more poll workers and voting equipment to be deployed if a line formed at a polling place. Hours-long lines at several polling stations in Georgia meant voters in many counties had to wait well past the usual closing time of 7 p.m. to cast their ballots.

“The court is not convinced that plaintiffs have demonstrated that the legislature failed to consider alternatives that would mitigate potentially discriminatory effects,” the judge said. “Indeed, at least with respect to other parts of SB 202, the evidence before the court suggests that alternatives were considered and even implemented.”