Credit: Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder
Georgia’s controversial 2021 voting law overhaul survives preliminary legal challenge
A Georgia federal court judge declined this week to temporarily block the state’s controversial election rules, which several voting rights and civil rights organizations claim will disenfranchise Black voters throughout the 2024 election.
U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee on Wednesday ruled that U.S. Department of Justice and voting rights groups were unable to support their claims that Republican lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Black voters in 2021 by signing into law new ID requirements for mail-in voting, adding restrictions on absentee drop boxes, shortening the deadline to request absentee ballots and ramping up criminal penalties for passing out refreshments to voters standing in line.
Boulee wrote in a 62-page ruling that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses and other evidence did not warrant a court-ordered injunction.
“This court cannot find that plaintiffs have presented enough evidence to show that the Legislature foresaw or knew that SB 202 would have a disparate impact on minority voters,” he wrote.
Barring an imminent reversal of Boulee’s court ruling, the rules state lawmakers created in the sprawling 2021 election legislation will remain in effect for the 2024 election cycle.
The plaintiffs in Kemp v. Sixth District of the American Methodist Episcopal Church are Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Georgia Muslim Voter Project, Georgia Advocacy Office, which works on behalf of people dealing with disabilities, and several other organizations. They allege that Republican state officials crafted rules intended to make it harder for Black voters, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups to cast their ballots.
The motions seeking a temporary injunction were filed on the plaintiffs’ behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Justice Department, American Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Defense Fund.
The case is a consolidation of several election lawsuits filed in the aftermath of Georgia Republican lawmakers passing the omnibus SB 202 in March 2021. Following the contentious 2020 presidential election, several unsuccessful legal challenges were filed by Donald Trump supporters alleging widespread fraud, with claims ranging from illegal ballot stuffing to rigged electronic voting machines as the reasons for Democratic nominee Joe Biden winning by nearly 12,000 votes in Georgia.
The coalition of plaintiffs contend that the state’s restrictions on absentee ballots, so-called line warming and provisional ballots are a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which protects voters from discrimination on the basis of their race and color.
Alaizah Koorji, assistant counsel at the Legal Defense Fund, said in response to Boulee’s decision that Black voters will continue to face obstacles because of provisions “designed to dilute Black political power.”
“This was a preliminary decision by the court, and we will remain steadfast in challenging voter suppression to ensure Georgia’s voting laws comply with the Voting Rights Act and U.S. Constitution,” Koorji said.
Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the court’s denial of the preliminary injunction indicates that the DOJ is unlikely to prove in court that the new election 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 requests will prevent more Georgians from not receiving their ballots until after Election Day, he said.
“The court confirmed what we’ve been saying all along,” he said. “SB 202 strengthens election integrity while increasing the opportunity for Georgia voters to cast a ballot.”
New rules put in place after 2020 election
With the 2020 election cycle coinciding with pandemic public health emergency, state election officials approved an emergency rule making absentee ballot drop boxes available to voters.
At the time, local election officials were able to determine on their own authority how many drop boxes could be accessed around the clock as long as they were kept in secure containers and monitored by video surveillance.
The 2021 election law overhaul requires each county to provide at least one drop box for elections, but it also limits the maximum number of boxes and restricts access to indoors and during early voting hours.
SB 202 replaced the signature verification process on absentee ballots with a requirement that voters provide their driver’s license or other state ID number. The law also shortened the window to request the absentee ballots from the Friday before Election Day to a cutoff at 11 days prior.
The plaintiffs allege the practice of volunteers passing out food and water to voters caught the attention of Republicans after it became a popular way of voter engagement in Black communities during the 2018 and 2020 elections.
Republicans sought to impose restrictions on absentee ballots following a sharp rise in the 2018 and 2020 elections by Black voters casting absentee ballots, the plaintiffs allege in their complaint.
During a Sept. 26 Atlanta federal court hearing, Augusta Democratic Sen. Harold Jones testified about a rushed 2021 legislative session in which nearly 50 election bills culminated with a 90-plus page SB 202 being presented with only five days left to pass legislation.
In Wednesday’s court order, Boulee references the late Republican House Speaker David Ralston’s warning in 2020 that sending absentee ballot applications to every registered voter would be harmful to conservative’s chances.
Boulee also wrote that Democratic lawmakers were in favor of several provisions in SB 202 that required more election staff and voting equipment be made available if a line builds up at a polling place. Hours-long lines at multiple Georgia polling places caused voters at many precincts to wait well beyond the 7 p.m. standard closing time to cast a ballot.
“The court is not convinced that plaintiffs have shown that the Legislature failed to consider alternatives that would lessen any potentially discriminatory impact,” the judge said. “Indeed, the evidence before the court suggests, at least in regard to other portions of SB 202, that alternatives were considered and even implemented.”
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.