Challenge to Georgia election system faces first court test
ATLANTA (AP) — A sweeping lawsuit challenging the way Georgia elections are run is being put to an initial test as a federal judge considers a request by state election officials to toss it out.
The lawsuit was filed weeks after Republican Brian Kemp narrowly beat Democrat Stacey Abrams in a governor’s race that focused national scrutiny on Georgia’s outdated voting machines and on allegations of voter suppression by Kemp, who was the state’s top election official during the race.
Kemp has adamantly denied allegations of wrongdoing. He signed legislation earlier this month that includes specifications for a new voting system , which the current secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, says he’ll implement in time for the 2020 election cycle.
The lawsuit accuses the secretary of state and election board members of mismanaging the 2018 election in ways that deprived some citizens, particularly low-income people and minorities, of their constitutional right to vote. It seeks substantial reforms and asks that Georgia be required to get a federal judge’s approval before changing voting rules.
The suit was filed by Fair Fight Action, an organization founded by Abrams, and Care in Action Georgia, a nonprofit that advocates for domestic workers. Several churches, including Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the spiritual home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., joined the suit in February.
They allege that November’s vote was marred by problems including long waits at polling places, absentee ballots that weren’t received or weren’t counted, missing or erroneous voter registration records, malfunctioning voting machines and poorly trained poll workers.
Lawyers for the state argue that allegations of “unrelated actions by mostly local officials” don’t amount to constitutional violations requiring judicial intervention and that the legislature, not the courts, should set election law.
U.S. District Judge Steve Jones on Monday heard arguments on a motion from state election officials to dismiss the lawsuit. He gave the parties a week to submit additional briefs before he rules.
Lawyers for the state argue the organizations base their arguments on speculation and haven’t demonstrated any concrete harm.
The organizations, which say they have a shared goal of “protecting Georgians’ right to vote,” have argued in court filings that election officials’ wrongdoing “will require them to spend additional resources on activities such as educating and assisting voters to avoid the voter suppression and disenfranchisement” alleged in the lawsuit.
But that simply amounts to the organizations carrying out their declared missions, and that’s not enough to establish standing to sue, said lawyer Bryan Tyson, who represents the state officials.
“There’s got to be more than just a setback to their abstract social interests,” Tyson said.
State lawyers also argued that the new voting system legislation Kemp signed addresses some of the alleged problems and, therefore, makes parts of the lawsuit irrelevant. The law authorizes the purchase of ballot-marking machines that print a paper ballot, tweaks some voter eligibility verification and voter roll maintenance practices and clarifies rules for closing or moving polling places.
But the organizations argue the legislation doesn’t go far enough to eliminate registration and voting roll issues, adequately protect against polling place closure or ensure that election workers are sufficiently trained.
The judge asked both sides about the voting machines provided for in the new law.
Lawyer Josh Belinfante, representing the state officials, said it’s too early to discuss that because the state hasn’t even selected a specific model yet. Beth Tanis, a lawyer for the organizations, said machines that meet the law’s specifications can’t be audited and don’t provide the necessary security.
Belinfante argued that any concerns need to be taken up with local officials who actually run elections. State officials train the county registrars and superintendents, but they don’t train poll workers, decide where polling places should be or handle the actual administration of elections, he said.
Tanis displayed excerpts from federal court opinions, a state attorney general opinion and a section of the secretary of state’s website, which said the secretary of state has the power and duty to oversee elections and enforce the state election code.
“He not only controls, he has the responsibility to control what those county officials are doing,” Tanis said.
This case is most sweeping of several challenges to Georgia’s elections system. U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg is presiding over a separate lawsuit that specifically challenges the state’s voting machines.