ATLANTA – A wide-ranging lawsuit filed more than two years ago and challenging the way Georgia's elections were run has been pared down by a judge who said this week that claims against the state's “exact match” voter registration requirement can move forward.
When she narrowly lost the governor's race in November 2018, Democrat Stacey Abrams promised to sue over “the gross mismanagement of this election." Fair Fight Action, a group she founded, filed that lawsuit a few weeks later, asserting that mismanagement by state officials had violated the constitutional rights of some citizens — particularly low-income people and people of color — by depriving them of their right to vote.
The judge's ruling Wednesday comes just days after Georgia Republican lawmakers passed sweeping election legislation that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp promptly signed. Critics have said the law will disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color, while supporters have said it’s being misrepresented. U.S. District Judge Steve Jones acknowledged the newly enacted law, but said it is not addressed in his order.
The lawsuit alleged many problems with Georgia's elections system, including the removal of eligible voters from voter rolls under a “use it or lose it" policy; the ”exact match” voter registration rules that require information on voter applications to precisely match state or federal files; an insufficient number of voting machines at some precincts; and a lack of sufficient training for elections officials and poll workers.
After Jones in May 2019 rejected the state's request to dismiss the lawsuit, state election officials filed motions for summary judgment, meaning they asked the judge to rule in their favor based on the facts in the case without going to trial.
Jones issued a 96-page ruling Wednesday on the state's request to reject the merits of the claims in the lawsuit. Jones said the lawsuit's challenge to the “exact match” policy could proceed, along with claims about in-person absentee ballot cancellations. But he dismissed claims targeting the “use it or lose it” rule and some allegations of failing to adequately train poll workers, as well as some provisional ballot and absentee ballot rejection claims.
The “use it or lose it” policy has received significant attention in recent years, with critics saying it results in the cancellation of eligible voters simply because they hadn't voted in recent elections. Jones wrote that it isn't unconstitutionally burdensome, noting that “even canceled voters can re-register to vote” and that the plaintiffs "have not shown that the process is applied differently to any class of voters.”
Jones also declined to rule immediately on the lawsuit's claim that Georgia election processes have denied voters of color an equal opportunity to participate in elections in violation of the Voting Rights Act, saying he wants to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule later this year in an Arizona case that raises similar issues.
Jones had previously thrown out some other parts of the lawsuit in a February order on jurisdictional issues. In that order, he said some claims about the vulnerability of the state's voting machines and election technology, the security of voter lists and polling place issues were rendered irrelevant by changes in state law or the plaintiffs' lack of standing.
The office of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the state's top elections official, said in an emailed statement Thursday that the evidence in the case shows that “allegations of widespread and systemic voter suppression were completely false.”
“We look forward to a full trial on the merits on the handful of remaining claims and to showing that Ms. Abrams’ incendiary rhetoric following the 2018 election, which she continues to this day, is false,” the statement says.
Fair Fight Action CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo said in an emailed statement that the organization also looks forward to trial “because too many Georgians have been silenced for too long by the malfeasance and deliberate indifference of the Secretary of State.”
“Our case stemming from 2018 is a demonstration that voter suppression in Georgia has a long and shameful track record and that the current attacks on voting rights are not new but part of a long pattern,” she said.
The fiercely fought campaign between Abrams and Kemp, who oversaw the election as secretary of state, drew national scrutiny to Georgia’s outdated voting machines and allegations that Kemp's actions suppressed voting. He has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
In 2019, less than six months after the Fair Fight lawsuit was filed, legislators passed a law that addressed some of its issues. The law's biggest change was to replace the state's antiquated, paperless touchscreen voting machines with an entirely new system. The new system, first used statewide in the 2020 election cycle, relies on touchscreen machines that print paper ballots, which are then read and tallied by scanners.