ATLANTA – A lawyer representing critics of Georgia’s election system said state officials have “erected a series of roadblocks” to voting through their policies and practices. An attorney for the state countered that the critics are trying to prove “democracy failed" the state, but they lack the evidence to prove it.
The statements came Monday as a trial got underway in a federal lawsuit that initially called for a broad overhaul of Georgia’s election system. The scope of the suit was considerably narrowed when 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 candidate for Georgia governor Stacey Abrams, just weeks after Abrams narrowly lost her first bid for governor.
The bench trial — which means there's no jury — is being presided over by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones and is expected to last four or five weeks. Jones has said he doesn't expect to rule before the state's May 24 primary.
During her opening statement, Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, an attorney for Fair Fight and the other plaintiffs, evoked the image of U.S. Rep. John Lewis marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to fight for voting rights. The congressman, who died in July 2020, had planned to be the plaintiffs' first witness at trial, Lawrence-Hardy said.
“Voting is also a bridge. It is the most basic path to democracy,” she said. Because of the actions of state election officials, she said, “eligible voters in Georgia face roadblock after roadblock as they try to get to that path.”
The secretary of state and State Election Board have made it difficult for Georgians to register to vote, stay registered and cast a ballot that will count, she said.
When Abrams ended her 2018 bid to become governor, she said that under the watch of her victorious Republican opponent, former Secretary of State Brian Kemp, “democracy failed Georgia.” That's a hypothesis that Fair Fight and its allies have been trying to prove ever since without success, state lawyer Josh Belinfante said.
State officials take very seriously any claims of disenfranchisement or burdens on the right to vote, Belinfante said. The plaintiffs fall short of proving their hypothesis in part because they overlook “the hard work of everyday Georgians,” the election workers who toil under difficult conditions and “just want to get it right,” he said.
The lawsuit initially said 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 trial have to do with the state's “exact match” policy, the statewide voter registration list and in-person cancellation of absentee ballots. The plaintiffs allege violations of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Under the “exact match” policy, information from voter registration applications is checked against information held by the state Department of Driver Services. The “flawed matching methods” used by the state inevitably produce erroneous results, Lawrence-Hardy said. Critics of “exact match” have long said data entry errors or differences as minor as a missing hyphen can trigger a non-match and that naturalized citizens can also be wrongly flagged if records are outdated. The problems disproportionately affect people of color, naturalized citizens and residents of certain counties, Lawrence-Hardy said.
Evidence will show that 98% of Georgians have had no problem with the policy and the other 2% can vote after showing a photo ID, which every voter is required to do, Belinfante said. The “exact match” policy has also become “less stringent” as a result of litigation and a 2019 law, he said.
Lawrence-Hardy also alleged that the statewide voter registration database is full of errors, and state efforts to clean the voter rolls of ineligible voters too often result in the erroneous deletion of eligible voters' registration or critical information being incorrect. Belinfante acknowledged some unfortunate mistakes but said there's no evidence that the state deliberately disenfranchises voters.
The lawyer for the plaintiffs argued that counties have different processes for canceling an absentee ballot if someone chooses to vote in person instead, and some subject voters to unnecessary burdens. State officials are aware of these problems, which can cause voters to be turned away or forced to cast a provisional ballot, she said.
Belinfante said a 2019 law clarified the process for canceling an absentee ballot at a polling place and poll worker manuals have been updated.
Lawrence-Hardy told the judge that, over the course of the trial, he will hear from people who experienced trouble voting, as well as from experts who have studied voting in Georgia.
Belinfante said the judge will hear from very few people who were unable to vote in 2018 and even fewer who had problems 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 nonprofit that advocates for domestic workers. Several churches have also joined as plaintiffs.