The fight over Georgia’s sweeping 98-page voting law has moved from the legislature to the courts, as a number of civil rights and voting rights groups have filed lawsuits challenging various parts of the omnibus as unconstitutional and in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
SB 202, also known as the “Election Integrity Act of 2021,” alters virtually every aspect of Georgia’s election administration, from narrowing the absentee ballot request window to requiring ballots to be counted nonstop once the polls close and everything in between. After Democrats flipped the state’s electoral votes in November and both U.S. Senate seats in January, Republican officials at every level of government have pushed false claims about the security and accuracy of Georgia’s election system, including former President Trump’s attempts to overturn his electoral defeat.
Supporters of SB 202 in the legislature say it was necessary to make changes to help restore confidence in elections, after many Republicans stayed home for the runoff.
Republican Attorney General Chris Carr said in a statement that his office has observed a “significant amount of misinformation” about the new law and it is his duty to defend the laws of the state.
“Our office will properly evaluate this law and defend the state and its citizens,” he said. “We have and will continue to protect access to and the integrity of voting in Georgia.”
In a motion to dismiss in one of the cases, lawyers for the state argue that the complaints “challenge a handful of – at best – minimally burdensome changes.” That motion was declared moot after attorneys filed an updated lawsuit. The state has also filed a motion to dismiss in AME Church v. Kemp.
There are now sevenlawsuits that claim parts of Georgia’s new law are discriminatory and unconstitutional.
The 35-page New Georgia Project v. Raffensperger was filed shortly after Gov. Brian Kemp signed the bill Thursday (later amended to 66 pages), followed shortly thereafter by the 56-page Georgia NAACP v. Raffensperger and the 91-page AME Church v. Kemp. On Thursday, April 1, the 29-page Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Atlanta v. Kemp was filed as well. On April 7 VoteAmerica v. Raffensperger was filed, and April 27 saw Concerned Black Clergy v. Raffensperger on the docket. Not to be outdone, Coalition for Good Governance v. Raffensperger was entered May 17 with 157 pages of complaints.
All the cases are assigned to Trump-appointed Judge J.P. Boulee, and almost all of them argue that many of the sweeping changes made to Georgia’s election administration disproportionately negatively affect nonwhite voters.
The New Georgia Project lawsuit, filed on behalf of the New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter Fund, and Rise Inc., sues Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and the four members of the State Election Board.
Challenged provisions include new absentee ID requirements, limitations on drop boxes, a shortened runoff period and a virtual ban of out-of-precinct provisional ballots. This lawsuit’s overarching message is that most of Georgia’s voting changes were based on false claims of voter fraud.
“These provisions lack any justification for their burdensome and discriminatory effects on voting,” lawyer Marc Elias writes. “Instead, they represent a hodgepodge of unnecessary restrictions that target almost every aspect of the voting process but serve no legitimate purpose or compelling state interest other than to make absentee, early, and election-day voting more difficult — especially for minority voters.”
The suit argues sections of the omnibus voting law violates both the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment by placing an undue burden on the right to vote, citing increased absentee ID requirements, restrictions on secure drop boxes and a ban on local governments mailing unsolicited absentee applications.
Other changes that are allegedly unconstitutional include a ban on mobile polling places (used only by Fulton County), a virtual ban on out-of-precinct provisional ballots and a prohibition on handing out food or water to voters within 150 feet of a polling place or 25 feet of voters in line.
Lawyers wrote that before the law was changed, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the state’s existing laws were the “gold standard” by virtue of no-excuse absentee voting, at least three weeks of in-person voting and automatic voter registration.
“But now that that system facilitated record turnout in the 2020 general election and the 2021 U.S. Senate runoff elections, the General Assembly has acted to radically and unjustifiably punish the electorate, by dramatically curtailing it,” the filing reads.
The New Georgia Project suit also says Georgia violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because many changes would affect Black voters more, citing a July GPB News investigation that found two-thirds of the polls open past 8 p.m. in the June 2020 primary were in majority-Black neighborhoods, even though they comprise only one-third of the precincts in the state.
In the challenge filed by the Georgia NAACP, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, League of Women Voters of Georgia, GALEO, Common Cause and the Lower Muskogee Creek Tribe, lawyers argue more explicitly that elements of SB 202 is “the culmination of a concerted effort to suppress the participation of Black voters and other voters of color.”
Similarly to the first suit, this case focuses on new absentee ID requirements that use a driver’s license or state ID number or photocopy of voter ID as the way to verify identity, as well as opposition to the new rule on drop boxes. While drop boxes did not exist before the 2020 election cycle, the new voting law limits when and where Georgians can use them, including a cap on available boxes per county that are only available in early voting sites during early voting hours.
Bryan Sells, an attorney for the plaintiffs, wrote in the filing that the changes would have a compounding negative effect for Black voters, including the restrictions on where voters can get food and water.
“More often than not, it is Black voters or other voters of color who are negatively impacted by long lines and delays at the polls and stand to suffer most when charitable organizations can no longer provide such items to voters waiting to vote,” he wrote.
That suit also cites a GPB News/ProPublica investigation into overcrowded metro Atlanta area polling places, which found that many large counties exploded in population but failed to add enough polling places to keep up with the growth.
The Georgia NAACP and other plaintiffs also allege that a new provision that removes the Secretary of State as chair of the State Election Board and outlines a method for the SEB to temporarily replace election boards threatens “the fundamental right to vote of all Georgians.”
That suit also alleges violations of the First and Fourteenth amendments as undue burdens, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act as well as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments’ prohibitions on discriminatory purpose.
The most recently-filed lawsuit has the most plaintiffs and defendants, filed by a coalition that includes the sixth district of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Georgia Muslim Voter Project, Women Watch Afrika, Latino Community Fund of Georgia and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
Defendants include Gov. Brian Kemp, Raffensperger, the State Election Board and the supervisors and elections boards for Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb, Hall, Clayton, Richmond, Bibb, Chatham, Clarke and Columbia counties.
This suit notes Georgia’s history of discrimination in voting laws, from white-only primaries to poll taxes and literacy tests, and also highlights top Republicans’ statements that debunked claims of voter fraud.
“In short, in a safe and secure election, a record number of Georgians performed democracy’s most vital act: they voted,” the filing reads. “Then, on March 25, 2021, the Georgia General Assembly and Governor Brian Kemp made that most vital act more difficult.”
Like the other lawsuits, this group alleges changes to voting laws violates the Voting Rights Act by intentionally discriminating against nonwhite voters, including the new absentee ID requirements, limited access to drop boxes, a shorter runoff timeline and restrictions on where people can give food and water to voters at the polls.
It argues the First, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments have been violated because lawmakers allegedly intentionally crafted legislation to discriminate against Black voters, and that there is not enough justification for the state to need these laws in place that would outweigh its harms.
Like the Georgia NAACP lawsuit, it also cites the GPB News/ProPublica investigation into overcrowded metro Atlanta area polling places as evidence that long lines disproportionately affect Black voters.
“More than half of Georgia’s 2,655 precincts are assigned more than 2,000 voters, the recommended maximum,” it reads. “The average polling place serves over three thousand voters, 47% more than they did in 2012, and far more than the recommended number.”
This suit was filed Thursday, April 1 and also argued SB 202’s changes to absentee voting would have a disparate impact on Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, who mainly voted by mail in the 2020 general election.
“Asian Americans turned out in record numbers, alongside other communities of color, in a safe and fair election in both the 2020 presidential election and the 2021 runoff elections in Georgia,” Phi Nguyen, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta’s Litigation Director, said. “We won’t let them shut the door on us after all our efforts to enliven our democracy.”
Like the other challenges, the group highlights new rules about voter ID for absentee ballots and limitations on access to drop boxes. The suit argues that changes purposefully limit nonwhite voters’ access to the ballot, violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and several amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
A narrower window to request ballots disproportionately impacts AAPI voters, who are more likely to request ballots closer to the election, the suit says, a ban on governments sending absentee applications would divert resources and restrictions on who can return completed absentee applications could harm older, disabled and rural voters.
“SB 202 is an obvious attempt to roll back the clock to the racially restrictive voting practices of Georgia’s discredited past,” the filing reads. “That attempt should be categorically rejected.”
This suit primarily focuses on restrictions around third-party absentee ballot applications. SB 202 prevents those groups from pre-filling out voter information, requires a large disclaimer to note it is an unofficial request and penalizes groups that sent multiple requests to people that may have already voted.
“These new requirements are not only costly and burdensome on nonprofit organizations who work to encourage political participation and facilitate access to absentee voting for Georgians,” the suit reads. “In some cases they are impossible to comply with or would present such prohibitively expensive financial burdens.”
Like the others, this suit alleges that parts of SB 202 are discriminatory against nonwhite voters by making it harder to vote by mail and other changes, including removing the Secretary of State as chair and voting member of the State Election Board, a new provision that allows the SEB to temporarily suspend local elections boards, effectively ending out-of-precinct provisional ballots and moving all runoffs to four weeks.
“At its core, SB 202 is a discriminatory law intentionally aimed at reducing access to the ballot box and criminalizing voting,” Judith Browne Dianis, Executive Director of Advancement Project National Office said in a statement. “It takes aim at the multi-racial coalition that made unprecedented change during the 2020 election and attempts to silence voters of color, seniors, students, the indigent, and Georgians with disabilities.
The suit also argues the controversial measure that prevents groups from passing out food and water to voters within 150 feet of a polling place or 25 feet of a voter in line violates the Americans with Disabilities act as well.
The latest lawsuit to be filed against Georgia’s voting law comes from a group that is no stranger to election challenges in Georgia. The nonprofit Coalition for Good Governance is the plaintiff in a yearslong battle over electronic voting in Georgia that seeks to move the state to hand-marked paper ballots and resulted in a judge castigating state officials who “buried their heads in the sand” about Georgia’s old voting machines and banned them from use after 2020.
The massive lawsuit takes aim at similar provisions as other challenges, such as the earlier deadline to request an absentee ballot, but the main focus is on SB 202’s election takeover language. Under the new law, the State Election Board can temporarily suspend appointed county elections boards that have been found to violate election rules or demonstrate “nonfeasance, malfeasance, or gross negligence” in running elections.
Critics of the new law contend those changes could be used to strip powers from Democratic-leaning counties and appoint replacements that could tamper with vote-counting, something the state has denied.
Other parts of the law being challenged include rules about election observers and the criminalization of observing someone cast their vote.
This story comes to The Current through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.