Judge rules against Abrams group in voting rights case

ATLANTA – A federal judge on Friday found that Georgia’s election practices challenged by a group associated with Democrat Stacey Abrams do not violate voters’ constitutional rights, ruling in favor of the state on all remaining issues in a lawsuit filed nearly four years ago.

“Although Georgia’s election system is not perfect, the challenged practice violates neither the Constitution nor the VRA,” U.S. District Judge Steve Jones wrote in Atlanta, referring to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He explained his reasoning in a 288-page order.

The lawsuit was filed in November 2018, just weeks after Abrams narrowly lost the governor’s race to Republican Brian Kemp. Throughout that contest, Abrams had accused Kemp, then secretary of state, of using his position as the state’s top election official to promote voter suppression. Kemp vehemently denied the allegations.

Kemp on Friday applauded the verdict, calling it a loss for Abrams.

“Judge Jones’ ruling exposes this legal effort for what it really is: a tool used by a politician hoping to wrongfully weaponize the justice system to advance his own political goals,” Kemp said in a statement.

Abrams and Fair Fight expressed disappointment with the decision, but said the lawsuit helped bring about positive change in Georgia.

“While the court’s actions are not the preferred outcome, the implementation of this lawsuit and previous cases and legislative actions represent a hard-won victory for voters who endured long lines, burdensome date-of-birth requirements, and exact match laws that disproportionately affect black and brown . voters,” Abrams said in a statement.

The trial began in mid-April and unfolded while the Georgia primary was underway. Those contests set the stage for a rematch between Kemp and Abrams, who captured their parties’ gubernatorial nominations for November’s general election.

Nearly five dozen witnesses were called during 21 trial days spanning more than two months. It was a trial, meaning there was no jury and the verdict was up to Jones alone.

Abrams’ Fair Fight Action organization filed the suit along with Care in Action, a nonprofit that advocates for domestic workers. Several churches later joined as plaintiffs. It was initially extremely broad and called for a significant overhaul of Georgia’s electoral system. By the time it came to trial, the scope had narrowed significantly after some claims were resolved by changes in state law and others were dismissed by the court.

“This is a voting rights case that resulted in wins and losses for all parties throughout the trial and culminated in what is believed to have been the longest voting rights trial in the history of the Northern District of Georgia,” Jones wrote. .

The issues that remained, and were discussed at length during the trial, had to do with the “exact match” policy, the statewide voter registration list, and the process for in-person cancellation of absentee ballots. Fair Fight argued that the negative effects of these policies are disproportionately felt by people of color and new citizens and amount to violations of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Georgia officials have created a landscape where it’s “harder to register, harder to stay registered and ultimately harder to vote,” said Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, an attorney for Fair Fight and the other plaintiffs, during her closing arguments in the end of June. The barriers to voting are not caused by inevitable human error, but are instead the result of “elections designed to keep certain people from voting,” she said.

She highlighted testimony from voters who had trouble registering or casting their ballots, voters who shared their stories because they wanted the court to understand what they were facing.

Josh Belinfante, an attorney for state election officials, said in his closing that Georgia’s elections are constitutional and do not violate the Voting Rights Act. Georgia’s automatic voter registration policy and significant recent increases in African-American voter registrations are not signs of a voter-suppressing state, he argued.

While Fair Fight collected stories from more than 3,000 voters, they found very few who were unable to cast a ballot and none during the 2020 election, Belinfante noted. Instead, he said, the evidence showed that problems were generally resolved quickly when state officials were contacted.

Fair Fight’s goal was to get Democrats elected and make Georgia a blue state, and the organization used a false narrative of voter suppression to motivate people to turn out for its cause, Belinfante said.

“You have to decide if the case matches the rhetoric,” Belinfante told Jones. “The answer is no.”

The plaintiffs alleged that state officials provided insufficient training to county election officials in voiding absentee ballots, causing significant problems for voters who attempted to vote in person after requesting an absentee ballot.

The plaintiffs also challenged two aspects of the state’s “exact match” policy for voter registration applications. Plaintiffs say problems arise for voters if information on their applications does not exactly match that in driver’s license or Social Security databases, or if information about new U.S. citizens has not been updated in the driver’s license database.

Finally, the plaintiffs said state officials managed the voter registration database. They cited alleged problems with three roll maintenance processes: canceling registration if a person is convicted of a crime, merging records believed to be duplicates, and canceling voters believed to be dead.

Jones noted that while the plaintiffs called witnesses who testified about fights to cast their ballots because of the practice in question, most were able to vote in the end.

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