‘Litigation Was Necessary’: Third Federal Lawsuit Challenges Georgia’s New Voting Law

Voters wearing masks wait in line to vote early outside the Chatham County Board of Elections office in Savannah last year. Georgia’s new voting law has brought the state attention from across the nation.

Russ Bynum / Associated PRess

Less than a week after Georgia passed a controversial, sweeping election overhaul, three federal lawsuits have already been filed, all by coalitions of civil rights and voting rights groups, arguing the new law will disproportionately add burdens on voting access for marginalized communities, including communities of color.

All the suits invoke the South’s ugly history with voting access in their complaints, a comparison that Republican supporters of the law have rejected. 

Gov. Brian Kemp, who signed the bill within an hour of its passage last Thursday, has defended the measure as making it “easy to vote and hard to cheat” in the state. He said claims of “suppression” are ridiculous and labels of “Jim Crow 2.0” are based on “blatant misinformation.”

“I’m telling you the truth about this bill: it expands access,” Kemp said in an interview.

The law, which is made up of nearly 100-pages worth of changes, includes an expansion of weekend early voting requirements in the state and brings absentee ballot drop boxes first used by some counties during the pandemic and now requires at least one per county, but restricts their hours and locations.

The law also bans the distribution of food and drink to voters waiting in line at a precinct, outlaws mobile voting units except for emergencies and requires new identification for absentee ballots.

The latest lawsuit against the measure, released Tuesday, was filed by a coalition including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of multiple clients including the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Georgia Muslim Voter Project.

Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the new law “unconscionable.”

“We and others quickly marched into court because we cannot let it stand. There are upcoming elections. Voters need to prepare for them, and so litigation was necessary now,” she said. 

“We will be continuing to scrutinize SB 202 and to consider what, if any, additional claims and factual allegations we need to advance.”

The three suits argue the law violates the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“Elections have consequences,” Kemp said about Republicans’ down ballot 2020 victories solidifying their continued control of the Georgia General Assembly. 

“And the people that are still governing in the General Assembly wanted to do something about the problems that they saw with this election. And that’s exactly what they have done, which is how the process works.”

April England-Albright is national legal director for Black Voters Matter Fund, one of the plaintiffs in the first suit filed within hours of the bill being signed into law. She said her organization has been following the Georgia General Assembly’s voting proposals closely, and they’ve been anticipating a law like this one for a long time.

“As we were organizing people to go vote, we were having this discussion already that we knew, starting this particular state session, that these types of laws were going to happen,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, and it’s sad that it’s so predictable.”

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said in a statement there has been a “significant amount of misinformation about this legislation. Our office will properly evaluate this law and defend the state and its citizens. We have and will continue to protect access to and the integrity of voting in Georgia.”

‘Uphill Battle’

“These cases are an uphill battle, to say the least,” said Jake Evans, an election lawyer in Georgia and chair of the Georgia chapter of the Republican Lawyers Association.

He said the first hurdle for the plaintiffs will be establishing standing to bring the case, since no elections have taken place with the law in effect.

“In order to have standing, you have to have an actual and concrete injury,” he said.

“And typically, it’s the voters that are having the injury. So it’s a voter that goes to try to vote, and they can’t vote for whatever reason, or they allege they can’t vote, and as a result, their voting right was burdened, or taken. And that would create the cause of action here.”

In this case, he said, the suit is being filed by entities in advance of an election.

England-Albright, with Black Voters Matter Fund, asserted their case does have standing.

“Civil rights organizations, like ours, are good plaintiffs because we do spend a lot of time actually in our communities organizing around these issues, trying to provide reprieve to already existing deficiencies in the state’s election infrastructure that cause disproportionate impact,” she said.

She pointed out groups like hers would be directly affected by some provisions of the new law, including the ban on distribution of food or drink to voters within 25 feet of voters waiting in line, or within 150 feet of a polling place. 

“Our organization, specifically our volunteers in many of these counties, were those individuals” handing out food and drink to people waiting in long lines in Georgia’s recent elections, she said.

Two of the cases, including England-Albright’s case, argue state lawmakers had an “intent” to discriminate against marginalized communities, which she thinks they can prove.

“There’s enough evidence already that exists and additional information that demonstrates that these types of laws historically have an impact on certain communities. And so we believe that we do have a case of standing; we don’t have to have one election cycle,” she said.

Stefan Turkheimer, an election lawyer and Democratic strategist, agreed.

“When you look at things like the restrictions on absentee ballots and all of the various rules there, you can show a disproportionate effect on certain voters based on their past voting, even if they weren’t affected by this particular law,” he said.

Turkheimer added the multiple suits and the large-scale attention on the new law are evidence of how much Georgia has changed, as compared to legal challenges to the state’s in-person voter ID law, which passed in the early 2000s when the state had just flipped to Republican.

“Now, there are organizations who are devoted to turning out the vote of people who might be affected by this bill, and because of that, those organizations are actually direct plaintiffs,” he said.

Plus, “there’s a lot more attention devoted to Georgia, both national legal attention because Georgia is a swing state and local legal attention because organizations are finally well-funded.”

The new law is set to go into effect July 1, unless a judge halts implementation to allow the legal process to unfold, which all three lawsuits are requesting.