Arcane Voting Laws May Bar Voters in Georgia Runoff

ATLANTA (CN) — Five civil rights organizations, including the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, claim in court that a Georgia statutory scheme requiring voters to register three months prior to participating in a federal runoff election may prevent them from casting a vote in June’s high-profile congressional contest.

In a federal lawsuit filed in Atlanta on Thursday, the organizations say Georgia’s rules violate the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. The law explicitly prohibits states from imposing registration deadlines of greater than 30 days before any federal election.

According to the complaint, if left in place, the rules will affect which residents of Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District can vote in a pivotal runoff election between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel on June 20. The runoff election will determine which candidate will take the seat previously filled by President Trump’s new Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price.

With both sides predicting that the outcome of the election will have a ripple effect in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections, national attention is focused on the district. Democrats hope that an Ossoff win will prove that even the reddest districts can be flipped – a Democrat hasn’t represented the Sixth Congressional District since 1978.

According to the complaint, the voter registration deadline for the June 20 runoff race was last Tuesday. Any eligible citizens who register between March 21 and May 22, 2017 will not be able to vote in the runoff.

The plaintiffs contend that because the National Voter Registration Act prohibits states from setting registration deadlines more than thirty days in advance of any federal election, the registration deadline can be no earlier than May 22.

The NVRA was originally passed to “increase the number of eligible citizens who register to vote in elections,” to “enhance the participation of eligible citizens as voters,” and to “ensure that no American is denied the ability to participate in Federal elections because of real or artificial barriers and to make voter registration an inclusive, rather than an exclusive opportunity in the United States.”

According to the complaint, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sent the Georgia Secretary of State a letter on March 30, 2017, informing the state that the current statutory scheme contradicts the Act. However, the complaint alleges that the Georgia Attorney General’s office refused to take any remedial action in regards to the matter.

Candice Broce, spokeswoman for the Georgia fSecretary of State, said, “This lawsuit is just another political attack on Secretary [Brian] Kemp by liberal advocacy groups. This law has been in place since [former Georgia Secretary of State] Cathy Cox, a Democrat, was in office but they’ve waited until now to challenge it. This is just being done to disrupt our processes. We will fight it in court.”

“Georgia law establishes that eligibility to vote in an election runoff is limited to those individuals that were registered to vote in the election that caused the runoff,” she continued. “The Lawyers’ Committee interpretation of the NVRA would enlarge the federal electorate in Georgia to something beyond the state electorate and is therefore unconstitutional. Setting voter qualifications is completely within the purview of the states and the U.S. Constitution and cannot be altered by the NVRA.”

“Because the issue is ultimately one of voter eligibility and not the date of accepting registration applications, Georgia’s runoff provisions do not violate the NVRA,” Broce said.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory relief, affirming that the current Georgia statute violates the Act, and injunctive relief allowing all eligible residents of the Congressional district  who register to vote by May 22 to cast ballots in the runoff election.

The plaintiffs are represented by Bryan Sells of Atlanta.

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