(CN) — Georgia election officials on Thursday were hit with a federal lawsuit that demands they overhaul the state's voting infrastructure to avoid a repeat of the debacle of long lines that played out during the 2020 primary.
Filed by three voters and the Democratic Party of Georgia, the lawsuit claims a persistent reduction in polling locations — combined with a lack of election planning — has disenfranchised voters in the Atlanta area for years on end.
The lawsuit chronicles the June primary in Georgia, which made headlines over hours-long wait times as well as missteps in implementing the state's new digital voting system. Residents of Atlanta's Fulton County purportedly waited as long as eight hours to vote and were still casting ballots after midnight.
Among the plaintiffs is Sara Alami, a Fulton County resident who allegedly had to wait “six hours in the scorching heat” to cast her vote during the primary. She had planned on sending her vote in by mail, but her absentee ballot never arrived, according to the lawsuit.
Another plaintiff, Cobb County resident Gianella Contreras Chavez, waited for an hour to sign in at a polling location before being told to come back upon receiving a call from poll workers. She claims she waited for the call and returned, only to wait another three hours to cast her vote. By then, it was 1 a.m.
"If the [defendants] are not required to make substantial efforts to reduce long lines at polling locations by remedying their systemically poor election administration... deterred and disenfranchised voters will result," the lawsuit states.
The voting infrastructure in Georgia was broken long before the poll-staffing problems brought about by the Covid-19 outbreak, according to the lawsuit.
"As bad as the situation would be in normal circumstances, the burden is made far worse by the global pandemic," the complaint reads.
Among other measures, the plaintiffs want the court to order several Georgia counties to set up more polling places for the November election, better train poll workers and provide emergency paper ballots.
The counties listed in the complaint include Fulton, Dekalb, Cobb, Gwinnett, Chatham, Clayton, Henry, Douglas and Macon-Bibb.
Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb and Dekalb are the state's four most populous counties. They represent Democratic strongholds on which the party relies on to offset votes from Republican-leaning counties in semi-rural areas across the state.
In a survey conducted by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, Georgia had the longest wait time of any state in the U.S. for the 2018 midterm election.
In a statement issued in response to the lawsuit, the Georgia Secretary of State's office said it is "working on all of [the plaintiffs'] proposed solutions plus many more." The office says it is aggressively recruiting poll workers and attempting to set up an online, absentee-ballot request portal to facilitate mail-in voting.
"We have also compiled statistics on the pace of voting in every precinct in the state, which we gave to the counties... to help them identify the trouble spots and better allocate equipment and personnel in November," Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said in the statement.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who chairs the state election board, is named as a defendant alongside dozens of county officials.
The plaintiffs claim that voting has become increasingly difficult in Georgia since the Supreme Court's 2013 decision to nix a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required certain states and local governments to obtain federal pre-approval of changes to their voting practices.
The court found that the criteria for what areas would be subject to the provision were outdated and impinged on "equal sovereignty of the states."
"After the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, Georgia began systematically closing and moving polling locations," the lawsuit states. "In the seven years since [the decision], Georgia has added around two million new voters to the voting rolls. Half of those new voters live in the ten counties around Atlanta. Six of those ten counties around Atlanta have since eliminated approximately ten percent of their polling precincts."
By all accounts, the Covid-19 epidemic created pervasive staffing and training problems at Georgia precincts throughout last June's primary. The epidemic prompted an early end to in-person training for the state's new voting systems.
At one busy Dekalb County polling location last June, three quarters of the workers never showed up, and only half of the workers who did arrive had been trained, according to court documents.
Deputy Secretary Fuchs says her office will "work around the clock from here through the elections — under the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic — to ensure that all eligible Georgia voters are informed fully about any polling place changes, that we have enough precincts and poll workers, and that we do everything possible to minimize lines."
Fuchs says that voting rights groups along with Democrats in the Republican-led state Legislature last Spring opposed legislation that would have mandated additional polling places or polling workers in precincts where voting wait times were longer than an hour in a previous primary or election.
One voting rights group, All Voting is Local, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in March that the bill SB 463 would confuse voters by changing their designated precinct.
The bill passed the Georgia Senate but not the state's House of Representatives.
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