ATLANTA (CN) — A federal judge on Tuesday denied a voting rights group’s request for an order barring Georgia election officials from requiring voters to pay for their own postage to submit absentee ballots and ballot applications.
In a class action filed in April against Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and DeKalb County election officials, the nonprofit Black Voters Matter and two Peach State voters claimed that requiring voters to pay for postage to submit their absentee applications and ballots is tantamount to a poll tax outlawed by the 24th Amendment and also violates the First and 14th Amendments.
The plaintiffs claimed that the state not providing free postage for mail-in voting places an “unconstitutional burden” on the right to vote during a time when voting by mail is the only option for many who wish to cast ballots during the Covid-19 pandemic.
During a virtual hearing in April, the plaintiffs urged the court to require election officials to provide voters with prepaid, returnable envelopes for mail-in ballots and applications.
On April 30, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg in Atlanta denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction seeking new absentee ballot envelopes with free postage for Georgia’s June 9 primary election and later issued a similar denial as to the Aug. 11 runoff election.
Although Totenberg admitted that Tuesday’s ruling is “by no means the final word on Georgia’s absentee balloting procedures, election procedures or Georgia’s response in the electoral sphere to the challenges posed by the pandemic,” she found that no constitutional violation has taken place because voters can still cast their ballot in person in the Peach State.
“The fact that any registered voter may vote in Georgia on election day without purchasing a stamp, and without undertaking any “extra steps” besides showing up at the voting precinct and complying with generally applicable election regulations, necessitates a conclusion that stamps are not poll taxes under the Twenty-Fourth Amendment prism,” Totenberg, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote.
The judge held that in-person voting “theoretically remains an option for voters in Georgia” even despite the pandemic.
Although more than 1.2 million Georgians voted in person in the June primary election, a record-breaking 1.1 million voted by mail.
“The court recognizes that voting in person is materially burdensome for a sizable segment of the population, both due to the Covid-19 pandemic and for the elderly, disabled, or those out-of-town. But these concerns — while completely justifiable and pragmatically solvable — are not the specific evils the Twenty-Fourth Amendment was meant to address,” the ruling states.
Black Voters Matter claims that the risk of Covid-19 exposure isn’t the only obstacle voters might face in obtaining postage — they may also struggle with location related to the post office, lack of transportation, lack of internet access to buy stamps online, and economic hardships associated with the cost of postage for each ballot.
In light of restrictions upheld in other states — including Texas where the Fifth Circuit blocked an injunction that would have allowed any Texan to qualify for a mail-in ballot during the pandemic – Totenberg found Tuesday that the burden of obtaining postage is “moderate for present purposes.”
Totenberg found that the plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence to show that their burden outweighs the state’s interest in saving money.
The judge pointed out that the state has a “limited amount of resources” and has already spent $3 million to send absentee ballot applications to registered voters, provided funding for polling site sanitization, and created grants for secure drop boxes where voters can drop off completed ballots without using a stamp.
The state has argued that the cost of sending out new prepaid envelopes for voters in Georgia’s 159 counties could run up to $4.2 million.