ATLANTA (CN) — Voters and fair election advocates argued in a virtual hearing Friday that Georgia’s mail-in ballots impose an unconstitutional poll tax by requiring the increased number of absentee voters during the Covid-19 pandemic to provide their own postage stamps.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit in Atlanta federal court two weeks ago challenging the constitutionality of requiring voters to buy postage stamps both when submitting mail-in absentee ballots and when requesting absentee ballot applications.
In the complaint filed on behalf of the nonprofit Black Voters Matter Fund and a DeKalb County voter, ACLU attorneys claim that the postage cost is tantamount to a modern poll tax — a voting fee outlawed by the 24th Amendment.
The voting rights advocates are urging the court to require election officials in the Peach State to provide prepaid, returnable envelopes for both absentee ballots and applications.
However, the state says that millions of the controversial envelopes have already been printed and that the price of designing and printing new, prepaid envelopes marked with different return addresses for Georgia’s 159 counties would cost up to $4.2 million.
“And every single dollar is a dollar that could not go to other budget priorities,” said attorney Josh Belinfante of the Atlanta-based Robbins firm, who represents the state defendants in the case.
Belinfante told the court that money should be going toward health care and unemployment aid during the next fiscal year, with the coronavirus crisis bringing financial devastation to many Georgians.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is listed as a defendant in the case, because his office oversees mail-in ballots, along with the DeKalb County Board of Registration and Elections.
U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg, a Barack Obama appointee, began Friday’s hearing via Zoom video conference with a disclaimer.
“This is the largest hearing I’ve had remotely at this juncture,” she told participants, adding “there will be some awkwardness, inevitably,” as attorneys and witnesses navigate the digital proceedings.
Indeed, multiple tech issues ensued, sparking the question “can you hear me, judge?” on several occasions throughout the hearing.
Attorneys who represented Raffensperger’s office, including Belinfante, Brian Lake and Melanie Johnson, argued the state’s envelope design donning a space for postage does not constitute a poll tax and does not burden voters in an unconstitutional way.
Stamps are 55 cents each in Georgia.
In the April 8 lawsuit, ACLU attorneys wrote that the case “is about marginalized voters who come from communities who have historically faced over a century of racist voter suppression, including the use of poll taxes to disenfranchise voters, and who rightfully refuse to pay another cent for the right to vote.”
ACLU attorney Sean J. Young on Friday reaffirmed that the main point of the lawsuit is to remove what his side perceives as being a poll tax.
“When the government requires a thing to vote and that thing costs money, that is a poll tax,” Young told Judge Totenberg, adding that millionaires with access to a million stamps have the same standing as homeless Georgians who may have none.
“We can win on poll tax alone,” he said.
Belinfante argued there is no evidence that the lack of prepaid envelopes in Georgia is born out of a desire to disenfranchise any group of voters. Totenberg interjected, noting the 24th Amendment does not require proof of intentional, discriminatory animus, according to extensive case law.
The ACLU also brought the case on separate grounds, claiming the current means of mail-in voting adds layers of confusion and barriers, especially for those in rural Georgia who may not have transportation to the post office to buy stamps or internet access to do so online.
The civil rights group also argues no one should risk their lives to go buy stamps from the post office during the pandemic.
Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter Fund, testified Friday as a witness for the ACLU.
He said a redesign with prepaid postage would address the access problems.
Albright said members of his organization, which focuses on mobilizing marginalized voters, are afraid to tell people to ignore the postage direction on the envelopes because it would cause a perceived lack of credibility on the part of the nonprofit. The official envelope distributed by Raffensperger’s office to nearly 6.8 million registered voters has a space for stamps to be included.
“Because the Covid-19 pandemic has made it unrealistic for most, if not all, voters to cast ballots in-person, the state is essentially forcing voters to pay in order to participate in our democracy,” the ACLU said on its website.
The state began mailing out the ballots for the June 9 primary election on Tuesday. That means it would be “kind of remarkable,” Totenberg said, if any ballots have already been returned and recorded by the secretary of state’s office, leaving room for changes to be made if the judge rules in the plaintiffs’ favor.
According to an Associated Press report, U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman Martha Johnson said the agency has a policy of delivering completed absentee ballots back to elections officials even if they lack proper postage.
Still, the envelopes used by the state prompt voters to add a stamp. If a voter does not include postage, the respective county elections board could be billed.
The question in this case, both sides agreed Friday, is who should pay for the postage.
If the envelopes are marked with the secretary of state’s office as the return address, the state would be covering the costs and not the electorate.
No decision was made at Friday’s hearing. The uncertainty surrounding when the coronavirus crisis will ease up made it difficult for the judge to establish whether the ACLU’s requested injunction would apply only to the June 9 election or all elections this year, including the presidential election in November.
“I know now a little more about the post office than I would like to know,” Totenberg joked at the end of the hearing.
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