SAVANNAH, Ga. (CN) - Judges in Georgia and North Carolina ordered state election officials to extend voter-registration deadlines in some counties due to disruptions caused by Hurricane Matthew.
Nearly two million people were forced to evacuate coastal communities from Florida to North Carolina ahead of the arrival of Matthew.
Mandatory evacuation orders issued by the respective state governors also led to the closure of some government offices. And for some, notably North Carolina residents dealing with flooding from hurricane-swollen rivers, the wrath of Matthew continues to be felt.
The judges' rulings on Friday came after Georgia's governor and North Carolina's state board of elections' executive director declined to extend the deadlines in those states.
They also come after a similar judicial order in Florida. After Florida Gov. Rick Scott refused to extend his state's Oct. 11 deadline, a federal judge first extended it by a day and then later to Tuesday, Oct. 18.
South Carolina extended its original Oct. 7 deadline, and will now accept registration forms postmarked no later than Tuesday.
In Georgia, U.S. District Judge William Moore Jr. ruled residents of Chatham County, which includes Savannah, must be allowed to register through Oct. 18 — a week after the original deadline passed.
The plaintiffs in the case were the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda, Inc., Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, and Third Sector Development, Inc.
They sued Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Secretary of State Brian Kemp on October 12.
"Many prospective voters lost the ability to register for the last six days of the voter registration period," the complaint stated. "For much of the interim period, the county was under a state of emergency and an evacuation order due to Hurricane Matthew."
"Despite declaring a state of emergency and issuing a mandatory evacuation order, Defendant Deal refused to extend the voter registration deadline for the citizens heeding his orders to evacuate in Chatham County and elsewhere in Georgia," the plaintiffs said.
"Without relief, many eligible prospective voters who were forced to choose between their safety and the fundamental right to vote and suffered hardship as a result of Hurricane Matthew will be disenfranchised in the November 8, 2016 election," the plaintiffs assert.
The defendants countered by arguing that extending the deadline to October 18 would present administrative burdens on the Chatham County Board of Elections because early voting would have already begun on October 17.
In the end, Judge Moore sided with the plaintiffs.
"The Court does not discount that the extension would present some administrative difficulty," Moore writes in his order. "However, those administrative hurdles pale in comparison to the physical, emotional, and financial strain Chatham County residents faced in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Extending a small degree of common courtesy by allowing impacted individuals a few extra days to register to vote seems like a rather small consolation on behalf of their government."
Georgia NAACP President Francys Johnson said the organization appreciated the judge "applying some common sense and extending the voting registration deadline for those impacted by the storm."
"It is disheartening that each and every term, we have to sue the state of Georgia to guarantee unfettered access to the ballot. We've had five federal lawsuits this election cycle all dealing with this state's persistent denial of equal access to the ballot for all Georgians. The history of our fights is that when we win," Johnson said.
Helen Butler, Executive Director of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda, told Courthouse News, "I'm elated that Judge Moore thought that it was the right thing to do for the people of Chatham County to be able to register to vote and that time be extended because of Hurricane Matthew. It will give them opportunity; we've already been registering people."
William Custer in Atlanta represents the plaintiffs.
Gov. Deal's office referred Courthouse News to the secretary of state's office for comment, however, the office did not immediately respond to the request for comment.
In North Carolina, where the deadline to register was Oct. 16, a state judge ordered election officials to extend it until Oct. 19 in 36 eastern counties impacted by massive flooding from the hurricane that left 24 dead.
North Carolina is considered one of four battleground states in this year's presidential contest. The other battleground states this year are Florida, Ohio and Nevada.
President Barack Obama won the state by 14,000 votes in 2008, and lost it to Mitt Romney by 92,000 in 2012.
The state Democratic Party sued the state board's executive director on Friday, after Kim Strach, executive director of the N.C. Board of Elections agreed to accept mailed applications through Oct. 19 but would make no further accommodation on account of the storm.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens acknowledged local election officials could face more administrative obstacles in accepting traditional applications for three additional business days this week, But held those obstacles were outweighed by the "significant right of the constitution to ensure that every voter that wants to vote is not precluded from doing so as a result of a natural disaster."
Early voting in North Carolina begins on Thursday, Oct. 20, and continues through Nov. 5.
Stephens' order covers 36 counties covered by a federal disaster declaration issued by the White House. The Democrats had requested the order extend registration in all 100 counties.
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