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Voting rights trial begins in Georgia federal court

Voting rights activists in Georgia say the state's election procedures are unconstitutional and disenfranchise voters.

ATLANTA (CN) — A federal trial over the constitutionality of Georgia's voting processes and policies began Monday, more than three years after the original complaint was filed by gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams' Fair Fight Action group and other plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs, which include Atlanta's famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock serves as senior pastor, as well as other churches and voting rights groups, claim the state has deprived residents — and especially people of color — of their right to vote through legislation, policies and misconduct.

The scope of the lawsuit, which names Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and the State Election Board as defendants, has narrowed since the complaint was filed in 2018. U.S. District Judge Steve Jones tossed some of the claims in February and March 2021, including those relating to the moving and closing of precincts and polling places, voting machine malfunctions, and the so-called "use it or lose it" policy of removing voters for the rolls who hadn't voted in some time.

The remaining issues that will be decided during the bench trial include claims the state failed to adequately train poll workers on the proper procedures for in-person absentee ballot cancellations and that the "exact match" policy violates the First, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, as well as Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The plaintiffs claim election officials failed to allow voters to cancel absentee ballots and vote in person, which is permitted under Georgia law.

Georgia's "exact match" policy requires the state’s voter registration information to match the information in the state’s Department of Driver Services' files.

"As of 2018, under the Secretary’s onerous 'exact match' policy, voter registrations were rejected if the mismatch consisted of insignificant typographical errors or other inconsequential differences," the plaintiffs stated in their second amended complaint.

The plaintiffs argue this policy also disproportionately disenfranchises recently naturalized U.S. citizens because the secretary of state places new citizens’ voter registration forms in pending status if those voters have not informed the department of the change to their citizenship.

"The serious and pervasive problems in Georgia’s elections system are not an accident. Defendants know that voter disenfranchisement is likely from their conduct, and further know that the effect of any voter suppression is likely to fall disproportionately on Georgia’s racial and ethnic minorities," the complaint states. "Defendants’ intent and motivation are to create this anticipated and foreseeable racially discriminatory effect through their policies, actions, and inaction."

Plaintiffs' counsel Allegra Lawrence-Hardy said Monday that tens of thousands of Georgians faced "insurmountable obstacles to voting" on Election Day in 2018.

“We heard from 80,000 of those Georgians. These brave Georgians led us to file this lawsuit, and over three years later, after repeated attempts by the state to silence their voices by asking the court to throw this lawsuit out, they refused to be sidelined," Lawrence-Hardy said. "So we are finally here for the first voting rights case to be tried on the merits in the Northern District of Georgia in over a decade. We are honored to fight for Georgians today and we are grateful to the Georgians who persevered in this fight.”

The 2018 election drew historic voter registration and turnout, particularly among voters of color. Almost four million people in the state voted, including hundreds of thousands of voters of color for the first time, according to the complaint.

Josh Belinfante, an attorney for the state, said Monday during opening arguments that over the course of the trial Jones would hear testimony from election officials about ongoing measures they're taking to improve the voters' experiences.

The plaintiffs are not considering the "hard work of everyday Georgians," Belinfante said, according to the Associated Press, adding that the election workers in the state "just want to get it right," and that the state isn't intentionally trying to squash anyone's voting rights.

The judge will also hear testimony from Georgians who experienced obstacles in the voting process and from experts who have studied voting in the state.

The trial is expected to last approximately four weeks. 

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