Voting rights activists working with Democrat Stacey Abrams filed a sweeping federal lawsuit Tuesday against Georgia election officials, alleging they “grossly mismanaged” the recent midterm, depriving Georgia citizens — especially those of color — of their “fundamental right to vote.”
The 66-page complaint filed in Atlanta by Fair Fight Action, a nonprofit group set up earlier this month, describes “serious and unconstitutional flaws” in Georgia’s election process and calls for large-scale voting reforms, including asking the court to put Georgia election laws under federal court supervision.
Abrams lost her bid for Georgia governor to Republican Brian Kemp earlier this month by about 54,700 votes after an acrimonious race in which she dubbed Kemp an “architect of voter suppression.”
The lawsuit does not list Kemp as a defendant since he resigned from his role as Georgia’s secretary of state two days after the election. Instead, it targets Robyn A. Crittenden, who is the state’s interim secretary of state, as well as other members of the state election board. Kemp is, however, named repeatedly in the lawsuit.
“The general election for governor is over, but the citizens and voters of Georgia deserve an election system that they can have confidence in,” Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager and chief executive of Fair Fight Action, said at a news conference Tuesday outside a federal courthouse in downtown Atlanta.
While Abrams is on the board of Fair Fight Action, which filed the suit along with Georgia Care in Action, she is not listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The Nov. 6 election drew historic voter registration and turnout in Georgia, with more than 3.9 million people casting votes. But according to the lawsuit, “decades-long neglect of the elections infrastructure left a system virtually guaranteed to fail.”
“Time-tested voter suppression tactics further burdened the right to vote,” the lawsuit states. “Voters faced a systematic disregard for established rules; a refusal to provide resources adequate to enable a fair voting process; and policies and practices that stifled the votes of the people.”
A flurry of lawsuits were filed by Abrams’ campaign and her allies before and after the election, challenging specific provisions of Georgia voting policy, such as the “exact match” policy that strikes Georgia voters from the rolls if the name on their registration application does not exactly match their name on their government-issued IDs, and the “use it or lose it” policy that removes voters if they have not recently exercised their right to vote.
Richard L. Hasen, professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, said the new lawsuit has an unusually broad focus.
“The strategy is to show that the cumulative effect is severe, even if any one of these things in isolation might seem to be less serious,” Hasen said. “The argument is that all of these things work together to deprive people of the right to vote. I think it’s a bolder kind of strategy. And they ask for bold relief.”
The complaint asks the court to declare that Georgia’s current elections process violates multiple federal laws, including the fundamental right to vote under the First and Fourteenth amendments, the ban on racial discrimination in voting under the Fifteenth Amendment, and the right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, it asks the court to permanently order election officials to block “exact match” and “use it or lose it” policies, replace “insecure and unreliable” voting machines with paper ballots counted by optical scanners, train local officials and adopt and enforce “uniform standards.”
Notably, it also asks the court to require that Georgia get approval from a federal court before it enacts any changes to its voting laws.
The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 required states with a documented history of voter discrimination, mostly in the Deep South, to pre-clear any changes in their voting laws with the Justice Department or a federal court. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County vs. Holder that the formula used to determine which states must seek federal “pre-clearance” was outdated and that Southern states had been unfairly singled out.
Whether the plaintiffs ultimately prevail, Hasen said, depends on what the evidence shows. Even if the plaintiffs can prove intentional discrimination, a court won’t necessarily impose pre-clearance.
In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down a stringent 2013 North Carolina voting law, finding that it targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision.” Yet the court declined to impose pre-clearance.
According to Groh-Wargo, more than 40,000 voters contacted Abrams’ campaign hotline to register complaints about voting in the midterm election.
Some waited for hours at the polls or arrived at polling stations that had run out of paper ballots or had malfunctioning voting machines. Others did not receive ballots or had their voter registration application rejected.
“It was a complete breakdown,” Angel Poventud, a resident of southwest Atlanta who spent election day assisting voters at the Pittman Park Recreation Center polling station, said earlier this month. The station began the day with only three operational voting machines, forcing voters to wait in line for up to four hours.
“There weren’t enough cards, there weren’t enough staff, there weren’t enough machines,” Poventud said. People left and the majority never came back. So many votes were lost.”
Kemp, who took office as Georgia’s secretary of state in 2010, had since purged 1.4 million inactive registered voters from the rolls. While federal law requires the state to update voter rolls by removing those who have died or moved, Kemp’s critics accuse him of unfairly removing many eligible voters, especially minority and low-income Georgians.
Kemp has pushed back against the criticisms, noting that he has introduced online voter registration in Georgia and the state has about 1 million more registered voters today than it had in 2010.
On Tuesday, Kemp’s spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit.
“This week, Governor-elect Brian Kemp is meeting with public safety and economic development leaders,” Ryan Mahoney said in an email. “He is focused on building a safe and prosperous future for Georgia families.”
Candice Broce, press secretary for the secretary of state, said, “With a record high of 7,000,000 people on Georgia's voter rolls and unprecedented voter turnout in November's midterm election, it has never been easier to register to vote or make your voice heard at the ballot box in our state.”
Abrams and Kemp have long clashed over voting rights – an issue that has become particularly charged as this once staunchly conservative Southern state has become more purple in recent years. Minorities now make up 40% of the state's population, up 10% from two decades ago.
In 2013, when Abrams was minority leader in the Georgia House, she founded the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit with the goal of registering hundreds of thousands of minorities across the state.
Those bringing the lawsuit said they hope to ensure that every eligible vote counts in the 2020 elections.
“Workers cannot afford to stand in line for five or six or more hours because the secretary of state’s office didn’t feel the need to ensure that counties needed power cords for their voting machines,” said Georgia state Sen. Nikema Williams, state director of Georgia Care in Action. “They had jobs to work, families to care for and other responsibilities.”