In what has been a controversial election season for the state, Georgia is once again facing a legal battle after state officials refused to extend the voter registration deadline.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in conjunction with law firm Bryan Cave LLP, filed a lawsuit against Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Deal and Kemp rejected requests to extend the voter registration deadline in Chatham County, Georgia, which was on October 11.
The Lawyers’ Committee has called on all states affected by Hurricane Matthew to extend voter registration deadlines for its citizens. According to Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the storm struck “at a critical moment in the election season” and is now having an impact on voters, particularly minority voters.
“Evacuation orders ensure public safety but make it more difficult to register and vote,” said Clarke. “Our experience during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy make clear that natural disasters stand to disrupt our electoral process, and action must be taken to safeguard minority voting rights.”
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has a score of 88.94 on Charity Navigator. Established in 1963, the group was created after a request from President John F. Kennedy. The organization sought “to enlist the private bar’s leadership and resources in combating racial discrimination and the resulting inequality of opportunity work that continues to be vital today.”
For more than fifty years, the Lawyers’ Committee has fought for minorities and other traditionally disenfranchised groups’ right to vote. Its Voting Rights Project initiative section on its website provides publications and resources with up-to-date information on voting rights legal battles, strides and setbacks. Earlier this year the group published “Online Voter Registration: Accessible for All” which pointed to continued disenfranchisement of minority voters even when it comes to online voter registration.
“This is because the majority of states (including Georgia) offering OVR require voters to provide a state-issued DMV ID number (most commonly from a driver’s license) in order to complete the process entirely online,” the publication states. “Those who lack driver’s licenses a population that is disproportionately Black, Latino, and low-income must print, sign, and mail completed applications to local elections officials. These additional steps prevent traditionally disenfranchised communities from fully realizing the benefits of OVR.”
Lawsuit Against Deal and Kemp
Chatham County is one of six counties where citizens were forced to evacuate due to the storm. And government offices were closed for the majority of the last few days until registration, according to the complaint:
“Chatham County government offices, which opened today, were last open on Wednesday, October 5. Many prospective voters thus lost the ability to register for the last six days of the voter registration period. 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.”
Chatham County is 49.4 percent white, 40.2 percent Black and 6.2 percent Hispanic. More than 70 percent of the population is of legal voting age.
Last week the Lawyers’ Committee sent a letter to General Counsel for the Georgia Secretary of State C. Ryan Germany requesting that the deadline be extended in Chatham County. Germany said the state would not extend the deadline in Chatham or any other counties in the state, saying it would “not [be] appropriate or prudent given that opportunities to register remained available and that counties, including counties affected by the storm, need to continue to prepare for early voting beginning on Monday.”
However, policies including strict voter ID laws and tight registration deadlines already place Georgia citizens particularly the minority population at a disadvantage when it comes to voter registration. For instance, the state does not allow for in-person registration during the early voting period or on Election Day.
According to the complaint, the period leading up to the deadline is crucial for voters:
“A significant number of Georgia residents, including those in Chatham County, register to vote in the days leading up to the registration deadline. For example, a voter registration event held between 9 am and 3 pm on Tuesday, September 27, 2016, at the Chatham County Voter Registration office in Savannah drew more than 100 people. Additionally, voter registration groups were planning on conducting voter registration and other outreach efforts in Chatham County during the last week of the voter registration period.”
Georgia residents are barred from voting a ballot that will be counted if they do not meet the registration deadline because Georgia does not permit eligible citizens to register during the in-person early voting period or on Election Day.
The state allows for online voter registration, but this requires a state driver’s license or ID card.
Further, the complaint states, “Although applicants who already have a Georgia driver’s license or state ID card may register to vote online, this technology was not readily available to many residents of Chatham County, most of whom had evacuated the county. Moreover, electricity and cable were out in much of the county.”
And for those who did have proper ID and Internet access, during the last two days of voter registration, the online registration tool was experiencing glitches and errors that prevented some applicants from registering.
Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina have extended voter registration deadlines in light of Hurricane Matthew.