ATLANTA -- A federal judge on Wednesday declined to block some challenged sections of Georgia's new election law ahead of two runoff elections next week, but he didn't rule out the possibility for future elections.
Election integrity activists had asked U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee to prohibit the state from enforcing sections of the new law that have to do with observation of elections, as well as a new deadline for requesting absentee ballots. Their request arose from one of eight federal lawsuits challenging the new law.
The Republican-backed overhaul of election rules enacted this year has been blasted by Democrats and others who say it creates unnecessary obstacles to voting, particularly for people of color. Most of the lawsuits, including one filed last month by the U.S. Department of Justice, challenge the parts of law that critics say threaten voting rights.
The targeted request that led to Wednesday's ruling didn’t focus on the most commonly criticized parts of the law. The challenged provisions mostly have to do with monitoring or photographing parts of the election process.
The activists, led by the Coalition for Good Governance, said the challenged sections of the law criminalize normal election observation activities and could intimidate voters, election observers and members of the news media. A tighter absentee ballot request deadline makes it virtually impossible to request an absentee ballot for a runoff, they argue.
Lawyers for the state countered that the provisions reinforce protections that were already in place and are necessary for election integrity.
Two state House districts held special elections June 15 and are set to hold runoff elections on Tuesday. Boulee wrote in his ruling that making changes now could risk “disrupting the administration of an ongoing election.”
Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, expressed disappointment but said she's pleased that Boulee's order was limited to the July runoffs.
“We’re concerned about the voter confusion that will no doubt occur with these little-known rapid changes to the rules,” she said.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said this is “just another in a line of frivolous lawsuits” against the state's election law, adding, “We will continue to meet them and beat them in court.”
The challenged provisions prohibit observers from: intentionally observing a voter in a way that allows them to see how the person is voting; reporting anything they see during absentee ballot processing to anyone other than an election official; estimating or tallying the number of absentee ballots cast or any votes on the absentee ballots cast; and photographing the touchscreen of a voting machine while a voter is voting, or photographing a voted ballot.
The final challenged provision sets an absentee ballot application deadline 11 days before an election.
Boulee is presiding over all eight of the lawsuits challenging the state's new law. He held a hearing last week on the narrow request at issue because the activists had asked for an emergency temporary ruling on those parts of the law. There haven't been any similar requests for immediate action in the other lawsuits.
Boulee said in his order that he found the timing in this case problematic. The law was signed in late March and the request to block these provisions was filed the day before the House special elections, he noted.
The law is now in effect and barring its enforcement, he wrote, “would change the law in the ninth inning.” But he said he reserves judgment on the propriety of taking steps to block any of the challenged parts of the law for future elections.