ATLANTA (AP) -- A federal judge on Tuesday rejected an argument that requiring voters to provide their own stamps for mail-in ballots and ballot applications amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax.
A lawsuit filed in April by the American Civil Liberties Union and its Georgia chapter alleged that the postage requirement effectively imposes a poll tax and is an unjustifiable burden on the right to vote. The challenge was brought on behalf of voters and a group seeking to empower communities of color, the Black Votes Matter Fund.
The lawsuit asked a judge to find the requirement unconstitutional and to order the state to stop requiring voters to provide their own stamps to vote by mail-in ballot.
U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg in Atlanta had already declined to order the state to provide postage-paid envelopes for the June primary and Tuesday's primary runoff election. But she had held off on making a decision about the November general election and said she reviewed additional filings from the parties in the meantime.
While voters can still cast ballots in person early or on Election Day, the lawsuit argues that the option of in-person voting "does not really exist because of the pandemic" and is also nearly impossible for some elderly or disabled voters. Some voters don't have stamps on hand and can't get to the post office or don't want to go there and risk exposure to coronavirus, the lawsuit says, adding those voters may also lack internet access or credit cards to buy stamps online.
Totenberg acknowledged the potential difficulties of in-person voting, particularly during a pandemic, but said that its availability means that the postage requirement is not tantamount to an unconstitutional poll tax.
"The fact that any registered voter may vote in Georgia on election day without purchasing a stamp, and without undertaking any 'extra steps' besides showing up at the voting precinct and complying with generally applicable election regulations, necessitates a conclusion that stamps are not poll taxes," Totenberg wrote in her order Tuesday.
"Today's decision is further support that politically motivated plaintiffs shouldn't seek wide ranging changes to long-standing election law and processes right before an election," Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said. "Judge Totenberg should be applauded for recognizing this principle."
Totenberg noted that the state estimated the cost of providing prepaid postage at $450,000 to $4.2 million, depending on voter participation, at a time when the pandemic is already straining budgets.
The lawsuit argues the burden placed on voters isn't outweighed by the state's interest in saving money.
Totenberg found that the plaintiffs hadn't presented enough evidence to show that their burden outweighs the state's interest, having presented only one declaration for a voter who had to vote in person because she couldn't afford a stamp and no declarations from voters who wanted to use a drop box but couldn't. But she's allowing that part of the lawsuit to move forward and that "discovery and factual development may potentially fortify Plaintiffs' claims."
"We are encouraged that the court continues to review our claim that the postage requirement may be an unconstitutional burden on Georgia voters," ACLU of Georgia legal director Sean Young said.
While the scope of this case was limited to the postage requirement, Totenberg wrote that the plaintiffs "presented compelling evidence that the state's handling of the June 2020 election was plagued with difficulties, including many instances of voters not receiving their absentee ballots, and as a result being unnecessarily exposed to the virus."
The judge also noted that there are numerous other lawsuits pending that challenge the handling of elections in the state and that her narrow ruling "is certainly not likely the final word on absentee balloting issues or the implementation of the absentee ballot process in Georgia."