ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia doesn't have to put almost 100,000 voters back on its rolls, a federal judge ruled Friday.
U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones ruled that a voting rights advocacy group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams is improperly asking him to interpret state law. Jones also said the group hasn't proved that people who have been removed had their constitutional rights violated.
However, Jones also ordered Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to do more to warn people that they had been removed. The judge is especially singling out a southwest Georgia state House district where a Jan. 28 special election is scheduled. Voters there who have been removed have only until Monday to re-register.
Raffensperger in October released a list of over 313,000 voters whose registrations were at risk of being canceled. Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group, had asked for the purge to be halted.
"Today Judge Jones upheld Georgia's decision to maintain clean voter rolls. Despite activists' efforts and lawsuits that only waste taxpayers' dollars, Georgia is continuing to ensure every eligible voter can vote and voter lists remain accurate," Raffensperger said in a statement.
"Our efforts to protect Georgia voters have already resulted in approximately 26,500 voters remaining on the rolls who would have otherwise been purged, and the State is now required to take additional steps to notify purged voters as a result of our litigation," said Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight Action.
Voter purges in Georgia became a hot-button issue during last year's race for governor between Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp, who won the race. Kemp served as secretary of state before being elected governor and oversaw aggressive voter purges during his tenure. Over 1.4 million voter registrations were canceled in Georgia between 2012 and 2018.
At issue is a Georgia law that says that voters should be moved to inactive status if they have no contact with the state for a period of time. Until earlier this year, the standard was three years of no contact, with voters then removed if they don't vote for another two general elections, a period of about seven years.
However, the General Assembly amended the law in early 2019 to lengthen the no-contact period to five years, meaning voters have about nine years before their registrations are canceled. But the Republican Raffensperger went ahead with canceling registrations for people who were already on the inactive list instead of giving them two more years.
Abrams' group didn't contest the removal of about 190,000 voters who had moved or to whom mail couldn't be delivered. However, it said removing a remaining 120,000 would be unfair because it would disenfranchise or burden them solely because they chose not to vote, and because people who were removed might not find out until they showed up to vote. It would be too late for them then because Georgia doesn't offer same-day registration.
The state argues that House Bill 316 changed the length of time before a voter enters the inactive list, but changed nothing about what happens once a voter is on the inactive list.
During the course of the litigation, the state put 20,000 more voters back on the inactive list after finding it was moving too soon to cancel their registrations. However, 98,000 voters had their registration canceled.
Jones said it's not his role to interpret state law and that Fair Fight Action should seek a ruling from a state court.
"The Eleventh Amendment of the United States Constitution and the principles of sovereign immunity do not permit a federal court to enjoin a state (or its officers) to follow a federal court's interpretation of the state of Georgia's laws. Such interpretation is within the province of the state court," Jones wrote.
He also said Fair Fight Action hadn't shown they could prove that people would be seriously burdened by having their registration voided under the no-contact rule, saying people could easily re-register.
"Plaintiffs have failed to show a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the 'no contact' provision violates the First and 14th Amendments," Jones wrote.
But Jones did say a state court needs to rapidly interpret House Bill 316 and urged Raffensperger to reinstate canceled voters in House District 171 to inactive status. He also ordered Raffensperger to post notices on his website and send out press releases warning those voters in parts of Colquitt, Decatur and Mitchell counties of their need to re-register.
Groh-Wargo said Fair Fight Action is "exploring additional legal options" and echoed Jones by urging Raffensperger to reinstate the House District 171 voters.
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