(Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)

Three weeks ago, as early voting began in the nationally-watched congressional special election in Georgia’s 6th District, lawyers representing the state chapter of the NAACP notified the secretary of state that Georgia’s voter registration law could bar persons from legally participating in a runoff election, in violation of federal law.

At issue is a state law that bars citizens who register to vote from participating in an election within 30 days of registration. The state, according to the letter sent to Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp March 30, treats runoff and special runoff elections as a continuation of the initial election, barring citizens from voting in a runoff who failed to clear the 30-day bar for the initial election but had been registered more than 30 days by the time a runoff took place.

That Georgia provision placed the state squarely afoul of federal law, contended the letter, penned by Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington.

Kemp’s office disagreed. Georgia’s law does not violate the National Voter Registration Act because “setting voter qualifications is completely within the purview of states and the U.S. Constitution and cannot be altered” by the federal law, said Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce.

The Lawyers Committee—which has sued Kemp over voter suppression allegations before—”often files these politically-motivated lawsuits right before elections in Georgia,” Broce contended. “Changing the registration deadline this close to the election runoff would put the integrity of the June 20, 2017, special election runoff at great risk,” and “could result in serious complications to normal election operations.”

And, she added, “The risk of harm that could be caused from attempting to put in place a brand new procedure outweighs any potential gain from having a new registration deadline, even more so, given that the 6th Congressional District already has the highest registration rate of Georgia’s Congressional Districts”

Thursday, the Lawyers Committee—after a phone call with counsel for the Georgia Attorney General last Monday—filed suit on behalf of the Georgia NAACP and other nonprofit civil rights organizations, asking for a federal court order to offset the state requirement that, for now, bars any voter in the 6th District election who registered after March 20 from voting in the scheduled June 20 runoff. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross.

Calling the March 20 deadline “premature,” the suit contends state law will prevent eligible voters from casting ballots in the hotly-contested 6th District runoff for former U.S. Rep.—now Secretary of Health and Human Services—Tom Price’s seat, which has been held for more than three decades by Republicans. Democrat Jon Ossoff, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, won the election Tuesday but with about 48 percent of the vote—less than the required 50 percent plus one that would have avoided a runoff under state law. Ossoff is set to face Republican Karen Handel on the runoff ballot. The election is widely considered a bellwether on the country’s reaction to President Donald Trump’s policies.

Atlanta attorney Bryan Sells, one of the litigators who filed Thursday’s complaint, said the suit seeks to reopen the state’s voter registration in advance of the June 20 runoff to allow people who register to vote by May 22 to cast their ballots in the special election. “There are people who submitted voter registration applications who are in limbo now who would like to vote in the runoff and can’t unless we win this injunction,” he said.

“Going forward, between now and 30 days out [from the June 20 runoff], more people should be able to register.” And, he added, “That person who registered after the March 20 cutoff should be able to vote in the runoff as long as they are registered 30 days beforehand. … If things had gone a little bit different on Tuesday, the runoff wouldn’t be an issue. But it is.”