A new lawsuit is asking for federal judicial oversight to force “large scale reforms” in Georgia’s current election system.
While the lawsuit—filed Tuesday by a nonprofit led by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams’ former campaign manager—names acting Secretary of State Robyn Crittenden and members of the State Election Board as defendants, it clearly targets Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp.
As a candidate, Kemp continued to oversee elections while secretary of state, including his own hotly-contested race against Abrams. He resigned and declared victory two days after polls closed. Kemp’s lawyers presented his resignation midway through a hearing sparked by a federal lawsuit seeking to force him to step aside.
The new suit alleges broad constitutional, civil rights and voting rights violations, as well as significant breaches of federal election laws. It asks a judge to find that the state’s current election process violates both Georgians’ fundamental right to vote and a federal ban on racial discrimination.
Based on those proposed findings, the suit asks that the presiding judge take jurisdiction over the state’s elections so that no policy, standard, practice or procedure governing the elections may be enacted without court approval.
The case, filed in Atlanta at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia was assigned to Judge Steve Jones. Jones is one of five federal judges who issued injunctions or temporary restraining orders expanding the pool of ballots that were tallied after the election. Jones ordered the secretary of state and county election officials to salvage and tally paper absentee ballots that were rejected because of a missing or erroneous birth year.
Jones’ Nov. 15 order expanded the order issued by Judge Leigh Martin May, also of Georgia’s Northern District court, that directed Gwinnett County to tally absentee ballots rejected over a missing or incorrect birth year. State law does not require the automatic rejection of absentee ballots that lack a date of birth, and not all county ballots ask for a voter’s birth year.
That suit, filed by the Democratic Party of Georgia and Abrams’ campaign, challenges rules governing how and whether absentee and provisional ballots are counted. It is still pending before Jones.
The Fair Fight Action suit also calls Kemp the “chief architect” of a string of barriers to voting on both a local and statewide level. Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager and the CEO of plaintiff Fair Fight Action, branded him “the Secretary of Suppression,” in a news conference announcing the litigation.
Kemp campaign spokesman Ryan Mahoney sidestepped questions about the suit, saying the governor-elect was “meeting with public safety and economic development leaders.”
But Kemp has countered publicly that the number of registered voters actually rose under his watch, despite allegations that hundreds of thousands of voter registrations were canceled during his tenure.
The new suit seeks to ban policies implemented by Kemp while he was secretary of state. They include a “use it or lose it” voting policy that canceled tens of thousands of voter registrations for people who didn’t vote for two consecutive years and an exact match policy that validated voter registrations only if they were an exact match to names in the federal Social Security and state driver’s license databases. It also demands the immediate abandonment of the state’s obsolete electronic voting system in favor of paper ballots.
It’s the 11th lawsuit filed in Georgia challenging state election practices and election security associated with the midterm election. Eight of those suits, including one filed Friday contesting the lieutenant governor’s race and calling for a new election, are ongoing and seek similar relief. None of the other suits asked a judge to declare the entire election system unconstitutional and to take it over until reforms are implemented.
During early voting and while ballots were being counted, five federal judges issued six restraining orders or injunctions against Kemp and the election board over flaws in the administration of the midterm election. Several of those suits are seeking some of the same relief as the Fair Fight Action case.
Other complaints in the suit—including too few voting machines at some precincts that led to long lines, too few provisional ballots that were rationed among voters, inadequate equipment and the elimination of polling places. Those are issues generally handled by county election boards in the state’s 159 counties, none of which are named as defendants.
But the suit claims the secretary of state is designated by the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 as the chief election official for ensuring compliance with the law. The secretary of state also chairs the State Election Board and is responsible for promulgating and enforcing uniform rules for election administration and training county election officials, the suit contends.
Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, Abrams’ campaign chairwoman and lead counsel for Fair Fight Action, said more than 40,000 Georgians called a voter hotline to complain about difficulties that stymied their right to vote. Their stories illustrate what she said were “wide violations of federal law.”
Lawrence-Hardy said the goals of Fair Fight Action aren’t necessarily competing with the relief sought by the other eight election cases now in litigation. “My sense is that … we will be able to work with some of these organizations that share our goals, that want free and fair elections in Georgia,” she said.
Abrams was not at the news conference, but Groh-Wargo said Abrams is one of Fair Fight Action’s board members. The suit, Groh-Wargo said, doesn’t seek to overturn Kemp’s election.
The nonprofit also intends to lobby for election reform, register voters and to educate them of their rights.
Fair Fight Action also is “absolutely considering legislation,” Lawrence-Hardy said. “Lawsuits are not known for resolving things quickly. Our goal is to make sure things are in place by the 2020 election.”
Read the lawsuit: