The Georgia Secretary of State sent out over 6.9 million applications for absentee ballots to make voting easier during the pandemic. Plaintiff, the New Georgia Project* argued that this wasn’t enough and tried to change other long-standing Georgia voting laws. They complained about five categories under the updated absentee mailing law: 1) Insufficient standards for notifying voters about incomplete applications, 2) A 65-year old age minimum for people to submit one application for year-long absentee voting, 3) Failure to provide prepaid postage on return envelopes, 4) The deadline for receipt of absentee ballots at 7PM on Election Day, and 5) A prohibition on third-party assistance for absentee ballots (generally referred to as ballot harvesting).
NGP argued that these requirements violated the U.S. Constitution in that they caused an undue burden on the right to vote, abridged the right to vote based on age discrimination, imposed a poll-tax, denied due process, resulted in arbitrary and disparate treatment, and infringed on people’s 1st Amendment rights. They sought declarations and injunctions to address each of these traditionally legislative issues with judicial intervention.
District Court Judge Eleanor Ross denied those requests but allowed a new date to be set for receiving absentee ballots. Instead of requiring these ballots to be received by the close of polls on Election Day, she granted a 3-day extension to receive and count ballots that were post-marked 11/3. Defendants unsuccessfully appealed the injunction on enforcing the extended deadline but Judge Ross did not believe they had made a case that would hold up on the merits.
The Secretary of State then appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to put the lower court’s decision on hold while they appealed the ruling. The ruling was granted, thereby undoing the lower court’s extension of the absentee ballot deadline. Circuit Judge Grant wrote that District Judge Ross had erred by applying the wrong legal standard. “Federal judges can have a lot of power—especially when issuing injunctions. And sometimes we may even have a good idea or two. But the Constitution sets out our sphere of decisionmaking, and that sphere does not extend to second-guessing and interfering with a State’s reasonable, nondiscriminatory election rules. COVID-19 has not put any gloss on the Constitution’s demand that States—not federal courts—are in charge of setting those rules.”
Despite an attempt to implement new procedures that would lower the bar for election integrity, Georgia was successful in upholding its long-standing election laws. The US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit referenced the Supreme Court’s approach that State Courts and not Federal Courts set election laws. The pandemic provided no reasonable excuse for changing these laws.
* The New Georgia Project was founded by former Gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams. On November 30, Secretary Raffensperger announced an investigation into four groups about election law violations. It seems the New Georgia Project sent voter registration applications to New York City in advance of the 2021 Senate runoff election in Georgia.