Judge won’t extend Georgia voter registration deadline after Matthew

04:21 - Source: CNN
Emergency responders ordered to evacuate ahead of storm

Story highlights

Judge: Five counties along Georgia's coast won't have voter registration deadlines extended

"Protecting the right to vote is not a political stunt, nor a partisan effort," ACLU says.

CNN  — 

In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, some Georgia residents living along the coast were unable to register to vote before the deadline. However, a federal judge won’t order officials to extend the deadline given that it could throw a “sizable wrench” in the state’s efforts to get ready for the upcoming presidential election.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed this week, which claimed that disruptions caused by the storm made it difficult, and, in some cases, impossible, for people to sign up by the October 11 deadline. Other states affected by Matthew – Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina – have extended deadlines in counties hit by the hurricane.

The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, accused Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Secretary of State Brian Kemp of infringing upon residents’ right to vote by refusing to extend the deadline. The storm interfered with voter registration drives, leaving African-Americans disproportionately affected by the state’s refusal to extend the deadline, the lawsuit claimed.

“Gov. Deal’s refusal to do the right thing by simply extending the deadline means thousands of Georgians will be disenfranchised in November,” said Kathleen Burch, interim counsel for the ACLU of Georgia. “Protecting the right to vote is not a political stunt, nor a partisan effort. Our state’s elected leaders should be protecting that right, not undermining it. This is a travesty to the people of Georgia and to the democratic process. We are exploring possible legal next steps.”

Returning to register

Georgia has six coastal counties that are home to more than half a million people. Deal ordered those residents to evacuate on October 6 – five days before the deadline to sign up to vote in the November election. According to the ACLU lawsuit, the week ahead of the deadline has typically been one of the busiest periods for voter registration.

The ACLU lawsuit came on the heels of similar lawsuit filed last week by the Lawyers’ Committee of Civil Rights Under Law. In response to that suit, Moore Jr. ordered Deal and Kemp to extend the deadline for Chatham County – one of the six counties along Georgia’s coast. The county’s board of elections, which closed ahead of the storm, did not reopen until after the day after the voter registration deadline.

Days after Moore’s Chatham County ruling, the ACLU’s lawsuit claimed Deal and Kemp had illegally refused to extend the deadline for five remaining coastal counties – Bryan, Camden, Glynn, Liberty and McIntosh – despite repeated requests from voting rights groups to do so.

After Matthew passed, many people started to return home to the coast, but could only register at local board of elections offices within a day of the deadline.

According to the ACLU lawsuit, plaintiffs J’Mari Bethea and Joshua Lattimore, both residents of Glynn County, returned home on October 11 to homes without power. As a result, they could not access the secretary of state’s website to register online, the lawsuit said.

Burdened, but not blocked

Debris litters a road after it washed over from Hurricane Matthew on St. Simons Island, Ga.

However, the burdens they faced were “slight” compared to “Georgia’s interest in conducting a smooth statewide election,” US District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr. said in his ruling Tuesday.

Moore added that it was unfortunate that a natural disaster coincided with Georgia’s “constitutionally valid” voter registration deadline. Ultimately, it was “difficult, but not impossible” for most residents to register, Moore wrote.

“However, these circumstances are not impediments created by the State of Georgia that require it to provide an extension to the voter registration deadline,” he said. “At some point, Georgia’s constitutionally valid voter registration deadline must be respected.”

Early voting in Georgia has gone on for three days. Moore said he gave considerable weight to the state’s claims that conducting voter registration at the same time as early-voting could pose significant “administrative and technological difficulties.”

“Georgia’s ability to conduct efficient and accurate elections at the local, state, and Georgia’s electoral system is simply not arranged to handle registration past the deadline and certainly ill equipped to handle it once early voting has commenced,” he wrote.

Preparing for the election

Candice Broce, Kemp’s press secretary, told CNN that “siding with the ACLU would have wasted valuable resources and caused unnecessary disruptions with voting already underway.”

“Now, we can focus on ensuring a secure, accessible, and fair election in our state,” Broce added.

CNN’s Keith Allen and Polo Sandoval contributed to this report.