A person holds up signs during a voting rights rally at Liberty Plaza near the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Atlanta.
CNN  — 

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Voting rights advocates had warned that controversial elections laws Georgia legislators passed in 2021 would lead to partisan takeovers of local election boards, resulting in a curtailing of Sunday early voting – a popular option among Black churchgoers, a key Democratic constituency.

Those fears collided last week in Spalding County – a rural region south of Atlanta – when a newly reconstituted elections board voted 3-2 to eliminate Sunday early voting in the upcoming election.

The decision “severely restricts an important voting option for all voters in Spalding County, but especially Black voters who have a historic community tradition called ‘Souls to the Polls’ to mobilize and vote on Sundays,” Aklima Khondoker of the New Georgia Project, an organization that works to expand voting access in Georgia, told CNN.

“The lasting impact here is that the Spalding County (elections board) does not prioritize ballot access for its voters and in particular, Black voters who have long suffered from unequal ballot access,” she added.

About 35% of Spalding residents are Black.

Ben Johnson, the Republican chairman of the Spalding County board, argued during last week’s meeting that plenty of other options exist, including mail-in voting and the ability to cast ballots on two Saturdays during Georgia’s 17-day early voting window.

“I still haven’t heard anything that leads me to say that we absolutely have to do it,” he said of Sunday balloting. “I’ve heard lots of emotional arguments and I sympathize with all of them. Anyone who only has Sunday off – God bless them – but we do have mail-in ballots available.”

Much of the consternation among voting rights groups centers on the sweeping voting rights law, known as SB202, enacted in Georgia last year. It allows partisan takeovers of local election boards deemed low performing by state election officials. (Georgia’s State Elections Board currently is examining whether to do so in Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold that includes parts of Atlanta.)

It also erects new barriers to voting absentee by mail, voting rights advocates argue, by requiring voters to submit identification to request absentee ballots. And it limits the hours and locations of drop boxes that voters use to return their ballots.

The Georgia legislature also has handed control of more election board appointments to conservative local judges or GOP-controlled county commissions in at least five counties – including Spalding – which shifted the partisan balance of power of these boards.

The electoral stakes are high in Georgia, where President Joe Biden won by fewer than 12,000 votes in 2020 and competitive Senate and gubernatorial races will take place this fall.

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Voting rights advocates plan Georgia outreach

With the May 24 Georgia primary fast approaching, a group of African-American faith leaders and voting rights advocates recently gathered in Atlanta to strategize how to navigate the new voting laws in this battleground state.

At the center of their plans: Enhance outreach to voters to explain all the new rules about absentee voting, drop boxes and early voting.

Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, the presiding prelate of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, told Kelly that the goal is to ensure voters don’t become discouraged by all the changes.

“We are resilient people,” Jackson said. “And I think as determined as they are to keep us from voting, I think we’re going to be just as determined and even more determined to get out and vote.”

Redistricting fights delay congressional maps in some states

We covered redistricting in a recent newsletter, but we wanted to update readers on the state of play.

Here’s the latest from CNN producers Ethan Cohen and Melissa Holzberg DePalo, who are closely tracking developments:

While May, with its busy primary calendar, is right around the corner, redistricting is still dragging on – leaving voters in some states without new district boundaries for US House seats. And recent developments could erode some of the early successes Democrats had in the fight over new lines.

Three states – Florida, Missouri and New Hampshire – have not enacted new district maps to account for population changes documented in the 2020 census. And in all three, it’s Republicans who haven’t been able to agree with one another to finish drawing new congressional maps.

Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire have halted the legislative process in their respective states. Last month, DeSantis vetoed a map passed by the Republican-controlled legislature because it didn’t break up a plurality-Black congressional district – which would have likely created another seat for Republicans. DeSantis instead proposed a congressional map that would decrease Black political power and cost Democrats more seats. Florida Republicans have promised to support DeSantis’ map in their special legislative session this week, but it’s likely to face legal challenges once it’s approved.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Sununu opposed a map that Republicans passed which would have created one Republican-leaning district and one Democratic-leaning district. Sununu wants the map to be more competitive and give each party a more even chance at winning in both districts. The state House redistricting committee will review Sununu’s draft map this week, which could come just in time, as the state Supreme Court recently announced they’d appoint a special master to draw the map if Sununu and the legislature don’t come to an agreement.

And in Missouri, redistricting has been caught up in a feud between Republicans in the state legislature. A small group of state Senate Republicans refused for weeks to vote for a map that would maintain the current 6-2 Republican advantage; they wanted a 7-1 map. They eventually lost that fight, but now the plan has stalled in the state House. Multiple lawsuits are pending in the state to have the courts jump in to draw the map.

In many states however, just getting a map passed is only half the battle, as litigation over new lines can undo the work of state legislators.

In New York, a lower court judge ruled that the map drawn by the Democratic-controlled state legislature, which could favor the party in 22 of the state’s 26 congressional seats, was a partisan gerrymander that violated the state constitution. But that decision was stayed pending appeal. There will be a hearing on Wednesday, and a decision on the matter is expected soon after, but the case is still likely to end up in New York’s highest court. The longer legal proceedings drag on, the more likely it is that the legislature-drawn map will be used in this year’s elections.

Democrats also had another recent legal defeat in Maryland, where a state judge blocked that state’s map for similar reasons of partisan fairness. Under that map, Republicans could have been locked out of the state’s congressional delegation. However, Maryland Democrats came to an agreement with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and enacted a new plan that would retain the state’s one safely Republican seat and make one of the state’s seven Democratic-held districts more competitive.

There are also ongoing court fights in several other states. In some, like Kansas, it’s possible maps could change before the 2022 elections. But we’re quickly approaching the heart of the primary calendar, and in many states with ongoing litigation, like Ohio, Georgia and Texas, any court ordered changes are more likely to take effect for the 2024 cycle.

You need to read

  • This smart Washington Post story that examines how few fraud cases pursued by local prosecutors around the country – despite repeated calls from allies of former President Donald Trump for mass arrests.
  • The latest from CNN’s Dianne Gallagher on one high-profile investigation into voter fraud – involving Trump’s former White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows.
  • Fredreka’s piece on the campaign money flowing to under-the-radar Supreme Court races – contests that are now in the spotlight as Democrats and Republicans wage war in the courts over congressional and state legislative maps.