Judge extends registration deadline in key Georgia congressional race

A federal judge has ordered that Georgia re-open voter registration for next month’s closely watched congressional election runoff.

The decision is a win for voting rights advocates, and it could help boost Democrats’ chances of capturing the seat — an outcome that would deliver a stinging rebuke to President Trump.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Batten on Thursday issued a preliminary injunction ordering Georgia to continue accepting voter registration applications until May 21. Under state law, Georgia had shut down registration on March 20, a full three months ahead of the election.

“If a preliminary injunction is not granted requiring Defendants to process voter-registration applications received after the previous deadline of March 20, numerous voters who would otherwise be eligible to vote in the runoff will be denied that right,” wrote Batten, an appointee of President George W. Bush.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp is still considering whether to appeal the decision, Candice Broce, a Kemp spokeswoman, told The Daily Demoracy Friday morning. Broce added that her office had already begun working with local election officials in the three counties hosting the runoff — Cobb, DeKalb, and Fulton — to implement the order.

But Broce warned that the process would take time. “This change is not as easy as flipping a switch,” she said.

Kemp, a Republican who favors strict voting and registration policies, has frequently sparred with voting rights advocates and Democrats.

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) bars states from cutting off voter registration more than 30 days ahead of an election. Georgia law doesn’t consider the June 20 runoff to be a new election but rather an extension of the first round of voting, which took place April 18. As a result, the state claimed, it could legally use the March 20 cutoff date for both rounds.

Batten dismissed that argument quickly, finding that the NVRA rules apply to all elections, including runoffs.

Georgia also argued that its voter registration requirements count as substantive voter qualifications, which the Constitution says are the purview of states, not of the federal government.

Batten rejected that argument, too, citing numerous precedents holding that the registration rules instead fall under Congress’s authority to regulate the “times, places, and manner” of federal elections.

“Would-be voters in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District were denied a full and fair opportunity to register and vote under the prior law,” said Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which brought the lawsuit. The decision, Clarke added, “helps ensure that eligible voters will be able to participate in the upcoming runoff election and in all future runoff elections for federal office. States like Georgia must stop taking actions that suppress the rights of voters.”

It’s likely that the order will allow more Democratic voters to register than Republicans, because studies show racial minorities and the poor — groups that skew Democratic — tend to move more frequently than others, and therefore need to register later.

In the runoff, Democrat Jon Ossoff, the top vote-getter in the first round, faces Republican Karen Handel, who as secretary of state herself took a restrictive approach to voting access.

The race has attracted national attention as an early referendum on the Trump administration. An Ossoff win in the traditionally Republican district would represent a major embarrassment for the president and would offer Democrats a momentum boost ahead of next year’s midterms.

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