Georgia Judge Allows Saturday Vote After Warnock, Democrats Sue

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(Bloomberg) -- A Georgia state court judge ruled that voters can go to the polls on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, handing a victory to US Senator Raphael Warnock and the Democratic Party.

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The ruling on Friday came after a hearing in Atlanta on a last-minute lawsuit by Warnock, who faces Republican Herschel Walker in a Dec. 6 runoff. The decision enjoins Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger from any further efforts to keep the polls closed on that day.

Attorneys for Warnock argued that Raffensperger was misreading the state’s new election law and asked Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thomas Cox to immediately enjoin the ban on voting on the only allowable Saturday before the election.

“Foreclosing voting opportunities has always been considered irreparable harm,” said attorney Uzoma Nkwonta.

That Warnock and the Democratic Party would sue over just one day of casting ballots underscores how much the 2021 GOP election overhaul has derailed early voting in Georgia’s runoff elections. Democrats say curtailing early voting is an attempt to reduce participation by Black Georgians.

Warnock is competing in a very different runoff election than the one he won two years ago. He and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff delivered the Senate to Democrats in 2021 after a nine-week runoff race that included three weeks of allowed early voting.

Later that year, the Republican state legislature cut the runoff period to four weeks, with an even more dramatic ripple effect on early voting, long a staple of Democratic and minority turnout strategy. Georgians will have as little as five days to vote in advance this year, and no more than seven, if the lawsuit prevails.

First Test

The upcoming contest is the first test of how the changed law works in a major runoff, and so far it’s delivered chaos, largely because lawmakers shortened the time line but left other legal rules and deadlines in place. Even before the Nov. 8 Senate results that prompted the runoff, for instance, it was already too late to register to vote in the runoff. The deadline was Nov. 7.

Other pre-existing deadlines, meanwhile, have created an obstacle course for local elections officials trying to open for early voting as soon as possible. State law requires a minimum of five days, from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2, and allows counties to add Sunday, Nov. 27, or earlier week days.

But counties first have to wait until after the Nov. 8 election results are certified, which won’t happen until Monday. And they had to act fact. State law requires a week’s public notice. Counties wanting to start the vote the first possible day after the certification would have had to have given notice three days ago.

Some have tried, because of fears of long Election Day lines.

“We are doing what we have to do, which is change the tires while the car is moving,” said Cathy Woolard, chairman of the board of elections in Fulton County, home of Atlanta, during a Tuesday meeting to decide when to begin early voting.

“We do want to give as many opportunities for advanced voting as we can, because of the tremendous interest in this race.”

Fulton’s board on Tuesday passed a motion allowing administrators to add Tuesday, Nov. 22, and Wednesday, Nov. 23, to the calendar, if they could meet all other legal requirements. On Wednesday, administrators said it couldn’t be done.

The fight over voting on Nov. 26, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, also stems from the truncated runoff time line colliding with other parts of state law.

Robert E. Lee

Raffensperger originally told counties that they could open polls on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

But he reversed that last weekend, saying state law prohibited it because it fell too close to two state holidays, Thanksgiving and the day after, a Friday that used to be named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee but has since been renamed State Holiday.

The historic name drew national criticism. “This really is egregious,” tweeted Democratic consultant David Axelrod. “Dropping a day of early voting before the Georgia runoff because of a holiday originally meant to honor Robert E. Lee.!”

Raffensperger said the Saturday after Thanksgiving would have been off-limits even without State Holiday because of a 2016 law. It allowed early voting on the second Saturday before an election, unless it followed a state holiday on either a Thursday or a Friday, in which case it would be moved back to the previous Saturday.

That workaround posed no problem in a nine-week runoff. In this year’s truncated version, however, it meant counties would have had to schedule the only Saturday of early voting three days before they were allowed to begin opening polls at all, because of the required wait until after certification.

Today’s hearing was originally scheduled for Nov. 23. It was moved up because of notice requirements. If the plaintiffs prevail, counties could put out a public notice of the Saturday voting by tomorrow.

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