Democrats sue for early voting in Georgia over Robert E. Lee’s holiday dispute

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ATLANTA — Democrats are suing to force Georgia election officials to allow early voting on a Saturday before the Dec. 6 US Senate runoff. The lawsuit comes in response to a finding by state officials that the law bans voting rights after Thanksgiving, a state holiday that once honored Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The state’s decision, announced over the weekend, prompted a lawsuit from Democrat-campaign Senator Raphael G. Warnock, as well as the Georgia Democratic Party and the campaign arm of the Democratic Senate. They argue in their lawsuit that the current guidance “applies only to primary and general elections, not runoff elections.”

Without court intervention, the lawsuit states, Georgia voters “will be deprived of the right to vote during the early voting period permitted by Georgian law.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) responded to the lawsuit Tuesday morning by accusing Democrats of “looking to change Georgia’s law immediately before an election based on their policy preferences” and “muddling the waters and the pressure districts to ignore Georgian law”.

Although Raffensperger originally said early voting would be offered on a Saturday, his staff later found that state law didn’t allow it. The deadline for early voting is set for November 28 to December 2, a period that doesn’t include a weekend day and that pro-voting rights advocates say is making it harder for some people to cast ballots.

A note sent to county officials by the Secretary of State’s Director of Elections over the weekend said: “If the second Saturday before the runoff follows a Thursday or Friday that is a national holiday, voting that Saturday is not permitted.”

For many years in Georgia, the Friday after Thanksgiving was recognized as “Robert E. Lee’s birthday,” even though the Confederate General’s birthday was January 19. In 2015, Gov. Nathan Deal (R) sponsored legislation that changed the name to “Robert E. Lee.” National holiday.”

Warnock faces a runoff against Republican Herschel Walker after neither candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote in the general election. Georgia is one of only two states that need a landmark runoff to decide general election campaigns. (The other is Louisiana.) Both of Georgia’s 2020 Senate races went into the January 2021 runoff. Democrats swept those races and ceded party control in the Senate.

Almost 4.5 million people voted in the two Senate elections – one of which was won by Warnock. That’s more than the total number of people who cast their ballots in Georgia’s elections last week.

During a Tuesday news conference in Atlanta, Warnock said elements of Georgia’s 2021 election law — including a shorter period between the general election and the runoff — have impacted ballot access. “It’s not a theory. These decisions have practical implications for normal, hard-working Georgia families,” Warnock said. “Not only is it wrong, it’s a misinterpretation of the law.”

Walker has not addressed the issue publicly. “Our focus is on meeting the voters and winning the election,” campaign spokesman Will Kiley said.

The dispute over Saturday’s vote is over the text of a Georgia law that defines when early voting is permitted in the state. The guidelines have been amended several times over the past decade, resulting in conflicting interpretations.

One of the most recent changes came last year when Georgia’s new electoral law reduced the period between a general election and a run-off from nine to four weeks. However, it was unclear how the change would affect voting on Saturday around a public holiday that had been banned in 2016.

“I think the big upside is that this part of the law is very poorly worded,” said Anthony Michael Kreis, professor of constitutional law and legal history at Georgia State University.

“On the one hand, the State Secretariat is right that the language about the couple-day window around a public holiday is pretty clear,” Kreis said. “However, this language is also being inserted into a section of code that appears to be talking about a normal, three-week early voting process, not the condensed few days we have in Georgia now before a runoff.”

Vasu Abhiraman, a senior policy adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, called the decision to shorten the runoff period a “disaster” and argued that it restricted voters’ access to the polls.

“Rather than inventing reasons to eliminate the few remaining options for Georgia voters to make their voices heard, the state should work with counties to maximize voter access for the runoff,” he said.

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