An effort by three civil rights groups to get the federal courts to force Gwinnett County to open its satellite early voting sites this week for the presidential preference primary election failed Monday after a U.S. District Court judge rejected their request.
The lawsuit filed by the Gwinnett NAACP, the Georgia NAACP and the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda was the latest turn in an ongoing dispute over the early voting period for the March 24 presidential primary, which began Monday. The county’s elections board wanted three full weeks of early voting at the county’s elections headquarters and seven satellite polling sites.
The county commissioners instead approved one week at only the elections headquarters plus two weeks at the headquarters and satellite sites as part of the 2020 county budget adopted in January.
“Just because the right to vote is fundamental does not mean you have the right to vote in any particular manner,” U.S. District Court Judge Steven Grimberg said.
Grimberg’s ruling in the case means Gwinnett County will go forward with the early voting schedule adopted as part of the county budget, and later re-affirmed in February when the commissioners formally adopted the early voting schedule.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights’ John Powers did not officially rule out attempts to seek further emergency court action to try and get at least some of the satellite sites open for at least a couple of days this week, however.
“We appreciate the judge’s careful consideration and for convening this hearing on short notice and we’ll be taking his decision under advisement and considering our next step,” Powers said.
Any further legal attempts will have to come quickly, however. The satellite early voting sites open March 9, at which point the suit becomes moot. Once the satellite sites open, they will remain open daily, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., through March 20.
Owing to the fact that President Donald Trump is an incumbent Republican seeking re-election, Grimberg’s decision specifically affects Democrats since a Democratic presidential primary is what will be contested in the March 24 election.
But, in Gwinnett County, there has been a dispute between the Board of Elections and the county government over early voting.
The elections board’s members have taken the stance that the commission’s decision to not do the full three weeks of early voting at all sites as a sign of disrespect — a stance that two members, one Republican and one Democrat, publicly stated at the elections board’s February meeting.
Gwinnett Elections Division Director Lynn Ledford, who previously served as the county’s elections superintendent, said the ultimate decision about the amount of early voting that would be offered at the headquarters and satellite sites was based on the transition to new voting machines in Georgia.
Ledford said there were concerns about when Gwinnett would receive its new machines. The state was supposed to begin delivering the new machines on Jan. 24, but the first shipment did not arrive until Jan. 30 and shipments continued throughout February, she said.
The most recent shipment arrived last week, when the elections were conducting a “mock election” to prepare for the presidential preference primary, according to Ledford.
“I don’t think it would have been wise to say we are going to have all of this voting and then not have the equipment to do any voting,” Ledford said at the hearing.
The Gwinnett NAACP, the Georgia NAACP and the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda asked Grimberg to issue an injunction that would force Gwinnett to use the early voting schedule the elections board requested, rather than the one approved by county commissioners in January.
Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda Executive Director Helen Butler said early voting is particularly popular with minority voters who have concerns about possible disenfranchisement through the absentee ballot method of voting.
Gwinnett made headlines during the 2018 general election when high numbers of absentee ballots, many of which were reportedly cast by minority voters, were rejected because of issues such as mismatched signatures, missing signatures and other issues.
Courts had to intervene to force Georgia counties to not use the exact signature match requirement for absentee ballots during that election. State law was also changed to require counties to notify voters if there were issues with their absentee ballots before rejecting them.
“People of color prefer to vote in person so therefore early voting is a great opportunity for them,” Butler said. “Many of them have two to three jobs, have child care commitments and other commitments.”
In addition to voters working multiple jobs, some of the other reasons offered by Powers during the hearing as to why the county should have offered early voting at the satellite sites included transportation issues, such as traffic congestion in the Lawrenceville area at some times of the day.
But, Grimberg said not offering early voting at the satellite locations this week does not violate the constitutional rights of voters since there will be two weeks, including one full weekend, of early voting at the satellite sites in addition to the headquarters location.
“Inconvenience ... does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation,” the judge said.
Testimony offered by Ledford during the hearing showed Gwinnett is offering 372 hours of early voting for the presidential preference primary. That includes 228 hours of voting at the elections headquarters and 144 hours at the satellite sites.
During the March 1, 2016 presidential preference primary, when both Republicans and Democrats had contested primaries, there were 213 hours of early voting offered in Gwinnett, according to court filings. That included 153 hours at the elections headquarters and 60 hours at the satellite sites.
“The best comparison is the March 2016 (presidential preference) primary and there are significantly more hours being offered now than there were then,” Grimberg said.