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Federal Judge Extends Absentee Voting Deadline, Setting the Stage for Another Trump Campaign Lawsuit

US President Donald Trump delivers the commencement address at Hope for Prisoners graduation ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 20, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)

A federal court in Georgia extended a crucial absentee ballot deadline on Monday–giving voters extra time to return their ballots for the upcoming election and giving the Trump campaign a fresh round of fodder for its legal crusade against mail-in voting expansion.

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia Judge Eleanor Ross issued a 70-page ruling which says the Peach State must accept and count all ballots that are postmarked by election day and received by elections authorities within three days of being mailed.

“The court notes it is reluctant to interfere with Georgia’s statutory election machinery. However, where the risk of disenfranchisement is great, as is the case here, narrowly tailored injunctive relief is appropriate,” Ross wrote. “The court emphasizes that the equitable relief it provides is limited to the November 2020 election during these extraordinary times.”

The decision in the lawsuit brought by the New Georgia Project is focused on five aspects of Georgia’s absentee voting system. Ultimately, Ross determined that the voting rights-focused plaintiffs failed to make their case on most of those challenges.

She did find, however, that Georgia’s law requiring “that absentee ballots must be delivered to a county election official by 7:00 p.m. on Election Day” is likely an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote and in violation of procedural Due Process.

“Plaintiffs have shown that Georgia voters can be and have been disenfranchised by the current receipt deadline through no fault of their own,” the decision notes. “In 2018—a time free from the current complications of the COVID-19 pandemic and related strains on voting infrastructure—over 3,500 absentee ballots were rejected in Georgia for arriving after the Election Day receipt deadline. During the June 2020 Primary Election, the number of rejected-as-late ballots doubled to 7,281. This evidence suggests the burden on many voters will be severe.”

“Extending the deadline would ensure that voters who receive their ballots shortly before Election Day are able to mail their ballots without fear that their vote will not count,” Ross concluded.

Voting rights advocates quickly hailed the decision.

“Today’s decision is a huge victory for Georgia voters, and a huge win in the fight for every vote to be counted,” Democratic Party of Georgia Chair Nikema Williams said in a statement. “All Georgians deserve to have their voice heard, and in the midst of a global pandemic, it is the responsibility of our democracy to make voting by mail and early voting options as accessible as possible.”

“This is [sic] HUGE win,” Democratic Party election law attorney Marc Elias tweeted. “Can’t stop winning…and it’s only Monday!”

Other legal experts advised caution.

“Expect this to be appealed and for it to be a BIG issue,” predicted Tulane Law Professor Ross Garber. “Republicans likely to point to the Supreme Court’s decision in Foster v. Love (1997) and the 9th Circuit’s decision in Voting Integrity Project v. Kristin as standing for notion that ballots must be RECEIVED by Election Day.”

In the former case, the high court unanimously found that Louisiana’s “open primary” held in October was unconstitutional because if a candidate in any given race received a majority of the ballots cast they were elected to the office–effectively bypassing “the federal statutes that establish a uniform federal election day.”

In the latter decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals directly addressed the issue of “whether state legislation allowing people to vote by mail over an extended period violates a federal statute requiring that the election shall be held on a particular day.” Specifically, the issue in this case was whether Georgia’s vote-by-mail system was constitutional in light of the federal election day statute because it allowed people to vote for weeks before the actual date of the election. The court ruled that it was.

The holding in the second case is likely to be availed by any potential GOP plaintiffs looking to contest Monday’s Georgia ruling:

The Supreme Court has provided the device for reconciling the federal election day statute and the federal absentee voting statute: a definition of “election” that treats election day as the “consummation” of the process rather than any day during which voting takes place. Given that definition, and the force of the absentee voting statute, Oregon is in compliance with the federal election day statute. Although voting takes place, perhaps most voting, prior to election day, the election is not “consummated” before election day because voting still takes place on that day.

In a joint effort, the Republican National Committee (RNC) and President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign have earmarked at least $20 million for litigation that seeks to derail efforts at making it easier for people to vote.

The unprecedented effort has had some successes and some failures so far–but the GOP is intent on forestalling efforts to liberalize voting regimes across the country and the president has made it clear in numerous public statements that he intends to litigate various aspects of the 2020 election.

Read the full decision below:

NEW GEORGIA PROJECT v. RAFFENSPERGER by Law&Crime on Scribd

[image via JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images]

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