By: Alex Lipow
When in-person early voting for the 2020 General Election in Georgia began, technological and logistical issues—coupled with unprecedented voter enthusiasm—created excessively long lines for voters to cast ballots. Across the Atlanta metropolitan area, many voters had to stand in line for five hours to vote. A disproportionate number of unreasonably long voting lines occurred in minority communities. This episode was only the latest example of long voting lines plaguing Georgia’s electoral system and some feared it portended poorly for a smooth Election Day.
However, the day after early voting began in Georgia, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by three Georgia voters and arms of the Democratic Party (the “Plaintiffs”) against certain Georgia election officials. Hoping to minimize long lines (like those described above) on Election Day 2020, the Plaintiffs sought a judicial order requiring certain election officials to provide “a sufficient number, and equitable distribution, of polling places and other election resources . . .” The Plaintiffs argued that these resources were especially necessary for Election Day 2020 because an unprecedented number of Georgians were expected to vote, even amidst the ongoing COVID pandemic. The Plaintiffs maintained that long lines create an unconstitutional burden on Georgia voters as they try to exercise their First and Fourteenth Amendment fundamental right to vote and substantive due process right to a “fundamentally fair” electoral system.
The precipitating events to this suit are well documented and although Georgians have had to stand in long lines to vote in person for years, the situation reached a crescendo recently. Indeed, in 2018 the wait to vote in Georgia was two and a half times longer than the national average and the longest overall in the country, with many voters waiting three hours to cast ballots. The situation becomes starker when comparing minority neighborhoods to white neighborhoods, especially in the June 2020 primary election. As I wrote in my last post,
“An expert for the Plaintiffs found that during the primary election in Georgia in June 2020, ‘polling places where minorities constituted more than 90 percent of active registered voters, the average minimum wait time in the evening was 51 minutes. When whites constituted more than 90 percent of registered voters, the average was around six minutes.’ Strikingly, two-thirds of the polling places in Georgia that had to remain open into the night in order to accommodate long lines served majority-minority communities. In some cases, minority voters had to wait in line for eight hours to vote.”
Although federal Judge Michael Brown acknowledged this history of long lines to vote in Georgia and the justifiable fear that a similar problem could occur on Election Day, he dismissed the suit. Judge Brown ruled that the Plaintiffs did not prove that Georgia voters would face similarly long lines on Election Day and therefore did not have an imminent injury to show standing. To bolster this point, Judge Brown cited assurances from Georgia election officials that, in contrast to the June primary, Election Day would feature more technicians, poll workers and backup supplies. Judge Brown also pointed to voting alternatives available to Georgia voters, including absentee and early voting options. Critically, Judge Brown held that the Plaintiffs’ requests were vague while Georgia election officials had “taken extensive measures to address the issues that caused long lines in the past.” Even with preventative measures, the judge maintainedthat “no one, including this Court, can guarantee short lines.”
Despite the handwringing, Election Day in Georgia ultimately went smoothly for voters. The average wait time to vote was an impressive two minutes. There were only a handful of technical issues, and they were quickly addressed. As one Georgia election official put it, “[i]n this state, this time, this election on Election Day was an amazing success.”