Voting rights groups on Monday asked a judge to block a provision of a new Georgia law that is not necessarily the most consequential, but the one that has certainly sparked the most outrage: a ban on distributing food and water to voters waiting in line.
The ban is just one part of a 98-page bill containing dozens of changes to state election law, including shortening the time limit for requesting a mail-in ballot, reversing the expansion of ballot boxes due to the pandemic and reduction in early voting before the second round of elections.
But it’s perhaps the easiest to understand, and the one that critics call particularly punitive. The groups have argued that this unlawfully infringes on their free speech rights and should be blocked immediately, even before any broader cases challenging other areas of the law come to trial.
U.S. District Judge JP Boulee did not immediately rule on the preliminary injunction request.
State attorneys described the provision as a “clear line” drawn to prevent circus conditions around polling places that could raise concerns about the possibility of illegal campaigning or vote buying. Former Richmond County Chief Electoral Officer Lynn Bailey called the measure “harsh”. .”
The US Department of Justice has also sued to try to strike down Senate Bill 202, arguing it is racially discriminatory, but it was not among the groups seeking an injunction on Monday.
The hearing came just months before the politically divided state holds a hotly contested November election. Democrat Stacey Abrams challenges Republican incumbent Governor Brian Kemp, while Republican Herschel Walker attempts to unseat Democratic US Senator Raphael Warnock.
The state also argued that it was too late, under previous court rulings, for Boulee to make changes to the November 2022 election. Plaintiffs cited multiple examples where changes were made until the day before the elections.
Many Democrats pledge to roll back Senate Bill 202 while protecting election results from attack. Republicans say a smooth ballot in the May primaries with a relatively high turnout and short lines showed the new law was not restricting voting. But opponents warn that the law sets up roadblocks for marginalized voters, an effect they say will become more evident in November.
It was against this backdrop on Monday that groups called on Boulee to block the food and drink ban, known as ‘line relief’ or ‘line warming’, saying it violated their right to freedom of expression to encourage people to vote.
“Line relief constitutes essential expressive conduct,” said Davin Rosborough, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Its meaning is well understood in the communities where plaintiffs provide it.”
He said Georgia “stands alone” as the only state to ban and criminalize the practice.
Rhonda Briggins of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, said her historically African-American group had been among those providing food and water to voters in previous elections, but halted the activity when the new law was passed. been adopted.
“We’ve been doing it for years,” Briggins said. “It’s to encourage people to stay online. We are the cheerleaders.
But state witnesses argued that such activity spun out of control in the 2020 election, with clearly partisan groups providing elaborate food and other goods. State Election Board member Matt Mashburn, a Republican poll watcher before he was appointed to the board, said he saw Democrats not only delivering food but seemingly controlling the line outside a polling place of Cobb County in early voting.
“My reaction to that is we completely lost control of the compound,” Mashburn said. “And when voters see that the election workers have lost control, it makes them very nervous for their own safety and makes them nervous that someone is cheating.”
The judge hypothetically asked if it would be okay for groups to give voters steaks.
“Is it a bottle of water because someone is thirsty, or is it a bottle of Gatorade to determine US Senate control?” Boulée asked.
The plaintiffs noted that campaigning within 150 feet (45 meters) of a polling place was illegal before and after the new law, as was giving someone a thing of value in exchange for the vote, and l State should enforce these laws to prevent inappropriate campaigning.
They also argued that Georgia could have tailored its law more narrowly by limiting the value of what can be given to voters. But Ryan Germany, chief counsel for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, said forcing overworked election workers to check whether gifts were illegally tied to voting or people were campaigning illegally was “a tricky proposition” that depended on facts of each case.
The state argues that an outright ban simplifies the work of election officials.
“It’s a clear rule,” attorney Gene Schaerr said. “No one has to decide how much is too much.”
Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.