Judge orders voter registration extended due to hurricane

2016-10-15 10:06
File: AFP

File: AFP

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Savannah — A federal judge on Friday ordered Georgia officials to extend the voter registration deadline for one coastal county hit hard by Hurricane Matthew, which forced thousands to evacuate and closed local Board of Elections offices for days.

The judge's ruling came after Governor Nathan Deal declined to give residents of coastal Georgia more time to register for the November 8 election, despite the storm's disruption of the final days for new voters to join the rolls. The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed suit, arguing the refusal infringed on the voting rights of Savannah-area residents.

US District Court Judge William Moore Junior ruled residents of Chatham County, which includes Savannah, must be allowed to register through next Tuesday, October 18 — a week after the original deadline passed.

"Extending a small degree of common courtesy by allowing impacted individuals a few extra days to register to vote seems like a rather small consolation on behalf of their government," Moore wrote in his order.

The governor ordered Georgia's six coastal counties to evacuate for the hurricane on October 6. The Chatham County elections board and other county offices remained closed through Tuesday, the state's deadline for registering to vote. Because of fallen trees and widespread power outages, post offices that also register voters didn't reopen until Tuesday. Many residents, Custer argued, weren't able to register online either because of the evacuation or because of technological glitches.

Groups suing the state asked the judge to decide whether to grant an extension for the entire state. Moore chose to limit the extra registration days to Chatham County. Attorneys said election offices in Georgia's other five coastal counties, which also evacuated, managed to reopen before the registration deadline.

State officials opposed an extension, saying residents could have registered online or mailed in registration forms. Josiah Heidt, an assistant Georgia attorney general, told the judge prolonged registration would interfere with early voting in the state, which begins on Monday.

"The state's voting apparatus is in full swing," Heidt said. Forcing election officials to register new voters while simultaneously conducting advance voting, he said, "would burden the state's ability to have an orderly election".

Heidt said election officials would be required to generate a separate list of newly registered voters to distribute to polling stations.

The judge rejected that argument.

Moore wrote: "Those administrative hurdles pale in comparison to the physical, emotional, and financial strain Chatham County residents faced in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew".

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and two other groups: the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda and Third Sector Development. All three had to abandon voter registration efforts because of the hurricane, the lawsuit says.

The judge asked lawyers seeking the extension if they could point to any specific people who wanted to register but weren't able to because of the hurricane. Custer said groups he was representing had received complaints from residents, but he didn't have individual names.

Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda, said new voters signing up at the last minute typically keep her group busy during last the week of registration.

"Very close to the deadline, we have a lot of people scurrying," Butler said.

Deadlines were extended in other coastal states after Matthew roared up the Southeast coast from Florida, causing several deaths in the US before weakening and heading out to sea. Powerful winds, heavy rain and flooding from Matthew led to downed trees, building damage and power outages around Chatham County, which has 278 000 residents and includes Savannah.

Florida Governor Rick Scott also declined to extend that state's deadline, but a federal judge on Wednesday extended it to 17:00 on October 18. South Carolina extended its original October 7 deadline to accept registration forms postmarked no later than Tuesday because of the storm. North Carolina's voter registration deadline was Friday, but the state also has same-day registration during its early voting period, October 20 through November 5.

Read more on:    us  |  us elections 2016

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