WASHINGTON — Civil rights groups have now filed at least three legal challenges to Georgia's newly enacted law changing state election procedures, putting it to the courts to decide if the law's passage was simply the result of bare-knuckled politics or whether it crossed the line into illegal discrimination.
The state legislature passed the law on a strictly party-line vote. Opponents have called it a transparent effort to push back against the victories that Georgia Democrats gave to President Joe Biden and two candidates for the U.S. Senate.
"Many of the things that the bill does are in line with what other states already do, so the question is whether a contraction of voting rights for bad purposes is illegal, even if the contraction does not go as far as some other states," Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine, said.
Because federal courts have made it harder to prove intentional racial discrimination, "a partisan intent, even if it overlaps with race, may well not be enough" for the challenges to find success, Hasen said.
Among the Georgia law's provisions is a requirement that voters who want to request an absentee or mail-in ballot must submit the number of their driver's license or state ID card. A lawsuit filed by two civil rights groups, The New Georgia Project and the Black Voters Matter Fund, said that will "disproportionately affect voters who are elderly, indigent, or from minority communities."
A second lawsuit filed by the Georgia NAACP and other groups said Black residents in Georgia are 88 percent more likely to be below poverty level and therefore less likely to possess the required forms of identification.
Similar objections about suppressing voter participation were made when states began to impose a requirement for showing a photo ID at the polls, but there is little data to show that they actually do affect turnout. At the same time, Hasen said, "These laws have not been shown to prevent fraud or promote voter confidence."
Some election law experts have said such a requirement could make evaluating mail-in ballots easier. "The basic idea of requiring a numerical ID, like a driver's license number or equivalent provided by the state free of charge, makes a lot more sense for absentee ballots than signature matching, which is so subjective usually," said Edward Foley, an election law expert at Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.
Under the new Georgia law, voters who do not have a state-issued ID card can also provide a copy of a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, or other government document that shows their name and address.
Other provisions of the law may also be difficult for the courts to assess. It requires every county to have at least one drop box for absentee ballots, but the boxes must be inside a government building and can only be used during business hours.
The state said early voting would be expanded, adding an additional Saturday and allowing counties to provide an extra Sunday. But the NAACP said early voting for runoff elections was cut to five days from the original three weeks, and counties can limit voting to between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., potentially making it harder for hourly wage earners to get to the polls.
Some of the law's new limitations will be harder to defend in court.
The law makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, to give away food or water to voters standing in line within 150 feet of the outer edge of a polling place or within 25 feet of any voter.
The law's supporters said that provision is intended to ban electioneering, blocking political parties or candidate supporters from offering aid to voters. The law is written more broadly, however, and bars the provision of such aid from anyone but poll workers. A third lawsuit, announced by the ACLU Tuesday on behalf of multiple organizations that engage minority voters, called the ban "cruel and inhumane.”
“These provisions will affect all Georgia voters. But consistent with Georgia’s long and ongoing record of discrimination, the burdens will be disproportionately felt by voters of color, especially Black voters,” the complaint read, adding that these voters “rely on water and other support to withstand the long lines they wait in to vote.”
Biden, in response to a question about what the White House could do to protect voting rights in Georgia, said Friday that the Justice Department was reviewing the law.
"We're working on that right now and we don't know quite exactly what we can do at this point, the Justice Department is taking a look as well," he told reporters.
The U.S. Supreme Court is now struggling to come up with a test for determining when a change in state voting procedures violates the law. The case, argued earlier this month, involves a challenge to new Arizona rules involving ballots cast in the wrong precincts and governing the collection of mail ballots.
In the past, such changes would have required permission from the Justice Department or a federal court, but the Supreme Court did away with that pre-clearance requirement when it gutted part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
The court's decision, expected by late June, may help determine what happens to Georgia's new law and similar efforts now underway in other states.