On Friday, a federal district court dismissed a lawsuit claiming that Georgia’s voter roll maintenance law is illegal and unconstitutional. Judge Timothy Batten, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006, ruled that the law is legally permissible and does not run afoul of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) nor the First Amendment.
The Georgia Conference of the NAACP and Common Cause, a government watchdog typically associated with left-leaning causes, filed suit in 2016, alleging that Secretary of State Brian Kemp was using the law to throw voters off the rolls ahead of the 2016 elections. They claimed that Kemp used the law to remove nearly 400,000 voters between 2012 and 2014, violating the portion of the NVRA that says states cannot remove persons from the voting rolls solely because of a failure to vote. They also claimed that the law violates the First Amendment right to not vote (a right which has not been legally recognized).
On its face, the law does remove people from the rolls for not voting. If registered voters have not “made contact” with election officials in three years, they are put on inactive status, albeit after receiving a notice in the mail. If they are inactive for two or more federal election cycles (a minimum of four years) and fail to respond to the notices, then they are removed from the rolls and must reregister if they want to vote. Georgia successfully argued that this practice is in accordance with the NVRA’s directive that a registration list maintenance program be used to remove ineligible voters from the rolls on a regular basis. In this case, the state was targeting people who moved out of Georgia and are now registered to vote elsewhere. According to Kemp, voter roll maintenance is “essential to election security and avoiding fraud.”
Judge Batten agreed with Kemp, saying that the “maintenance of accurate voter rolls is a substantial state interest,” and in line with what the NVRA requires. Moreover, he said that even if there is a right to not vote (which is far from a settled issue), this law would not violate it because it is reasonable, nondiscriminatory, and does not infringe on political communication. This part of the ruling should not be particularly surprising, as the law did receive preclearance when it was last amended in 1997. Preclearance was the approval process that voting laws in Georgia had to go through before going into effect per sections four and five of the Voting Rights Act. Section four was struck down in the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, effectively halting the preclearance requirement until Congress updates the Voting Rights Act.
Here is a link to the original complaint filed by Common Cause in 2016. Common Cause was also behind an unsuccessful to challenge to Georgia’s voter ID law that was decided by the 11th Circuit in 2009.