U.S. judge rejects Georgia motion to stay election date-change ruling
4:01 pm, October 15th, 2013
A federal judge in Atlanta has refused to allow the state of Georgia to leave next year’s scheduled July election primary in place while it appeals his decision resetting the election nearly two months earlier than the state had planned.
In an order filed today, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones of the Northern District of Georgia said the public interest “will be injured” if the state is allowed to conduct the 2014 federal elections under its current calendar, which Jones overturned in July. Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s appeal of that order is pending in the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Jones ruled in July that the state’s current calendar, which has traditionally scheduled the primary elections for state and federal offices on the third Tuesday in July, violated the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986. That law requires the state to send absentee ballots to military and overseas voters 45 days before any federal election.
The state’s current law schedules a combined state and federal primary runoff election to take place 21 days after the primary and any general election runoff, if needed, to take place 28 days after the general election.
In his July order, Jones reset Georgia’s current election calendar to comply with the federal law’s 45-day requirement – but only with regard to federal candidates. Jones’ July order did not require the state to change its calendar for state races. But by moving the federal primary from the third Tuesday in July to June 3, 2014 – the earliest primary in the state’s history – to meet the requirements of the federal voter law, the judge gave the state the choice of footing the bill to hold separate primaries for state and federal offices or change the state’s election calendar to conform with his order.
Jones later agreed with a request from Kemp to set the Georgia primary on May 20 to avoid possible conflicts with Memorial Day weekend.
But the state also sought to delay implementation of Jones’ order while the appeal is pending. State attorneys argued that Jones’ ruling was in error and that, “By changing the date of federal elections in Georgia so that Georgia voters will now be required to go to the polls on two separate dates in order to vote in state and federal elections, the Court ‘pre-empted’ the Georgia General Assembly’s expressed intent to conduct state and federal elections on the same date.”
In denying the state’s motion to delay, Jones said that he had been “forced to act swiftly” to reset the federal election calendar to prevent a continuing violation of federal voting laws “in the face of the Georgia General Assembly’s failure to act in its 2013 legislative session and in the absence of reasonable assurances” that it would remedy the federal violations during the 2014 legislative session.
Jones’ also noted in his order that state attorneys had “mischaracterized” his July order when they claimed he had ordered the state to hold different federal and state political party primary elections.
“The Court’s [July] order only addressed federal elections to be held in the state of Georgia,” Jones said. “The Court has no authority to alter the state and local political party elections. It appears that the essence of the [Secretary of State’s] argument is that the Court’s order results in different federal and state political party primary election dates. The Court thoroughly considered this matter in making its ruling; however, in order to comply with the 45-day [federal] requirements, in the absence of the Georgia Legislature moving the date for the state political party elections to the same date as the court-ordered federal election dates, there is no way for the Court to legally address this result.”
Jones said that any stay of his July order would allow the state to continue to hold its next year’s primary in July – and create a hardship for military and overseas voters. “No right is more precious than the right to vote,” he said. “Even the most basic of other rights are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”
“The public interest will be injured if a stay is granted because [military and overseas] voters will be subject to another election cycle that does not comply” with federal law, the judge continued. “The Court declines to sanction another election cycle that does not comply.”
A comment from the Secretary of State’s office could not be obtained immediately.