The decision on Aug. 18 comes in a case brought a group led by the Stacey Abrams-linked voting and redistricting advocacy organization New Georgia Project, which challenged various parts of a multi-pronged election reform measure SB 202—also known as the Election Integrity Act of 2021 (pdf)—passed by the Georgia Legislature in March 2021 with no support from Democrats in both the state House and Senate.
The plaintiffs argued that the provision banning food and water distribution to those waiting in voting lines posed a threat to their right to free speech, which includes the right to encourage participation in elections. The voting activists requested a preliminary injunction in order to have the provision against food and drink distribution immediately blocked while the case is pending.
The state argued that the provision was necessary to protect against conditions at polling places that could raise worries over potential illegal campaigning or vote buying. State lawyers also argued it was too close to the upcoming election to make changes.
U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee sided with the state and refused to grant the preliminary injunction. He said that overall, it is too close to the election to block any part of the provision, and that having different rules for the general election compared to rules for the primaries earlier this year could confuse election workers.
He said in the 74-page order (pdf) that the plaintiffs didn’t meet the standard to win a preliminary injunction against providing food and drinks to those waiting in line to vote within 150 feet of a polling place.
But he noted that the activist groups were “substantially likely to succeed on the merits of their claim” in seeking to remove the ban on providing food and drink within 25 feet of any voter standing in line for those outside the 150 feet buffer zone of polling locations. He said outside 150 feet zone, such a restriction on food and drink for those waiting in line “is unreasonable and significantly impinges on Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights,” and “is an unconstitutional regulation of expressive conduct.”
“Because that zone [within 25 feet of a voter] is tied to the position of the voter in line and fluctuates based on the location of the voter, it has no fixed line of demarcation and no limit,” he wrote. “In practice, [this zone] could easily extend thousands of feet away from the polling station (and across private property) given the documented hours-long lines that voters at some polling locations have experienced.”
Boulee’s overall refusal to issue a preliminary injunction means the ban on providing food and water to voters in line at polling sites will remain in place for the November general election.
The voting activist groups expressed disappointment with the ruling, but said they will persist with their lawsuit.
“While Georgia’s cruel ban on line relief stands for now, we look forward to presenting our broader case against SB 202 at trial, where we will prove that many provisions in the legislation violate federal law and the Constitution,” said voting rights attorney for ACLU of Georgia Rahul Garabadu.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, one of multiple defendants in the lawsuit, said that Boulee’s decision is “a big win for rule of law,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“When the commonsense reforms of Georgia’s Election Integrity Act were signed into law, the woke mob attacked it with exaggerations and scare tactics that didn’t hold up in court,” said Raffensperger, reported the outlet. “This ruling means that Georgia’s elections will be governed by the laws duly enacted by Georgia’s elected officials.”
Republicans have said high turnout and short lines in this year’s primary elections show that the new law doesn’t discourage or restrict voting. But critics say it disproportionately affects marginalized voters, and many Democrats have pledged to roll it back.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is seeking reelection this year after easily beating runner up David Perdue in the GOP primary, and will be facing Democrat challenger Stacey Abrams, a former state representative who Kemp beat in 2018.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, is trying to fend off a challenge from Republican Herschel Walker.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.