Mark Hamilton is struggling to see the merit in a lawsuit the U.S. Department of Justice has announced against Georgia.
Hamilton, the District 23 Republican state representative from Cumming, serves as chairman of the House Governmental Affairs Committee and has authored several bills to improve the state’s election system.
“This lawsuit has suddenly come up from left field,” he said. “They’ve had plenty of opportunities, but they’ve waited until after the primary election has already begun to file suit.”
In a recent letter, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez notified Georgia’s Attorney General Sam Olens and Secretary of State Brian Kemp of the justice department’s plan to file suit against the state for alleged violations of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, or UOCAVA.
Perez contends the state is not complying with a portion of the law that requires ballots be given to military and overseas voters at least 45 days prior to an election.
Absentee ballots have been sent to voters for the July 31 primary on time. However, a runoff election, if necessary, would be held Aug. 21. That would leave less than a month for absentee voters to know which candidates are in a runoff.
The same applies for the Nov. 6 general election, when the runoff is scheduled for Dec. 4.
“Absent corrective action, this failure to comply with UOCAVA’s 45-day deadline will deprive affected voters the opportunity to vote guaranteed by UOCAVA,” Perez wrote in his letter. “Given the imminence of the upcoming federal elections, time is very important to an effective resolution of this matter.”
Shortly after Perez’s letter was sent, the Department of Justice proposed a consent decree for the state, however Kemp’s office instead will let the federal government proceed with a lawsuit.
“If the DOJ was earnest, they would have previously contacted us about their concerns rather than sending a notice of a lawsuit a month before the primary election,” Kemp wrote in his response.
“The DOJ is attempting to twist the state’s arm into agreeing to a consent decree, the terms of which would place unnecessary stresses on the elections administration process, before even filing the lawsuit.”
Hamilton said elections have been the same since a 2005 memorandum of understanding between the state and justice department, establishing the State Write-in Absentee Ballot program.
The understanding is that when overseas voters receive their initial ballots, they will also be given a write-in ballot to use in a runoff election.
“My assumption is there’s a reason and it’s political,” Hamilton said. “The only thing I can think of is there’s an effort to have states not have runoffs.”
While absentee voters will have a write-in ballot for a runoff election within the 45 days required, the candidates involved in a runoff would only be known about three weeks before the ballots are due back.
Write-in ballots for candidates other than those who qualify for a runoff will be discarded.
Hamilton said it appears the justice department is “trying to say that Georgia does not support the military’s right to vote.” But that’s not true.
“We created this back in 2005,” he said. “We were one of the first states in the country in 2010 to comply with the [Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act]. We’re one of the leading states in the country as far as providing easy ballot access to overseas voters.”
Hamilton said the state would have been open to making changes, including shifting the dates on which elections and runoffs are held to be at least 45 days apart. But the timing of the lawsuit isn’t conducive to the state’s legislative session, which won’t begin until January.
“If this lawsuit happened last November, or during the 2010 session when we passed the MOVE Act, at least at that time, we would have had an option to move the time frame,” he said. “But as it stands right now, we have no option. There is no way we can add that time in there and meet the deadlines for the general and primary election.
“I can’t see why they waited until this late hour.”