A federal judge on Thursday ordered the state of Georgia to extend until May 21 the deadline to register to vote in a closely watched special congressional election taking place next month.
The decision will affect the race between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Ossoff has seen an unexpected amount of support in the district long controlled by Republicans, and many are looking to the race as a bellwether of anti-Donald Trump political energy in the early months his presidency.
Five civil rights and civic engagement groups sued the state last month, claiming that it was violating the National Voter Registration Act. The law says that a state may set a cut off for an election no sooner than 30 days before it occurs.
Georgia met that requirement for an April 18 election to fill the House seat vacated by Tom Price, Trump’s pick for health and human services secretary. But because no candidate in the race received 50 percent of the vote, Ossoff and Handel advanced to a runoff.
The state argued that the runoff was a continuation of the April election. Because of that, the state said, anyone who had not registered by March 20 could not vote in June. The plaintiffs argued that violated the NVRA, which clearly says the 30-day rule applies to runoff elections as well.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten, who former President George W. Bush nominated to the federal bench, entered a preliminary injunction forcing the state to extend its voter registration deadline because “numerous voters” would suffer “substantial and irreparable harm” if they were not allowed to vote. A preliminary injunction served the public interest because the ruling would allow as many qualified voters to cast ballots as possible, Batten said.
Georgia has argued that extending the deadline would interrupt the election process and force the state to hire temporary workers to process a backlog of voter registration applications. Those burdens, Batten said, “though not insignificant, do not outweigh the all-but-certain harm Plaintiffs will suffer absent an injunction.”
“Would-be voters in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District were denied a full and fair opportunity to register and vote under the prior law,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, one of the groups that brought the suit, said in a statement.
“Today’s decision extending the voter registration deadline helps ensure that eligible voters will be able to participate in the upcoming runoff election, and in all future runoff elections for federal office,” she said. “States like Georgia must stop taking action to suppress the rights of voters.”
Ossoff also praised the decision.
“Voting rights are constitutional rights,” he said in a statement. “I encourage all eligible voters to ensure that they are registered and make their voices heard on June 20th and in all elections, regardless of their party or political persuasion.”
Read the whole order here:
This article has been updated with comment from Ossoff.
CORRECTION: This article previously misstated the date the congressional election took place in April and the initial voter registration deadline.