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Judge orders voter registration reopened ahead of 6th District runoff

A federal judge on Thursday ordered Georgia to temporarily reopen voter registration ahead of a hotly contested runoff in the 6th Congressional District.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten made the ruling as part of a broader lawsuit by a Washington-based advocacy group, which last month accused Georgia of violating federal law by reducing the amount of time residents have to register to vote.

Voter registration was shut down March 20 ahead of the deciding runoff June 20 in the 6th District election, which is being held in the northern suburbs of metro Atlanta.

Batten, however, ordered registration immediately reopened until May 21 and said he was confident Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office would be able to handle what state officials said was a major undertaking so late in the election process.

According to both state and local officials, it could mean hiring additional staff to handle new registration requests as well as coding changes to software that tracks new voters in the state’s system — something, in other words, that is not as easy as flipping a switch.

Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said the office will work to comply with the order. “Brian Kemp swore an oath to uphold and defend Georgia law,” Broce said. “That is what he did, and that is what he will continue to do.”

Jill Boyd Myers, a plaintiff in the suit who bought a house in Sandy Springs two days after the original deadline, said she was ecstatic. “This just felt like a real prohibition” as a voter, she said.

Arguing on behalf of Kemp, Josiah Heidt, an assistant Georgia attorney general, told Batten that the law was intended to view runoffs as a continuation of the same election. So voters who qualified for the regular election were the same voters eligible to vote in the runoff.

Such a view, Heidt said, has been used for decades.

Batten didn’t strongly disagree. In fact, he said it seemed like a “fairly common legislative characterization … I don’t think it’s nonsensical.”

But arguing for the plaintiffs, Ira M. Feinberg said the National Voter Registration Act requires states to allow anyone to vote in a federal election if they register at least 30 days before that election. A runoff, he said, counts as an election unto itself under that rule and not as just a continuation of the previous vote.

The suit, filed by The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on behalf of five civil rights and voting rights organizations in addition to Boyd Myers, claims Georgia law cuts off voter registration for federal runoff elections two months earlier than what should be allowed.

Batten, who was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush, held the hearing Thursday in Atlanta after the groups asked for an emergency injunction.

The 6th District race has become a nationally watched barometer on the early effect of Donald Trump’s presidency, with Democrats making a run at what has been considered a solidly GOP seat.

Democrat Jon Ossoff, among a field of 18 candidates, won 48 percent of the vote April 18, falling short of the necessary majority to claim victory outright.

He now faces Republican Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state who has made an effort to consolidate GOP support and got a fundraising visit last week from Trump.

After the ruling, Handel’s campaign released a statement calling the suit “partisan” and said it “should be seen for exactly what it is: A partisan attempt to change the rules in the middle of an election for a nakedly partisan outcome.”

Ossoff’s campaign cheered the ruling and released a statement from the candidate encouraging “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.”

It is unclear whether reopening registration will have a tangible effect on the runoff’s outcome.

An analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found last month that voter registration in the 6th District increased only 2.5 percent in the months since the presidential election. That tied for the fourth-lowest increase among Georgia’s 14 congressional districts.

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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