Judge asked to extend voter registration due to hurricane

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A federal judge promised to rule quickly Friday on an emergency request to extend the voter registration period for at least one coastal Georgia county due to Hurricane Matthew, which forced thousands to evacuate and closed local Board of Elections offices for days.

Gov. Nathan Deal declined to give residents of coastal Georgia more time to register for the Nov. 8 election after the storm disrupted the final days for new voters to join the rolls. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed suit, arguing the refusal infringed on the voting rights of Savannah-area residents.

“If not in the aftermath of a natural disaster of these proportions, then when pray tell would an extension ever be justified?” William Custer, an attorney for the civil rights legal group, asked the judge during a Friday hearing.

The governor ordered Georgia’s six coastal counties to evacuate for the hurricane on Oct. 6. The Chatham County elections board and other county offices remained closed through Tuesday — the state’s deadline for registering to vote. Because of fallen trees and widespread power outages, post offices that also register voters didn’t reopen until Tuesday. Many residents, Custer argued, weren’t able to register online either because of the evacuation or because of technological glitches.

Groups suing the state want the registration deadline pushed back to next Tuesday, Oct. 18. They have asked the judge to decide whether to grant an extension just for Chatham County or for the entire state.

U.S. District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr. adjourned court Friday morning promising a written ruling “in the next few hours.”

State officials are opposing an extension, saying residents could have registered online or mailed in registration forms. Josiah Heidt, an assistant Georgia attorney general, told the judge prolonged registration would interfere with early voting in the state, which begins Monday.

“The state’s voting apparatus is in full swing,” Heidt said. Forcing election officials to register new voters while simultaneously conducting advance voting, he said, “would burden the state’s ability to have an orderly election.”

Moore pressed Heidt on exactly how election workers would be burdened. The attorney replied that election officials would be required to generate a separate list of newly registered voters to distribute to polling stations.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and two other groups, the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda and Third Sector Development. All three had to abandon voter registration efforts because of the hurricane, the lawsuit says.

The judge asked lawyers seeking the extension if they could point to any specific people who wanted to register but weren’t able to because of the hurricane. Custer said groups he was representing had received complaints from residents, but he didn’t have individual names.

Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, said new voters signing up at the last minute typically keep her group busy during last the week of registration.

“Very close to the deadline, we have a lot of people scurrying,” Butler said.

Deadlines were extended in other coastal states after Matthew roared up the Southeast coast from Florida, causing several deaths in the U.S. before weakening and heading out to sea. Powerful winds, heavy rain and flooding from Matthew led to downed trees, building damage and power outages around Chatham County, which has 278,000 residents and includes Savannah.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott also declined to extend that state’s deadline, but a federal judge on Wednesday extended it to 5 p.m. on Oct. 18. South Carolina extended its original Oct. 7 deadline to accept registration forms postmarked no later than Tuesday because of the storm. North Carolina’s voter registration deadline is Friday, but the state also has same-day registration during its early voting period, Oct. 20 through Nov. 5.