Lawsuit looks to reverse law banning food and water in voting lines

The Atlanta metro area saw wait times of up to 10 hours in some cases during the 2020 election.
Published: Apr. 28, 2023 at 5:55 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Well ahead of the upcoming 2024 election cycle a handful of civil liberties groups are trying to reverse a Georgia voting law that to some, might seem trivial but is vastly impactful, they say.

Line relief is the process – usually carried out by volunteer groups – of providing food and water to voters waiting in long lines. The Atlanta metro area saw wait times of up to 10 hours in some cases during the 2020 election.

But shortly after that election, and the January 2021 runoff cycle that followed, Georgia Republicans made sweeping changes to the state’s voter laws. Among the changes, which included mandating that voters show identification to receive an absentee ballot and cutting the number of absentee ballot drop boxes, the legislation also barred groups or individuals from providing line relief.

This week, a handful of organizations filed a request for an injunction in federal court to overturn that provision of SB202.

“This ban is simply cruel and represents a barrier to voting that disproportionately affects communities of color, people with disabilities and older voters,” said Poy Winichakul, a senior attorney for voting rights with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “In the 2020 elections and even in early voting in some of the 2022 elections, we saw lines that were an hour, two hours, three hours. I believe we have testimony from witnesses who waited six hours, eight hours in the 2020 election.”

Georgia Republicans said when the bill passed that the line relief provision was meant to combat solicitation of votes and people trying to get voters to change their minds last-minute.

“We already have laws that ban bribing and improper solicitation of votes in line,” said Winichakul. “Line relief is simply not that.”

The SPLC and American Civil Liberties Union are parties to a larger lawsuit that is seeking to also overturn other elements of SB202 ahead of the upcoming 2024 election.

“The motion that we filed this week addresses just that specific provision, but it’s a start,” said Winichakul. “We know it’s necessary ahead of the 2024 elections, which will be a big election, and we anticipate even longer lines.”

“I think some of the concerns that have been raised about whether or not food and water is being used to influence people or things like that, that just hasn’t been borne out by the evidence,” said Rahul Garabadu, an attorney with the ACLU. “We haven’t seen any evidence that people handing out water bottles have somehow changed the votes of people waiting in line.”

Garabadu said most of the groups that participate in line relief are nonpartisan: historically Black churches, civic groups and disability advocates are typically leading the charge.

“It’s not just about being able to provide a water bottle or a small snack while waiting in what could be an hours-long line,” he said, “it’s about the message that it sends to voters, that they are valued, that their commitment to democracy is valued.”

There’s no timeline for a ruling, but the SPLC and ACLU are hopeful the courts will reinstate the ability to line relieve by the time the 2024 primary election cycle begins.