SAVANNAH, Ga. — A federal judge on Friday ordered Georgia officials to extend the voter registration deadline for one coastal county hit hard by Hurricane Matthew, which forced thousands to evacuate and closed local Board of Elections offices for days.
The judge’s ruling came after Gov. Nathan Deal declined to give residents of coastal Georgia more time to register for the Nov. 8 election, despite the storm’s disruption of the final days for new voters to join the rolls. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed suit, arguing that the refusal infringed on the voting rights of Savannah-area residents.
U.S. District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr. ruled that residents of Chatham County, which includes Savannah, must be allowed to register through next Tuesday – a week after the original deadline passed.
“Extending a small degree of common courtesy by allowing impacted individuals a few extra days to register to vote seems like a rather small consolation on behalf of their government,” Moore wrote in his order.
The governor ordered Georgia’s six coastal counties to evacuate for the hurricane 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 weren’t able to register online either because of the evacuation or because of technological glitches, said William Custer, an attorney for the civil rights group that filed the lawsuit.
He asked the judge to decide whether to grant an extension for the entire state. Moore chose to limit the extra registration days to Chatham County. Attorneys said election offices in Georgia’s other five coastal counties, which also evacuated, managed to reopen before the registration deadline.
State officials opposed an extension, saying residents could have registered online or mailed in registration forms. But a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office oversees elections in Georgia, said election officials would follow the judge’s ruling.
“We have sent the order to Chatham County officials with instructions to comply,” Kemp spokeswoman Candice Boce said in an emailed statement.
Josiah Heidt, an assistant Georgia attorney general, told the judge that 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.”
Heidt said election officials would be required to generate a separate list of newly registered voters to distribute to polling stations.
The judge rejected that argument. Moore wrote: “Those administrative hurdles pale in comparison to the physical, emotional and financial strain Chatham County residents faced in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.”
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.
“This is a victory for the people in Chatham County whose lives were affected by Hurricane Matthew,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
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.