GOP sees legal battle falter in Georgia ahead of runoffs

Republicans in Georgia suffered back-to-back defeats in court this week amid their push for more restrictive voting rules ahead of the state’s critical Senate runoffs.

The rulings come amid a brewing legal war over the Jan. 5 runoffs, which could help shape how the contests are fought and perhaps even which party controls the Senate when President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenHaiti prime minister warns inequality will cause migration to continue Pelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Erdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system MORE takes office.

In roughly a half-dozen ongoing court fights, Democratic-allied voting rights groups and Republicans are clashing over the number of early voting calendar days, the use of drop boxes and the stringency of ballot signature-verification requirements.

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But recent court decisions show the uphill battle Republicans face in their legal disputes.

In one case, a federal judge on Thursday handed a blistering defeat to Republican litigants who sought to impose tighter voting restrictions ahead of the runoff elections. U.S. District Judge J. Randal Hall tossed the GOP’s requests to prohibit the use of drop boxes, block the early processing of mail ballots and require stricter signature verification protocols.

In his Thursday ruling, Hall dismissed the case “with prejudice,” meaning the plaintiffs are barred from filing a new lawsuit based on the same grounds. The order does not prevent the Republican challengers from mounting an appeal, however, an option their attorneys told The Hill they are considering.

A separate GOP-led lawsuit, which was backed by Republican candidates Sens. David PerdueDavid PerdueTrump stokes GOP tensions in Georgia GOP sees Biden crises as boon for midterm recruitment Trump campaign, RNC refund donors another .8 million in 2021: NYT MORE and Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerWarnock picks up major abortion rights group's endorsement in reelection bid Trump endorses Hershel Walker for Georgia Senate seat Herschel Walker's entrance shakes up Georgia Senate race MORE, suffered a similar fate the same day. Another Georgia-based federal judge tossed the case, finding that the senators and the Georgia GOP lacked a legal right to sue. 

"Regarding standing on behalf of Senators Loeffler and Purdue, the alleged potential future injury to the candidates is far too speculative to substantiate an injury in fact," U.S. District Judge Eleanor L. Ross said following a hearing.

That lawsuit had taken aim at a March agreement between Democrats and state elections officials that relaxed absentee ballot signature requirements. Among other provisions, the agreement, known as a consent decree, provides voters an opportunity to fix ballots that contain a purported mismatch between their signature as it appears on their ballot and a signature maintained by election officials.

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The Republican defeats in Georgia come after President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE and his allies tried unsuccessfully for more than a month to overturn Biden’s victory there in the courts. Biden won by a narrow 12,000-vote margin, earning nearly twice as many absentee ballots as Trump.

The legal war surrounding the runoffs is also in some ways a sequel to bitterly partisan fights that marked the run-up to the 2020 general election, which stands as the most heavily litigated political race in American history.

Prior to the Nov. 3 general election, more than 300 legal disputes were waged over the rules of the game, centering on issues like signature requirements for absentee ballots and mail-ballot receipt dates. Since Trump’s defeat, however, his lawyers have trained their fire on trying to change the outcome of the game itself, racking up an abysmal court record in the process.

As the Georgia races draw near, election rules have once again taken center stage, with familiar battle lines reemerging.

Democrats and their allies say their general aim is to expand voting rights, combat voter suppression and make it easier to cast ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic. The GOP and its allies, for their part, have pushed for maintaining firm voting restrictions, citing concerns about election integrity.

In addition to the GOP-led lawsuits, Democratic-allied voting rights groups have sued four Georgia counties in an effort to expand early voting access. Those suits press the counties to offer what plaintiffs say is mandatory early voting on Saturdays during the three-week early voting period.

Although the legal battles could affect Georgia voting procedures for years, both parties are squarely focused on the fight for Senate control.

Republicans currently hold a 50-48 seat edge in the Senate. But a pair of Democratic wins in Georgia would give Democrats an evenly divided chamber, in which Vice President-elect Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTwo 'View' hosts test positive for coronavirus ahead of Harris interview Rep. Karen Bass to run for mayor of Los Angeles: report Biden taps big bank skeptic to for top regulatory post MORE would cast the tie-breaking vote.

The runoffs are expected to be close. Perdue currently leads Jon OssoffJon OssoffThe Memo: Trump's Arizona embarrassment sharpens questions for GOP Progressive poll finds support for solar energy tax credit legislation Stacey Abrams backs Senate Democrats' voting rights compromise MORE by just 0.8 percentage points in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, while Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockTrump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Trump stokes GOP tensions in Georgia The Memo: Trump's Arizona embarrassment sharpens questions for GOP MORE is running even with Loeffler.

So far, voter turnout is nearly keeping pace with early voting ahead of the November general election. As of Thursday morning, more than 914,000 Georgians had already cast their ballot. That includes more than 24,000 people who did not vote in last month’s election, according to the U.S. Elections Project, which tracks voter turnout. 

Republicans privately acknowledge that Trump’s rhetoric on absentee and by-mail voting has given Democrats an edge in early turnout. Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that the 2020 election’s higher-than-average volume of mail ballots subjected the vote to widespread fraud, an assertion that no state or federal court has accepted in any of the dozens of pro-Trump lawsuits filed after his defeat.

But GOP sources say they believe that early in-person voting, which began in Georgia on Monday, will help them make up the deficit.

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“It ain’t Republicans mailing in their ballots,” one GOP operative in the state said. “But everyone I talk to says they’re voting early and in-person, so I think that’s where we’re making up lost ground.”

At the same time, Trump’s frequent criticism of Georgia’s election procedures and baseless claims of fraud have opened up a rift within the state GOP.

State Republican officials have repeatedly defended the accuracy and efficiency of Georgia’s election procedures, while Loeffler and Perdue have largely stood behind Trump’s claims, fearing that breaking with the president could upset his ultra-loyal base of supporters and depress Republican turnout in the runoff elections.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, is among those who have been attacked by Trump and his allies over the outcome of the November election. He has remained among the most vocal defenders of the state’s election procedures.

On Thursday, he announced that his office would partner with the University of Georgia to review and examine the state’s signature-matching process in an effort to reassure those who have expressed skepticism in the procedure.

“We are confident that elections in Georgia are secure, reliable and effective,” Raffensperger said. “Despite endless lawsuits and wild allegations from Washington, D.C., pundits, we have seen no actual evidence of widespread voter fraud, though we are investigating all credible reports.”

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“Nonetheless,” he added, “we look forward to working with the University of Georgia on this signature match review to further instill confidence in Georgia’s voting systems.”

In addition to being subject to harsh criticism and outright hostility, Raffensperger has also found himself as a named defendant in numerous election lawsuits.

Court battles over voting rules come amid a surge in new voter registrations. According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of official Georgia election data, nearly 75,000 new voters registered between Oct. 5 and the state’s Dec. 7 deadline.

Most of those voters — 57 percent — are under the age of 35, according to the Journal-Constitution, and none have previous voting records in the state. But if the runoffs are as tight as expected, those new voters could help swing the outcome of the elections.