Op-ed: Georgia’s Restrictive Ballot Distribution Policy Targeting Civic Engagement Organizations Must Be Stopped

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) attorneys are headed to Georgia this week to challenge restrictive measures in S.B. 202, which was signed into law in March 2021 and made significant changes to Georgia’s election system.

CLC is specifically challenging three provisions of the law that limit the ability of nonprofit civic engagement organizations to distribute absentee ballot applications to Georgia voters in violation of the First Amendment.

At the hearing, CLC attorneys will ask the court to temporarily block implementation of the bill’s ballot application restrictions until a final ruling is made so that civic engagement groups can continue to send absentee ballot applications to voters ahead of the 2022 general election.

CLC, along with the Atlanta-based law firm Smith, Gambrell, and Russell LLP, is representing three civic engagement organizations, VoteAmerica, the Voter Participation Center and the Center for Voter Information, who have been directly impacted by the disclaimer requirement and other burdensome prohibitions on distribution of absentee ballot applications.

These organizations assisted hundreds of thousands of Georgians to request absentee ballots by mail during the 2020 and 2021 elections alone.

The law further prevents nongovernmental organizations, like nonprofits, community organizations and religious groups, from distributing absentee ballot applications to voters if they have already requested, received or cast one.

If they do send an application to a voter who has already received, requested or cast a ballot, Georgia law now imposes a $100 fine for each subsequent application sent. S.B. 202 also prohibits those organizations from personalizing absentee ballot applications by pre-filling the voter’s name, address and other information on the application form.

Moreover, the law requires nongovernmental organizations to add a disclaimer on every absentee ballot application they distribute stating, among other things, that the form is not an official government form.

However, nongovernmental entities are also required to use the official form designed and published by the secretary of state’s office. This misleading and inaccurate disclaimer has proven confusing for voters, who may reasonably fear their application will be rejected if it is “not official.”

These restrictive policies and burdensome fines are a huge disincentive for nonprofit groups like CLC’s clients, whose communications with Georgia voters are intended to make it easier for voters to participate in the political process and help them take advantage of the ease and accessibility of voting by mail.

Taken together, these restrictions severely limit these organizations’ First Amendment-protected rights to engage in core political speech and association.

Our democracy works best when every voter can participate. Voting by mail is a safe and secure alternative to in-person voting that makes elections more accessible, which in turn makes our democracy stronger.

In fact, during the 2020 general election and 2021 runoff elections, millions of Georgians requested, received and cast their votes by mail, leading to unprecedented voter turnout.

That record-breaking turnout and use of vote-by-mail was spurred in part by the heroic efforts of nonprofit civic engagement organizations — like CLC’s clients — who devoted extraordinary resources to educate and assist Georgia voters to request their absentee ballot.

This lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of VoteAmerica, the Voter Participation Center and the Center for Voter Information in April 2021, argues that S.B. 202’s ballot application restrictions violate CLC’s clients’ First Amendment right to engage in core political speech and assist Georgia voters by facilitating their participation in the political process.

The federal district court in Atlanta denied the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit in December 2021 and ruled that the challenge could move forward toward trial.

We all want to have safe and accessible elections. Strengthening our democracy requires ensuring that civic engagement groups have the freedom to communicate with and assist voters by making it easier to vote by mail in a secure, efficient and accessible manner. 

Mannal is a Senior Communications Manager for Voting Rights and Redistricting issues at CLC.