Federal Judge Weighs if State’s Mail-in Ballot Stamp Requirement is Poll Tax

By Stanley Dunlap | Georgia Recorder | April 24, 2020

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A federal judge wants the Georgia’s Secretary of State’s Office to provide more information about its absentee ballot system that’s the focus of a lawsuit that says requiring voters to pay for postage to mail in absentee ballots amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg’s request came at the end of Friday’s four-and-half hour preliminary injunction hearing over the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia’s claims that requiring voters to pay for a 55-cent stamp amounts to a poll tax. The ACLU wants the state to cover mail-in ballot postage costs for the June 9 general primary and its legal director said Friday it wants the practice followed in future elections as well.

Totenberg said Friday that her decision could also apply to elections scheduled for August and November.

She did not immediately rule Friday after questioning the feasibility of making changes in time for June’s election.

Filed on April 8, the ACLU’s lawsuit comes on the heels of the Secretary of State’s office mailing out a record 6.9 million absentee ballot applications for the June 9 election because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mailing ballots creates a safe alternative to voting in-person votes at precincts with Georgia’s new touchscreen machines

The Secretary of State’s office estimates it could cost as much as $4.2 million to cover the costs of a prepaid system for absentee ballots.

That extra spending is a burden as the spread of the novel coronavirus sinks state revenues and unemployment numbers are sky-high, said attorney Josh Belinfante, who is representing Raffensperger’s office.

A U.S. Postal Service policy allows voters to mail their absentee ballots without a stamp and then charge the state or elections office that receives the ballot.

“Every single dollar that is spent on buying stamps, particularly for people who have them, is a dollar that can’t go to other budget priorities that are frankly needed at this time,” Balifante said.

Making people pay for stamps to submit ballots is an unfair burden on Georgians who have little recourse besides voting by mail, ACLU legal director Sean Young said.

“Even without COVID, people with physical disabilities, people who are out of town, people in jail, people without transportation; all of those people right now are required to pay a postage stamp,” he said.

Georgia received about 760,000 absentee ballot applications for the June 9 primary election. Fewer than 270,000 Georgians mailed absentee ballots during the 2016 election.

“The burden on voters is not ‘pay the postage stamp or not vote,’ they still have other options,” the state’s attorney Vincent Russo said.

Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of the plaintiff Black Voters Matter Fund, testified that the prepaid postage would make the process easier, especially for people who are not used to voting by mail.

A federal judge heard an ACLU complaint Friday that the Secretary of State's requirement that voters attach a 55-cent stamp to mail-in ballots amounts to a poll tax.

John McCosh/Georgia Recorder