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Georgia's voter laws remain rife with issues

Though Stacey Abrams' group lost its lawsuit, the case still exposed major problems with the state's voting laws.
Image: Stickers with peaches and text that read,"I'm a Georgia Voter".
Voting stickers at Ponce DeLeon Library in Atlanta, on Georgia primary Election Day, on May 24.Nathan Posner / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

With early voting already underway in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff, it’s worth revisiting a recent case concerning the state’s election system. Fair Fight Action, a nonprofit voting rights organization founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, paid prominent Georgia voting rights attorney Allegra Lawrence-Hardy’s law firm approximately $9.4 million to litigate a blockbuster voting rights case, Fair Fight Action v. Raffensperger, over several years.

Opponents of Abrams have objected to the size of this fee and made specious allegations of conflict of interest because Abrams has also been a candidate. But a close examination of the facts, and what this case accomplished, demonstrates that the legal fee was more than justified. Although Fair Fight Action ultimately lost its case, the court found egregious inequities that the Georgia Legislature and Congress can now fix.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers exposed serious deficiencies in Georgia election law that have a disparate impact on voters of color. Georgia’s “exact match” system, matching names on the voter rolls with convicted felons, has a 60% error rate. Georgians of color were 10 times more likely to have their voter registration flagged because their applications did not exactly match databases. As of January 2020, approximately 70% of the 60,000 Georgia voters flagged were African American. 

Then why did the decision go against Fair Fight? U.S. District Court Judge Steven Jones noted that he was bound by the Supreme Court’s 2021 decision in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, which limited the use of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to determine whether a law was discriminatory, as Fair Fight had argued. But it did not take 288 pages to dismiss a case. The judge saw serious problems with Georgia’s voting system and took care to point them out.

Jones’ finding of burdens that were both “severe” and unconstitutional is a landmark for voting rights in Georgia. The evidence uncovered by plaintiffs strengthens the case for the Georgia Legislature to revise future election laws, and for Congress to amend the Voting Rights Act or pass new election laws. Other federal or Georgia courts may also reconsider the merits of the plaintiffs’ arguments. New voting rights laws are particularly likely if the disparate impact on voters of color that the plaintiffs demonstrated in this case affects future elections.

Whether the Supreme Court revisits the Brnovich precedent, or whether the Georgia Legislature or Congress resolves this injustice legislatively, Lawrence-Hardy and her team, through thorough presentation of painstakingly accumulated data, convinced the court that there was indeed a serious problem of constitutional proportions. 

Top-notch lawyers of all races who work on important cases want — and deserve — to get paid. Lawrence-Hardy is one such lawyer. A graduate of Yale Law School, she has repeatedly made the lists of best lawyers in the state and even the country. Twice, she’s worked on the legal teams for presidential campaigns during state recounts — for Al Gore in 2000 and Joe Biden in 2020. She served as elections counsel to Atlanta for its 2017 mayoral election. And she was raised in Georgia and has spent her life among the African American communities who were at the heart of this case. There is no lawyer more suited to take on a case centered on denial of voting rights to African Americans in Georgia.

As for the fee, $9.4 million is far from unusual in such a complex, high-profile case. Plaintiffs' attorneys in the largest securities class action settlements (the top 10% of settlements) earned a mean of $39.5 million. The nation’s top law firms can charge $2,000 or more an hour. Former President Donald Trump spent more than $3.8 million on “legal consulting” fees in August of this year alone, with most of it going to the lawyer representing him in the Mar-a-Lago documents investigation. His PAC paid lawyers nearly $8 million to fight the 2020 election results (even though he had clearly lost) and his subsequent second impeachment trial over his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

And while Lawrence & Bundy’s lawyers, including Lawrence-Hardy, charged greatly discounted rates from their usual fees, the work they did was not discounted in quality. The record developed at trial and reflected in the court’s opinion did not just miraculously appear from nowhere. Plaintiffs’ lawyers took hundreds of depositions of Georgia voters and searched hundreds of thousands of pages of documents. 

Fair Fight Action v. Raffensperger was not technically a “win” for the plaintiffs, but its findings were a big win for voting rights in Georgia and around the nation. Fair Fight Action rightly paid Lawrence-Hardy and her colleagues for their valiant efforts. Now it’s up to Georgia’s Legislature and Congress to put these lawyers’ work to good use to protect the right of all Americans, guaranteed under the 15th Amendment, to vote.