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Part Of Georgia's Preparation For Runoff Election In June Involves A Lawsuit

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

A political battle in the suburbs of Atlanta has now turned into a legal battle. This week, Democrat Jon Ossoff came within a whisker of winning a special election in Georgia's 6th Congressional District. That's a seat held by Republicans for decades. Ossoff now faces a June runoff against Republican Karen Handel. But as Johnny Kauffman from member station WABE reports, the legal fight is over who will get to cast a ballot two months from now.

JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: The voter registration deadline for the special election was February 21. That was also the registration deadline for anyone who wanted to vote in the runoff election in June. In other words, if you haven't already registered you're out of luck.

FRANCYS JOHNSON: Georgia refuses to follow federal law.

KAUFFMAN: Francys Johnson is head of the Georgia NAACP. Civil rights groups want the state to let people who register now vote in June, and they're suing in federal court.

JOHNSON: Yes, there are folks who are emailing and contacting our organization every day.

KAUFFMAN: Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp sets the registration deadline. Johnson accuses him of trying to help his party's candidate.

JOHNSON: To use the office to secure partisan political advantage for conservatives.

KAUFFMAN: Kemp, who's running for governor, calls the lawsuit a political attack.

BRIAN KEMP: You know, they're the ones being political here. This has been the process for a very long time in Georgia and, you know, now they decide to sue over it.

KAUFFMAN: Kemp says he's following state law and the Constitution.

KEMP: We're going to defend this vigorously. And, you know, we'll see what the courts say.

KAUFFMAN: Kemp says according to Georgia law, the first round of voting and the runoff are the same election, so they don't need a different registration deadline. Judges are likely to be skeptical of that defense, says Doug Hess. He studies federal voter registration law at Grinnell College.

DOUGLAS HESS: I just wonder if that's going to pass the laugh test in front of the courts.

KAUFFMAN: The civil rights groups challenging the registration deadline say Georgia's law is unique and that other states re-open voter registration ahead of a runoff election. For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.