A Federal Judge Declines To Block Georgia's Shortened 4-Week Runoff Election Period

FILE - People wait in line to early vote for the Senate runoff election between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Sen. candidate Herschel Walker, Nov. 28, 2022, in Kennesaw, Ga., near Atlanta. A federal judge on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024, declined to block part of a sweeping 2021 election law that shortened Georgia's runoff election period to four weeks from nine weeks. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart, File)
FILE - People wait in line to early vote for the Senate runoff election between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Sen. candidate Herschel Walker, Nov. 28, 2022, in Kennesaw, Ga., near Atlanta. A federal judge on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024, declined to block part of a sweeping 2021 election law that shortened Georgia's runoff election period to four weeks from nine weeks. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — A federal judge in Georgia has declined to block part of a sweeping election law that shortened the state's runoff election period to four weeks from nine weeks while legal challenges play out.

U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee ruled Friday that plaintiffs hadn't proved that the shorter period disproportionately harmed Black voters, or that Republican lawmakers intended to discriminate against Black voters when lawmakers enacted the measure in 2021. He denied a request for a preliminary injunction, but the claims can still be litigated at trial.

Several voting advocacy and civil rights groups, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice, sued after Republican state lawmakers passed the measure less than six months after former President Donald Trump narrowly lost the state and made false claims about widespread election fraud.

Georgia has an unusual requirement for a runoff election when no candidate wins a majority in a general election — most states declare the highest vote-getter the winner. That has meant multiple high-profile contests being settled after the normal November general election date in recent years.

The lawsuits assert that parts of the law deny Black voters equal access to voting and violate the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act. But Boulee said there wasn't enough evidence that losing the ability to register before a runoff or the ability to vote on some weekend days were discriminatory.

“Plaintiffs did not present any evidence, however, which would show why Black voters would disproportionately struggle to vote during the new early voting period,” the judge wrote.

Boulee said evidence showed “at most” that Republican lawmakers were trying to curtail new Democratic voters with the registration restrictions, but said the law doesn't protect people from partisan discrimination in the same way it does racial discrimination.

The law shortens the number of early in-person voting days before a runoff and makes very tight the time for mail ballots to be received and returned. Those changes could disadvantage Democrats, who tend to push early voting and vote-by-mail more than Republicans.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who has defended the law, said the ruling shows Georgia’s electoral processes are fair.

“This ruling affirms what we have maintained all along — that Georgia’s Election Integrity Act is designed to ensure fair and secure elections for all citizens," Raffensperger said in a statement. "We will continue to stand firm in defending the principles of this legislation.”

Raffensperger has proposed ending general election runoffs, though.

Plaintiffs did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment Monday.

Back in August, Boulee did put on hold criminal penalties for providing food and water to voters waiting in line. He has also blocked counties from rejecting ballots from voters who didn't include their date of birth on absentee ballot envelopes.

But in October he declined to block the overall prohibition against distributing food and drink to people waiting in line within 150 feet (46 meters) of polling places. He also declined to block other provisions limiting the use of absentee ballot drop boxes and cutting off absentee ballot requests 11 days prior to an election.