Hurricane causes judges to extend voter registration in North Carolina, Georgia

Judges in Georgia and North Carolina on Friday ordered state election officials to extend voter-registration deadlines in some counties due to disruptions caused by Hurricane Matthew, which forced thousands of people to evacuate and temporarily closed some government offices.

The judges' rulings came after Georgia's governor and North Carolina's state board of elections' executive director declined to extend the deadlines.

In North Carolina, where the traditional deadline to register was Friday, a state judge ordered election officials to extend it until next Wednesday in 36 eastern counties impacted by massive flooding from the hurricane that left 24 dead. Matthew killed a total of 41 people in the U.S., and more than 500 in Haiti.

In Georgia, U.S. District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr. ruled residents of Chatham County, which includes Savannah, must be allowed to register through next Tuesday— a week after the original deadline passed. Powerful winds, heavy rain and flooding from Matthew led to downed trees, building damage and power outages around Chatham County, which has 278,000 residents.

The two states join Florida and South Carolina in extending their deadlines. After Florida Gov. Rick Scott refused to extend his state's Oct. 11 deadline, a federal judge first extended it by a day and then later to Oct. 18. South Carolina extended its original Oct. 7 deadline, and will now accept registration forms postmarked no later than Tuesday.

In North Carolina, a presidential battleground state where President Barack Obama won by about 14,000 votes in 2008 and lost to Mitt Romney by 92,000 votes four years later, the state Democratic Party sued the state board's executive director earlier Friday. Executive Director Kim Strach had allowed some leeway by agreeing to accept mailed applications through Wednesday, but the Democrats said that wasn't enough.

In a hastily arranged hearing, Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens acknowledged that local election officials could face more administrative obstacles in accepting traditional applications for three more business days next week as they prepare for early in-person voting.

But Stephens said those obstacles were outweighed by the "significant right of the constitution to ensure that every voter that wants to vote is not precluded from doing so as a result of a natural disaster."

North Carolina residents can still register and cast ballots during the early-voting period that begins Thursday through Nov. 5, but some voters may be unable to vote early because they've been displaced by the storm, Democratic Party attorney Shannon Joseph told Stephens. Through traditional registration, people can vote on Election Day or cast absentee ballots by mail.

Stephens' order covers 36 counties that have received a disaster declaration so far by Obama, and stops short of the Democrats' request to extend registration in all 100 counties.

In 2012, the last year in which a presidential election was held, 5,100 people in the 15 counties hardest-hit by the floods registered to vote in the last week before the registration deadline, according to Board of Elections data.

The state Republican Party, which opposed the application extension, hasn't decided whether it will appeal Stephens' ruling.

"We're concerned about the chaos that's created in counties by changing the rules and we're concerned about the burden on election staffs that are already overworked," state GOP lawyer Tom Stark said after the hearing.

In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal had ordered the state's six coastal counties to evacuate for the hurricane on Oct. 6. The Chatham County elections board and other county offices remained closed through last Tuesday, the original registration deadline. Because of fallen trees and widespread power outages, post offices that also register voters didn't reopen until last Tuesday. Many residents weren't able to register online either because of the evacuation or because of technological glitches, said William Custer, an attorney for the civil rights group that filed a lawsuit asking for the extension.

Custer asked the judge to decide whether to grant an extension for the entire state. Moore chose to limit the extra registration days to Chatham County. Attorneys said election offices in Georgia's other five coastal counties, which also evacuated, managed to reopen before the registration deadline.

State officials opposed an extension, saying residents could have registered online or mailed in registration forms. But a spokesman for Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office oversees elections in Georgia, said election officials would follow the judge's ruling.

Josiah Heidt, an assistant Georgia attorney general, told the judge prolonged registration would interfere with early voting in the state, which begins Monday.

Forcing election officials to register new voters while simultaneously conducting advance voting, he said, "would burden the state's ability to have an orderly election."

The judge rejected that argument.

"Those administrative hurdles pale in comparison to the physical, emotional, and financial strain Chatham County residents faced in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew," Moore wrote.

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called Moore's ruling "a victory for the people in Chatham County whose lives were affected by Hurricane Matthew."