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Prisoner Lacked Standing to Challenge Georgia’s Failure to Send Absentee Ballot to Jail

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held on February 2, 2012 that a former Georgia jail prisoner lacked standing to complain that state and local officials had failed to mail his absentee ballot to the jail, which prevented him from voting.

In anticipation of the November 4, 2008 presidential election, staff at the DeKalb County Jail held voter registration drives and encouraged prisoners to register to vote and apply for absentee ballots. Prisoner Hassan Swann was among those who completed an application for an absentee ballot. He wrote his home address in DeKalb County on the line labeled “address as registered,” but left blank the space for “address ballot to be mailed” because he didn’t know the jail’s address.

On September 29, 2008, Maxine Daniels, DeKalb County’s assistant director of registrations and elections, informed jail officials she would not mail absentee ballots to the jail. She said state law prohibited such ballots for non-disabled voters to be mailed to another address within the same county.

Swann’s absentee ballot was sent to his registered home address, but he never received it and was thus unable to vote. Jail officials had set up a drop box for relatives to leave prisoners’ absentee ballots. Swann said he was unaware of the drop box. He and another prisoner, David A. Hartfield, filed a complaint in federal court arguing that the state law that prohibited them from receiving a ballot at the jail was unconstitutional. They also alleged due process violations.

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, finding no constitutional violation. On appeal the Eleventh Circuit said the district court should have determined if Swann had standing to bring the lawsuit. The appellate court held it did not need to decide if Swann had suffered an injury, because his non-receipt of an absentee ballot was not fairly traceable to the challenged actions of the defendants.

“Swann’s lawsuit is based on an imaginary set of facts: an imaginary request to send his ballot to the jail and an imaginary refusal on the ballot clerk’s part to send a ballot to him,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Swann asked the ballot clerk to mail Swann’s absentee ballot to Swann’s house – no other address was given in the application for the ballot – and the clerk says a ballot was sent to Swann’s house. Nothing wrongful can arise from those facts.”

Swann’s contention that even if he had provided the jail’s address on his application the ballot would not have been sent to the jail was speculative, the appellate court found. The Eleventh Circuit therefore vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded with instructions to dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See: Swann v. Secretary, State of Georgia, 668 F.3d 1285 (11th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Swann v. Secretary