Federal Judge Will Order Georgia Officials to Accept Absentee Ballots

ATLANTA (CN) — A federal judge will issue a temporary restraining order blocking Georgia election officials from rejecting absentee ballots or ballot applications when a voter’s signature does not match the signature on their voter registration card.

The proposed injunction, which U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May plans to issue Thursday, requires all Georgia election officials to issue a provisional ballot to any voter whose ballot is flagged with a potential signature mismatch.

The voter must be provided with a pre-rejection notice and be given an opportunity to resolve the alleged signature discrepancy no later than three days after the election.

The injunction is May’s response to two lawsuits filed by civil rights groups challenging Georgia’s “exact match” law, which requires information on absentee ballots, ballot applications and voter registrations to match information in the government’s databases.

On Oct. 16, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and election officials in Gwinnett County, Georgia’s second most-populous county, after new data showed that the county was rejecting absentee ballots and ballot applications at a disproportionately high rate.

The complaint alleged that Gwinnett County was responsible for rejecting 37 percent of all absentee ballots statewide. According to county officials, fewer than 200 ballots were rejected due to signature mismatches.

Kemp and other election officials involved in the lawsuit have until noon on Thursday to respond to the proposed injunction. The judge cautioned that responses should be limited to whether or not the “language is confusing or will be unworkable for the implementing officials.”

Kemp, a Republican, is currently running against Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams in a neck-and-neck race for governor.

The ACLU has argued that the current review process is unfair because Georgia does not require election officials to receive training in handwriting analysis or signature comparison. The group has also pointed out that signatures can change over time due to various factors including age and illness.

“This ruling protects the people of Georgia from those who seek to undermine their right to vote. It’s a huge victory, especially with the midterms just days away,” Sophia Lakin, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement Wednesday.

“[T]he court finds that the balance of equities and the public interest support an injunction,” the order states.

May issued the ruling Wednesday after a hearing on Tuesday.

The proposed injunction fulfills relief sought by the ACLU in an Oct. 17 restraining order request. But May has not yet ruled on the broader relief sought in an Oct. 19 preliminary injunction request filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Coalition for Good Governance.

The Oct. 19 filing requested relief for voters whose absentee ballots or ballot applications were rejected for discrepancies other than signature mismatches, such as incorrectly spelled names, extra spaces or typos.

During Tuesday’s hearing, attorneys representing the Secretary of State’s office and Gwinnett County election officials argued that it was too late to implement changes to the absentee ballot review process.

“Changing policies now would discourage voters and would stretch election officials to their limit. We don’t want to mess up a system that’s already operational,” Bryan Tyson, an attorney representing the Gwinnett Board of Registrations and Elections argued Tuesday.

“At this point in the process, any change is major for election officials,” Tyson said.

But May was apparently unconvinced.

“Preliminarily, the Court does not understand how assuring that all eligible voters are permitted to vote undermines integrity of the election process. To the contrary, it strengthens it. Second, Defendants argue that the signature mismatch rejection is “rare”—only 0.17% of all accepted absentee ballots in 2016 were rejected on that basis… But that statistic only bolsters Plaintiffs’ argument that any additional, constitutionally mandated processes will not be an administrative burden,” the order says.

The order points out that only 228 signature match rejections have occurred statewide during the 2018 election.

“The State cannot claim on one hand that an appeal process would be an administrative nightmare while on the other claiming that such a rejection is rare,” the order states.

 

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