ATLANTA (CN) — A federal judge ruled Wednesday night that Georgia election officials cannot certify the final results of the 2018 general election, including the outcome of the hotly contested governor's race, until all counties count absentee ballots that feature an omitted or incorrect voter birth date.
U.S. District Judge Steve Jones granted the Georgia Democratic Party's request for an emergency preliminary injunction requiring election officials statewide to restore absentee ballots that were rejected due to missing information, but he denied requests to count absentee ballots with incorrect residential addresses, to extend the period for voters to cure provisional ballots, and to restore ballots cast by voters who voted in the wrong precinct or county.
Jones ruled that newly-appointed Secretary of State Robyn Crittenden cannot certify the statewide election results until all county election officials count absentee mail-in ballots that were previously rejected "solely because of a birth year error or omission."
The ruling is good news for Democrat Stacey Abrams, who has not conceded to former Secretary of State Brian Kemp in hopes of picking up the 18,000 votes she needs to force a Dec. 4 runoff in the race.
Kemp declared himself the governor-elect on Nov. 7, claiming that Abrams has no mathematical chance of winning.
The injunction comes as part of a complaint filed against Secretary of State Robyn Crittenden and Gwinnett and DeKalb County election officials by the Georgia Democratic Party and the Stacey Abrams campaign.
It is unclear to what degree Jones' ruling will affect the election results. Gwinnett County, Georgia's second most-populous county, is already under a separate Nov. 13 court order to count absentee ballots that contain an error or omission relating to the voter's birth year.
Secretary Crittenden also issued a memo to counties on Nov. 12, telling election officials that they are permitted, though not required, to count absentee mail-in ballots despite birth year errors or omissions.
In the ruling, Jones expressed concerns that Crittenden's instructions to election officials would lead to confusion because "[w]hile Gwinnett County is now under one instruction from Judge May to count absentee mail-in ballots that contain a birth year error or omission, the other 158 counties in Georgia have been given the impression that they have the complete discretion to either count such ballots or reject them entirely."
"[T]his current statewide discrepancy regarding absentee mail-in ballots could not only lead to future voter confusion, but also to inconsistency in how such ballots are counted," the ruling states.
State officials argued that a preliminary injunction would unnecessarily delay the certification of the election and disrupt any preparations made for run-off elections.
Jones ruled that all absentee ballots should be treated uniformly statewide and adopted May's holding that ballots rejected solely due to an omitted or erroneous birth date must be counted.
"Without a preliminary injunction, the voters whose ballots have been rejected on improper grounds or without a chance to cure the rejection will lose their opportunity to vote in this election; an injury that money cannot compensate," the ruling states.
But Jones rejected the Georgia Democratic Party's claim that election officials violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by enforcing state law that prevents county election boards from curing provisional ballots after Nov. 9. The judge found that there is no evidence that voters have not had enough time to cure their provisional ballots.
Jones also rejected the party's request to force counties to count provisional ballots cast by voters who voted in the wrong county.
According to the ruling, the party claims to have received approximately 450 incident reports in which registered voters were told that they were attempting to vote in the wrong county and either needed to return to another county to vote or vote provisionally.
Jones found that regulations preventing out-of-county voting "advance the State of Georgia's important regulatory interest of prevention of voter fraud" and constitute a "'reasonable, nondiscriminatory restriction" upon the right to vote and not a "severe" restriction."
Stacey Abrams' campaign praised the ruling Wednesday evening, calling it a "major victory for Georgia voters."
"Under Brian Kemp’s watch as the nation’s foremost architect of voter suppression, countless Georgians have had substantial roadblocks placed in their path as they sought to exercise their fundamental right to vote. Now, the courts are doing what Brian Kemp’s Secretary of State office refused to – upholding and protecting Georgia’s rights and underlining the need for free and fair elections in a state that has suffered from an acute assault on voting rights engineered by none other than Secretary of State Brian Kemp," Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams' campaign manager, said in a statement.
A representative for Kemp's campaign also characterized the ruling as a victory.
"Tonight, Judge Jones rejected efforts by Stacey Abrams and her radical allies to undermine the democratic process and rule of law in Georgia," Ryan Mahoney, Communications Director for Brian Kemp, said in a statement Wednesday evening. "He denied her requests to create new voters and slammed the door on attempts to count illegal votes. The judge's ruling puts the people of Georgia and their voice ahead of Abrams and her political ambition."
"This ruling solidifies Brian Kemp's insurmountable lead. The election is over and Brian Kemp is the Governor-elect. It's time for Abrams to concede and join our efforts to keep Georgia moving in the right direction," Mahoney said.
As of Thursday morning, all counties, excluding Gwinnett, have certified their vote counts. Secretary Crittenden is required to adjust any vote totals if counties report more absentee ballot votes as a result of the ruling.
Kemp currently has 50.23 percent of the 3.9 million votes cast compared to Abrams' 48.83 percent.
A ruling handed down by a federal judge on Monday blocked the state from certifying the statewide results of the election until 5 p.m. on Friday.
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