Federal judge to issue injunction barring Georgia officials from tossing absentee ballots

A federal judge is expected to issue an injunction barring Georgia election officials from tossing absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications without giving would-be voters advance notice and a chance to rectify any issues.

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The order also would give rejected absentee voters the chance to appeal.

U.S. District Court Judge Leigh Martin May filed what she called a “proposed injunction” in response to requests in two different lawsuits challenging how Georgia evaluates mail-in absentee ballots and applications. She gave the Secretary of State’s Office and other parties involved in the lawsuits — including the American Civil Liberties Union —until noon Thursday to file responses to her proposal. But she wrote that objections should be confined only to whether or not any of the “language is confusing or will be unworkable for the implementing officials.”

Whether or not the injunction should be entered at all is not being re-litigated, she said.

"The court will then take into account the parties' comments and immediately enter an injunction similar to that proposed below," May wrote.

The proposal includes ordering the Secretary of State’s Office to tell local elections officials that:

• they “shall not reject any absentee ballots due to an alleged signature mismatch.” Instead, ballots should be marked provisional and would-be voters given “pre-rejection notice and an opportunity to resolve the alleged signature discrepancy”;

• that voters rejected using the aforementioned process shall have the right to appeal;

• and that any absentee ballot applications where a signature mismatch is suspected should not be rejected either. Officials should instead “provide a provisional absentee ballot to the absentee voter along with information as to the process that will be followed in reviewing the provisional ballot.”

The injunction would apply to all absentee ballots and applications “submitted in this current election,” May’s proposal said — meaning it would apply to would-be mail-in voters that have already been rejected.

May's order follows a Tuesday afternoon hearing regarding motions submitted in a pair of lawsuits against Secretary of State Brian Kemp and the Gwinnett County Board of Registrations and Elections. It largely mirrors the requests made in an Oct. 17 restraining order filed in the suit led by the ACLU.

On Oct. 19, a preliminary injunction of much wider scope was requested in another suit led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Coalition for Good Governance. It asked for a “signature committees” to be created to review possible mismatches, for better notification procedures for all voters whose absentee ballots are rejected and for ballots with issues regarding dates and other information not be thrown out.

May has not ruled on that larger case.

Nonetheless, voting rights advocates declared victory Wednesday.

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

Said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee: “ “This ruling helps ensure that hundreds of voters who stood the risk of being silenced this election cycle will have their voices heard.”

A spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office deferred comment to the state Attorney General’s Office. The Attorney General’s Office said it could not comment on active litigation.

Gwinnett County officials did not immediately provide comment.

Gwinnett County was targeted alongside Kemp in both suits because, as an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found, it has reported rejected absentee ballots and applications at much higher rates than other counties. Only about one-sixth of Gwinnett's rejections, though, were due to signature issues, according to recent legal filing.

In a response to the ACLU-led suit filed Monday, attorneys for Gwinnett said that, through Oct. 18, the county had rejected 713 absentee ballot applications and another 524 absentee ballots. Those stats did not include another 253 absentee ballots canceled because the voter ultimately chose to vote in person, the county's filing said.

Both lawsuits homed in on Georgia's controversial "exact match" law, which requires voter registration information to match driver's licenses, state ID cards or Social Security records.

Tens of thousands of potential voters across the state are in limbo due to law, according to yet another federal lawsuit that's attempting to overturn exact match. But those voters, whose registrations are in pending status, can still cast ballots in November's elections if they present valid ID.

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