A federal judge issued an injunction Thursday barring elections officials in Gwinnett County, and elsewhere across Georgia, from rejecting absentee ballots because signatures on the ballots don’t match those on file for the affected voters.
U.S. District Court Judge Leigh Martin May issued the injunction after giving attorneys for civil rights groups and residents who filed the complaint, as well as those representing the Gwinnett County Board of Elections and Secretary of State Brian Kemp an opportunity to weigh in on it.
The injunction is in response to two lawsuits that have been filed against Kemp and Gwinnett County elections officials challenging the rejection of hundreds of absentee ballots for mismatched signatures and other reasons.
“This injunction applies to all absentee ballot applications and absentee ballots rejected solely on the basis of signature mismatches submitted in this current election,” May said in the order. “This injunction does not apply to voters who have already cast an in-person vote.”
The absentee ballot issue is the latest battleground in an already contentious general election season in which several seats are being contested in tight races, including the gubernatorial race headlined by Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams.
The lawsuits challenging the rejection of absentee ballots were filed on the heels of a separate federal lawsuit challenging the state’s move to put the registrations of 53,000 voters, mostly minority voters, on hold. Kemp is a defendant in that lawsuit as well.
Attorneys for Kemp and the state were quick to ask the federal court to postpone the injunction issued by May until an Appeals Court can rule on it.
The judge’s order stipulates that any absentee ballots that raise questions because of mismatched signatures is to be treated as a provisional ballot and the voters should be given an opportunity to prove their identity in person or through an attorney.
It also lays out a process for appealing the rejection although it won’t change the date when local elections officials must certify the results of the general election.
Gwinnett County, for example, won’t have to recertify its results to account for absentee ballot rejections that are still being appealed — unless the county of those ballots could swing the outcome of a race.
Attorneys for Kemp and the state argued the process laid out in May’s order would be too disruptive to the elections process.
“Last-minute challenges to longstanding election procedures have long been disfavored because they threaten to disrupt the orderly administration of elections, which is essential to the functioning of our participatory democracy,” the attorneys wrote in their request for a stay of the injunction.
“This Court’s preliminary injunction is a case in point; by adding brand new, untested processes ad hoc to long-established election procedures at the eleventh hour, it will introduce uncertainty and confusion under extreme time pressure at best, and it risks undermining the integrity of the State’s election process.”
The attorneys also downplayed the severity of the absentee ballot rejection issue in Gwinnett County.
“(In) Gwinnett County, where Plaintiffs appear to have heightened concerns due to ‘news reports,’ all rejections for questionable signatures are given a second layer of review by a team of three experienced current and former directors of election,” the attorneys said in their petition to the court.
“Moreover, the risk of erroneous deprivation appears to be demonstrably low: For instance, in Gwinnett County, only nine absentee ballots have been rejected due to signature mismatch thus far.”
ACLU of Georgia Executive Director Andrea Young criticized Kemp and the request for a postponement of the injunction in a statement Thursday night. The ACLU helped represent the groups that were suing the county and the state over the absentee matter.
“We are disappointed that the Secretary of State is unwilling to grant due process to Georgia citizens who vote by absentee ballot,” Young said in the statement. “We will continue to defend the rights of Georgia voters.”
But after a preliminary version of the injunction was issued Wednesday — pending feedback from both sides — it won applause from groups and residents who filed the suits even though they had some suggestions for changes.
“When we have laws that infringe on the right to vote absentee, it is the most vulnerable members of our communities who suffer the most,” said Phi Nguyen, litigation director for one of the groups that filed the suit, Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, in a statement.
“It’s the elderly, the disabled — for whom physically getting to the polls is a real challenge. It’s the immigrant who is limited (in English proficiency) who may be too intimidated to vote in person. It’s those who don’t own a car or otherwise have reliable transportation.”
Meanwhile, Georgia Muslim Voter Project board chairman Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur said, “The right to vote is both sacred and fundamental. We thank the Court for their diligence in reviewing our request and for issuing the temporary restraining order to ensure that every vote counts.”