ATLANTA — Georgia election officials must stop rejecting absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications because of a mismatched signature without first giving voters a chance to fix the problem, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Leigh May ordered the secretary of state's office to instruct county election officials to stop the practice for the November midterm elections. She outlined a procedure to allow voters to resolve alleged signature discrepancies.
Two lawsuits filed earlier this month allege that election officials are improperly rejecting absentee ballots and applications in violation of their constitutional rights.
The lawyers behind both lawsuits had filed emergency requests asking May to make certain immediate changes while the litigation is pending.
May's order comes in the final weeks of Georgia's tight, nationally watched governor's race between Democrat Stacey Abrams, who's trying to become the country's first black woman governor, and Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp. The two have fought for years over voting rights and ballot security measures, Abrams as a longtime legislative leader and Kemp as Georgia's chief elections official.
Abrams has accused Kemp of using his office to make it harder for minority voters to cast ballots. He has denied it vehemently.
Georgia law allows voters to cast an absentee ballot before an election regardless of whether they are able to vote in person on Election Day.
If the voter's signature on the absentee ballot envelope or absentee ballot application doesn't match the signature on the voter registration card, state law says it should be rejected. An absentee ballot can also be rejected if the voter signs in the wrong place or incorrectly fills out spaces designated for address and year of birth on the envelope.
The law doesn't allow voters to contest the allegation of a mismatched signature or to confirm their identity before rejection. The law says voters are to be notified "promptly" of any rejection, but no time frame is provided. The lawsuits say that could result in voters being notified too late to fix the problem, jeopardizing their right to vote.
May's order says that if there's a perceived signature mismatch on an absentee ballot, election officials must mark it as provisional. They must then send the voter a pre-rejection notice and allow the voter an opportunity to confirm his or her identity and have the vote counted no later than three days after the election, the order says.
For an absentee ballot application with an apparent signature mismatch, election officials must send the voter a provisional ballot along with information explaining how the provisional ballot process works, the order says.
The order applies for all absentee ballot applications and absentee ballots with apparent signature mismatches submitted for the Nov. 6 election, except in cases where voters have already remedied the problem by voting in person.
May gave the parties until noon Thursday to comment on whether the language in her order is "confusing or will be unworkable" for election officials.
One lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and its Georgia chapter on behalf of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project and Asian-Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta. The other was filed by the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda and five individual voters, including two candidates for office.
Lawyers for both groups applauded May's order.
A spokeswoman for the Georgia attorney general's office, which represented the state, said she couldn't comment on active litigation.
In addition to suing Kemp, both lawsuits also challenged populous Gwinnett County, saying state data showed that it accounts for a disproportionate number of the rejections and that those rejections disproportionately affect minorities.
Both lawsuits challenge rejections based on a finding of a mismatched signature. The one filed by the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda and individual voters also challenges rejections based on what it calls technical errors, like writing the current year in a space designated for the voter's birth year or signing on the wrong line.
May wrote that she was only addressing the signature mismatch issue. She had said during a hearing Tuesday that she was especially concerned about people whose signature doesn't match and who may not be able to vote in person if their absentee ballot is rejected. All other issues will be addressed later as the litigation continues, May wrote.
Lawyers for state and county election officials had argued that procedural changes implemented with absentee voting already underway would be disruptive and could threaten the integrity of the process.
May said she "does not understand how assuring that all eligible voters are permitted to vote undermines the integrity of the election process." She also noted that government lawyers had said signature mismatches are rare, which she said means her solution won't be overly burdensome.