At least 175 voters didn’t sign their ballots. Nearly 1,000 of them didn’t return their ballots on time. In at least two cases, family members mistakenly filled out another household member’s ballot.
All told, more than 5,000 absentee ballots in Georgia, or a little more than 2 percent of the nearly 230,000 ballots mailed in by the state’s voters, were rejected by elections officials for a variety of reasons, according to data maintained by the office of the Georgia secretary of state. Statewide the percentage of rejected ballots isn’t much different from 2016. But because of the razor-thin margin in the state’s still-contested governor’s race, additional scrutiny is being paid this year to how ballots get counted and rejected, and numerous lawsuits are challenging the criteria by which some ballots have been tossed out.
Most of the state’s rejected absentee ballots are concentrated in the region around Atlanta, as is Georgia’s population overall. But the distribution of rejections around Atlanta isn’t uniform, as the map above shows. Fulton County, the heart of the Atlanta metropolitan area, rejected 1 out of more than 17,000 submitted absentee ballots, according to the secretary of state’s data file. Nearby Gwinnett County received a similar number of ballots, 20,000, but rejected nearly 1,600, or more than 7 percent of them.
Fulton County officials say their low rate of absentee ballot rejection is no accident. “We only reject if the voter fails to sign the Oath or if the signature is so different that we are confident is was signed by someone else,” said Rick Barron, director of the Fulton County Department of Registration and Elections, in an email. “We don’t reject for missing DoB or miscellaneous information.”
The difference between Fulton County and Gwinnett County, in other words, boils down to deliberate policy decisions made by county officials. Disparities like those are troubling to voting rights advocates, who have accused Gwinnett County officials of rejecting absentee ballots for “largely trivial reasons.” Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor and former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in an interview that some counties in Georgia are seeing “a truly eyebrow-raising number of ballots being rejected” this election cycle.
Those rejections have spawned a number of lawsuits. Earlier this week, a federal judge ruled that all counties in Georgia must accept absentee ballots with incorrect or missing birth dates. That follows a ruling in October that prevented Georgia counties from throwing out ballots solely because of signature mismatches.
Initial rejections because of signature mismatches and other identification-related issues were common, according to the secretary of state’s data. A little more than half of the absentee rejections in Georgia cited unspecified problems with the oath section of the absentee envelope, where voters attest to their identity by entering their signature, date of birth and home address.
Among the rejected ballots for which officials cited more specific identification-related reasons, problems with the birth date were the most common issue, responsible for 738 rejections statewide. Much of that appears to be attributable to poor ballot design, according to Sean J. Young, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. On many ballots, the “birth date line is very close to the signature line,” Young said. Many voters may have misread that part of the envelope and assumed they were supposed to enter the current date, as is customary with important documents, Young said.
The secretary of state’s data file suggests that was particularly an issue in Gwinnett County, where nearly all the birthdate-related rejections were located. At least 160 ballots were rejected in Gwinnett County because voters entered the current year where their year of birth should have been.
Gwinnett was also the location of disproportionate numbers of signature mismatches and address problems, according to the secretary of state’s data. But there were other issues with ballots, too. Nearly 1,000 absentee ballots were rejected simply because they arrived at elections offices after Nov. 6. Unlike some other states, which require absentee ballots to be postmarked by Election Day, Georgia requires that absentee ballots arrive by Election Day.
Elections officials also reported that they attempted to send out at least 149 ballots to would-be voters, only to have those blank ballots returned by the Post Office as undeliverable.
There are a number of rejections that don’t fall neatly into any particular category. Some people put their ballots into incorrect envelopes. At least one wrote a write-in candidate on a separate piece of paper. Several voters were determined to be deceased. One man in the town of Thomaston forgot to put his ballot in his envelope. A Savannah woman’s spouse voted using her ballot.
Generally speaking, states' various absentee balloting systems run smoothly. In 2016, for instance, voters cast more than 33 million absentee ballots in the presidential election, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission. Just 319,000 — less than 1 percent of them — were rejected by election authorities.
The ACLU’s Young says that in Georgia, “the absentee ballot problems seem to be magnified this year.” He blames the issue, in part, on authorities' not allocating sufficient resources to deal with the extremely high turnout generated by this year’s election. “In my view, that has been the cornerstone of a lot of these problems we’re hearing about. This is all due to election officials either intentionally or indifferently failing to provide enough staffing to run an election.”