Opinion writer

The Post reports:

A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Georgia election officials to stop summarily tossing absentee ballots because of mismatched signatures, delivering a crucial win to voting-rights advocates — and to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — less than two weeks before Election Day.

The ruling resulted from two lawsuits filed earlier this month after election officials in a single Atlanta suburb, Gwinnett County, rejected hundreds of absentee ballots with signature discrepancies, missing addresses or incorrect birth years.

Yes, you read that right: Officials were tossing out ballots without advising voters that their ballots wouldn’t be counted. Who in the real world thinks this is remotely acceptable? Not the federal judge, to be sure. “U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May agreed, and she ordered Secretary of State Brian Kemp to instruct all local election officials to stop rejecting absentee ballots over the mismatched signatures. Instead, such ballots will be marked ‘provisional,’ and the voter will be given the right to appeal the decision or confirm his or her identity. Kemp and the Gwinnett County election board were named as defendants in the suit,” The Post reported. (Kemp — who is also the Republican nominee for governor — has also instituted a massive purge of voting rolls and an “exact match rule,” resulting in 53,000 voter applications being rejected for minor discrepancies.)

The American Civil Liberties Union brought the litigation. Sophia Lakin, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a written statement: “This ruling protects the people of Georgia from those who seek to undermine their right to vote. It’s a huge victory, especially with the midterms just days away.”

Kemp defended his actions in the lawsuit,  arguing that you don’t have a right to an absentee ballot. The court was having none of it. “While Defendants correctly assert that the right to apply for and vote via absentee ballot is not constitutionally on par with the fundamental right to vote, once the state creates an absentee voting regime, they ‘must administer it in accordance with the Constitution.’ ” (One is reminded of the Jim Crow segregationists who claimed that the state had no obligation to provide schools so it could exclude African Americans.)

The judge also agreed with the plaintiffs, who argued that “the risk of a voter’s absentee ballot application or ballot being erroneously rejected is substantial, given that a single election official—who is not trained in handwriting analysis—has unchecked discretion to determine whether two signatures match.” Once more, aside from the legal standard, basic fairness and common sense would dictate that this entirely subjective process is unacceptable. But in Kemp’s Georgia, you have to go to court to stop it. The court remarked, “Defendants fail to explain why it would impose a severe hardship to afford absentee voters a similar process for curing mismatched signature ballots as for curing qualification challenges or casting a provisional ballot.” The answer: There is none.

The lack of good faith on Kemp’s part is breathtaking. Unless you wanted to disqualify thousands of voters, you’d never set up such a system. But we now have Kemp on tape saying if everyone who has a right to vote actually votes, he’s in trouble. At least he acknowledges he cannot win in a fair and open election. Now that at least one of his malicious practices has been halted perhaps we will find out just how jealously Georgians guard their right to vote.

It may be that Kemp has created a backlash that will bring far more voters to the polls than the number he tried to throw out. “About four times as many people have voted early in Gwinnett County compared to the same point in the 2014 election, and are outpacing 2016 voting rates, spokesman Joe Sorenson said,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. “Between the time early voting began on Oct. 15 and when advance and satellite voting locations closed for the day on Monday, 31,102 Gwinnett County voters had cast a ballot, according to county documents. That does not count the voters who mailed in absentee ballots.” This is actually ahead of the pace of 2016 voting. Moreover, Gwinnett is not an isolated case. “Early voting is up across metro Atlanta; in Cobb County, early vote totals are 30 percent higher than those in 2014, county records show. In the first week of early voting, people waited in line for up to three hours in Cobb to cast a ballot.”

It’s in the metro Atlanta area where Abrams will need to build a lead to balance votes from rural, conservative parts of the state. Thanks to the federal court, she’ll get a fair shot at doing just that.