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Judge orders Ga. officials to stop tossing absentee ballots over signatures

Republican gubernatorial candidate for Georgia Brian Kemp speaks as Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams looks on during a debate in Atlanta Tuesday. (Pool/Reuters)

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.

The plaintiffs, including the ACLU, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Coalition for Good Governance, argued that allowing nonexpert election officials to judge the validity of signatures without giving voters the chance to contest the decisions amounted to unconstitutional voter suppression.

Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp debated health care and voting rights at Georgia's gubernatorial debate on Oct. 23. (Video: Reuters)

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.

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The issue had prompted a fiery outcry from Abrams, who accused Kemp, also her Republican opponent, of trying to suppress the minority vote. Gwinnett County, the state’s second-largest county, has undergone a demographic transformation in recent years, moving from 67 percent white in 2000 to 62 percent nonwhite last year. Democrats have sought to mobilize the new residents in support of their efforts to turn the state blue.

Voting rights advocates noted with suspicion that Gwinnett accounted for more than a third of all rejected absentee ballots across Georgia.

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

The president of the Lawyers’ Committee, Kristen Clarke, also weighed in with a promise to challenge “other 11th hour attempts to disenfranchise voters.”

A spokeswoman for Kemp declined to comment except to say that the injunction is not final. A spokesman for Gwinnett County said only that officials there were reviewing the decision.

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The ACLU suit, filed on behalf of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, and the Coalition for Good Governance suit, filed on behalf of five individual voters, are among several legal actions pending in Georgia, where Kemp and Abrams have traded accusations of encouraging voter fraud and voter suppression, respectively. Abrams, a former state lawmaker who is black, founded the New Georgia Project with the goal of boosting voter registration among African Americans.

Kemp, who is white, has promoted some of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation, including one new law known as “exact match” that requires the information provided on voter registration applications to exactly match existing driver and Social Security records. He also accused the New Georgia Project of improper registration practices, but his investigation found no wrongdoing.

Kemp has also accused Abrams of encouraging undocumented immigrants to vote, which she has denied. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Georgia or elsewhere.

The “exact match” law has been blamed for the suspension of more than 53,000 registration applications in Georgia this year.

Kemp has also been accused of purging hundreds of thousands of active voters from the state’s rolls.

He has argued that his office has properly maintained the state’s voting rolls and that the “exact match” law is an appropriate safeguard against voter fraud.