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Upcoming ruling on rejected absentee ballots likely to focus on mismatched signatures
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Monday, Oct. 15, 2018, was the first day of early voting in the 2018 general election, which features the governor’s race along with other local and state races. - photo by Scott Rogers

ATLANTA — A federal judge is considering whether a Georgia practice of rejecting absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications because of a mismatched signature without first providing recourse for the voter is unconstitutional.

Two separate lawsuits allege election officials are improperly rejecting absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications without first giving voters an opportunity to dispute a finding of a mismatched signature. One of the lawsuits also challenges the rejection of absentee ballots because of 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.

State and county officials say they’re handling the ballots and applications the same way they have for at least two decades and the lawsuits were sparked by news coverage of rejections in Gwinnett County.

The dispute comes in the closing weeks of the state’s nationally watched governor’s race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp. The two candidates, Abrams as a longtime legislative leader and Kemp as secretary of state, have tangled for years over voting rights and ballot security measures. Abrams has accused Kemp of a “pattern of conduct” intended to limit access to the polls, while Kemp counters that Abrams is drumming up controversy and advocating to allow ineligible residents to vote.

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, and the other was filed by the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and five individual voters, including two candidates for office. The lawyers behind both suits have filed emergency requests asking a judge to immediately implement certain changes, though they seek different remedies.

U.S. District Judge Leigh May heard arguments from both sides Tuesday and said she will likely focus on the signature mismatch issue in an order issued in the coming days.

In addition to suing Kemp, both lawsuits also singled out Gwinnett County, saying that information provided by Kemp’s office showed that the populous, majority-minority county accounts for a disproportionate number of the rejections.

Cristina Correia, a lawyer for the state, said some counties have not entered their data into the secretary of state’s system. Attorney Bruce Brown, who filed one of the lawsuits, seized on that information, saying the problem may be much bigger than it seems if some of the counties that showed no rejections actually hadn’t reported their numbers.

State law allows voters to cast an absentee ballot before an election regardless of whether they are able to vote in person on Election Day. But the lawsuits say the two-step process includes obstacles that can result in a voter’s constitutional rights being violated.

If the voter’s signature on the absentee ballot or absentee ballot application doesn’t match the signature on the voter registration card, state law says they 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 says voters are to be notified “promptly” of any rejection, but no time frame is provided. The state doesn’t provide the voter with an opportunity to confirm identity or to otherwise explain the reason for a mismatched signature before rejection.

That could result in a voter being notified too late to fix the problem, jeopardizing the fundamental right to vote and have the vote counted, the lawsuits say.

May said 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. Submitting another absentee ballot or application may not fix the problem if the signature still doesn’t match, she said.

She noted that a would-be absentee voter whose eligibility to vote is questioned gets an opportunity to prove eligibility before rejection and asked state and county election officials whether that might be possible in the case of signature mismatch.

They said any change in the process just two weeks before the Nov. 6 midterm elections and with absentee voting already underway would be disruptive.

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