Georgia Judge to Block Rejection of Ballots Over Signatures

(Bloomberg) -- A federal judge in Atlanta will order state officials not to reject absentee ballots or applications because of inexact signatures until voters are given a chance to challenge the decisions.

The judge’s ruling on Wednesday came after a joint hearing on two lawsuits claiming the state is rejecting hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of mail-in ballot applications and ballots. One lawsuit called the practice a “constitutional train wreck.”

U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May gave the state and the plaintiffs until Thursday to provide any objections to the form of an injunction she will to issue. She plans to order all county election officials who perceive a signature mismatch on an application to mark the ballot as provisional, with an absentee voter given a right to appeal any rejection.

Adopted by Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the move to throw out ballots and applications because signatures don’t match exactly has a lopsided impact on likely Democratic minority voters, the lawsuits claim -- an allegation that carries extra significance because Kemp, a Republican, is running for governor on Nov. 6 in one of the nation’s most-watched races.

His opponent Stacey Abrams, a former Democratic leader of the Georgia House, is vying to become the first black female governor in the nation and has made turnout of minority voters a key part of her campaign.

Katie Byrd, a spokeswoman for Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, declined to comment. Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for Kemp, referred requests for comment to Byrd.

Voter Fraud

Kemp says he is protecting against voter fraud, a favorite issue of President Donald Trump, who endorsed Kemp in the gubernatorial race. Democrats, including Abrams, say that’s a pretext for voter suppression.

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

May’s ruling could find itself on a fast track to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Trump secured a conservative majority with the confirmation of Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh this month. She is an appointee of former President Barack Obama.

Applications for mail-in ballots surged in Georgia following reports that the state’s paperless electronic voting system is at risk of Russian-style interference, according to the complaint.

Too Late

Kemp was accused in an earlier lawsuit of violating voters’ constitutional rights by ignoring the threat, but the state prevailed in September after a judge held it was too late to grant a request for statewide paper ballots. The judge nevertheless said the plaintiffs’ concerns had been backed by "national security experts and cybersecurity experts at the highest levels of our nation’s government" and rejected Kemp’s claim that the allegations were based on "paranoia."

A third lawsuit against the state targets Georgia’s “exact match” law, which rejected voter registration applications from more than 53,000 people, a majority of them minorities, because of minor discrepancies with other government records. Kemp stopped the exact match requirement in early 2017 after a settlement with the NAACP, a civil rights group, but resumed the practice after the Republican legislature passed a law requiring it a few months later. A hearing is set for Oct. 29.

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