Georgia Suits Cite 'Train Wreck' Plan for Ballot Signatures

(Bloomberg) -- Allegations that Georgia’s Republican-led election officials are unfairly rejecting mailed-in ballots due to perceived signature mismatches or other hyper-technical errors were heard by a federal judge in Atlanta two weeks before Election Day.

Hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of ballots are being tossed out because signatures don’t appear to match the ones on file, or because the voter oath is signed on the wrong line, two lawsuits claim. And would-be voters don’t get a chance to fix the errors or provide explanations, they say.

The practice adopted by Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp has a lopsided impact on likely Democratic voters, according to the lawsuits -- 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.

The issue over signatures is separate from a lawsuit over Georgia’s “exact-match” law that left more than 53,000 people off the voting rolls because there were minor discrepancies between information on registration forms and a government database. A hearing is set for Oct. 29 before a different judge on the “exact-match” case, which might also get a boost should the mail-in ballot plaintiffs get a favorable ruling.

In the fight over signatures, lawyers for the state said in court filings that the plaintiffs, including a Democratic candidate for state office and Muslim and Asian groups represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, failed to identify any individual voters who hadn’t been given a chance to fix perceived errors.

Early Voting Surges

Moreover, Georgia says, the state has already started the process of training election staff and early voting is underway.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized the importance of not upsetting a state’s election process with last-minute changes," the state said.

But plaintiffs in one of the cases want a court order forcing Kemp to alert would-be voters by mail, telephone or email if their ballot applications are rejected and to explain why and how to address the issues.

They also want signature deficiencies to be decided by a bipartisan review committee, saying age, disability and physical and mental condition are all possible reasons for signatures that don’t have an exact match. Signature rejections are also more likely to impact voters who speak English as a second language, they said.

Joint Hearing

At a joint hearing on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May said she would issue an order within a day or two, while indicating she was inclined to make a limited ruling that would create an appeal option for the relatively small pool of voters whose absentee applications or ballots were rejected based on their signatures.

May, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, said her own voter registration signature from age 18 likely doesn’t match her current one. State law, the judge said, offers a way to appeal when absentee forms are rejected for most reasons, but not for signature mismatches.

“There’s not the same ability to fix it,” she said.

Any decision 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.

While one of the lawsuits calls the current practice a "constitutional train wreck," Kemp says he’s preventing election fraud, a favorite issue of President Donald Trump, a Republican. Democrats say it’s a pretext for voter suppression.

Kemp’s opponent, Stacey Abrams, is the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives and aims to be the first black female U.S. governor. She previously clashed with Kemp when he opened a fraud probe into an organization she started to boost voter turnout among minorities in 2014.

States need to have some means of verifying absentee voter identities to guard against ballots being intercepted and returned by others, said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California at Irvine.

"The problem is that signature matching is not an exact science and we know that even when officials try to do it fairly, peoples’ signatures change over time, so it’s not really a very accurate way of measuring someone’s identity," Hasen said.

Best Practice

The best practice, according to Hasen, is to give voters a chance to address perceived discrepancies. The bigger issue is whether a federal court can compel that process, because judges are reluctant to wield such power over a state without some showing of fundamental unfairness, he said.

May’s decision following Tuesday’s hearing could hint at the outcome of the lawsuit over the exact-match law.

In that case, before U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross, Georgia is accused of wrongfully placing holds on voter registration forms if the names and addresses don’t exactly match the state’s database. The discrepancies, including slight misspellings or missing hyphens or apostrophes, are disproportionately found on forms filed by African-Americans, the groups say.

The 2017 law behind the exact-match policy "works in concert with historical, socioeconomic, and other electoral conditions in Georgia to deny African-American, Latino, and Asian-American voters an equal opportunity to register to vote and participate in the political process," the groups said.

People whose registrations were placed on hold can still vote if they show photo ID that proves they’re eligible.

The cases are Martin v. Kemp, 1:18-cv-04776; and Georgia Muslim Voter Project v. Kemp, 1:18-cv-04789, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia (Atlanta).

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