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.
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 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.