Absentee ballots missing birth dates must be counted, judge orders

Elections Coordinator, Shantell Black (left) and Elections Deputy Director, Kristi Royston open and scan absentee ballots on Wednesday morning, Nov. 7, 2018 at the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections Office in Lawrenceville. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM



A federal judge has ruled that Georgia counties must count absentee ballots even if the voter's date of birth is incorrect or missing, and he is preventing the state from finalizing election results until that happens.

Although U.S. District Judge Steve Jones agreed with the Georgia Democratic Party and Stacey Abrams’ campaign on this issue, he ruled against them on two others. He will not require counties to accept absentee ballots with incorrect residence addresses or to accept provisional ballots cast by people who attempted to vote in a different county than where they are registered to vote.

“Plaintiffs have shown that they are entitled to preliminary injunctive relief as to the absentee ballot (date of birth) issue,” Jones wrote in an order finalized late Wednesday. “Plaintiffs have not shown that they are entitled to preliminary injunctive relief as to the absentee ballot (residence) issue and provisional ballot issues.”

It is unclear how much of an effect Jones' ruling will have on election results. Gwinnett County is already under a separate court order to count ballots missing proper birth-date documentation, and the Secretary of State's office provided guidance to counties Monday that said they could accept absentee ballots missing a voter's date of birth, although it wasn't required.

Fulton, Cobb, Henry and DeKalb counties are among those who reported that their vote counts already include absentee ballots with birth-date discrepancies.

Republican candidate Brian Kemp’s campaign released a statement after the ruling, saying Abrams’ should realize it is no longer mathematically possible for her to gain enough votes to force a runoff.

“This ruling solidifies Brian Kemp's insurmountable lead,” communications director Ryan Mahoney said. “The election is over, and Brian Kemp is the Governor-elect. It's time for Abrams to concede and join our efforts to keep Georgia moving in the right direction."

Jones’ order late Wednesday makes it mandatory for all 159 counties. Secretary of State Robyn Crittenden is required to adjust vote totals if there are any counties that need to go back and re-evaluate absentee ballots.

The state has a Tuesday deadline to finalize election results, but Jones’ ruling said that cannot happen as long as there are absentee ballots that need to be counted.

“The Secretary of State is ENJOINED from certifying the State Election results until she has confirmed that each county’s returns include the counts for absentee ballots where the birth date was omitted or incorrect,” he wrote.

Abrams has said she will fight for every vote to be counted in hopes of pushing the election to a runoff, but she is about 18,000 short.

Her campaign said late Wednesday that those efforts will continue. The statement also called Jones’ split-decision ruling a “major victory” and pointed out that Democrats have had multiple successful legal challenges since the Nov. 6 election.

“Now, the courts are doing what Brian Kemp’s Secretary of State office refused to –- upholding and protecting Georgia’s rights and underlining the need for free and fair elections in a state that has suffered from an acute assault on voting rights engineered by none other than Secretary of State Brian Kemp,” Abrams’ campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said.

It would have had potentially huge impacts if Jones had decided that counties should accept provisional ballots cast by people who reside in another county.

Under Georgia law, people must vote on Election Day in the precinct you are assigned. If they end up at the wrong precinct, they cast a provisional ballot instead. Those provisional ballots are only counted if the person is a registered voter, resident of the county where they are voting and has not already cast a ballot elsewhere.

After Election Day, Metro Atlanta counties reported that they rejected hundreds of provisional ballots because they were submitted by people who were registered to vote in a different county.

Jones appeared to be sympathetic to Democrats’ concerns about voter suppression during Tuesday’s hearing, but his order indicates he also gave credibility to the Secretary of State’s argument that changing the rules to allow people to vote in a different county than where they are registered to vote could potentially allow for fraud in the future.

This issue caused an unknown number of ballots to be disqualified. For example, Fulton County rejected 972 provisional ballots because the voter lived outside of the county.

Staff writers Greg Bluestein, Ben Brasch, Arielle Kass, Leon Stafford and Tyler Estep contributed to this report.

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