Carolyn Bourdeaux, Democratic Nominee for Georgia's 7th Congressional District, holds onto a Gwinnett County absentee ballot as she speaks during a press conference outside of the Gwinnett County Board of Voter Registration and Elections in Lawrenceville on Nov. 12, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Democrat Bourdeaux sues Gwinnett over rejected ballots in 7th District race

The congressional campaign of Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux filed an emergency motion in federal court on Sunday evening seeking to delay Gwinnett County from certifying its election results in order to count a cache of absentee and provisional ballots that had previously been rejected. 

The 7th District candidate effectively joined in on a lawsuit filed by a handful of voting and civil rights groups during the early voting period that preceded Election Day. Those groups sued Gwinnett County and then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, homing in on Gwinnett’s disproportionately high reporting of signature-related absentee ballot rejections. 

One of those original groups, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, also filed an emergency motion Sunday regarding Gwinnett’s absentee ballots. Similar to the Bourdeaux team’s filing, it asks that all absentee ballots rejected due to “immaterial defects” like missing birth dates or other incorrect information be re-evaluated and counted.

“There is no reason to reject ballots that contain extraneous defects so long as the voter’s eligibility has been confirmed and the voter’s identity has been verified,” the request for a temporary restraining order said.

A spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office said it was reviewing the filing.

At a Monday press conference, Bourdeaux zeroed in on roughly 900 absentee and 2,300 provisional ballots that she said Gwinnett has not counted for “largely trivial reasons.” Some ballots, she said, were thrown out because voters wrote down the day’s date rather than their birth dates while signing the absentee ballot envelope. 

"Whether intentional or not, this is voter suppression," Bourdeaux said.

A hair separates Bourdeaux from incumbent Republican Rob Woodall in the 7th Congressional District, which also includes major swaths of Forsyth County. Woodall leads by roughly 900 votes, putting the race within recount territory, but Bourdeaux’s campaign is mining for as many votes as possible in the meantime. 

In a response filed Monday afternoon, attorneys for Gwinnett’s elections board argued that changing their process post-Election Day and shortly before results are scheduled to be certified would have a “chaotic and disruptive effect.” 

They argued that a delay in certification would also disrupt the runoff elections already scheduled for Dec. 4, which include a hotly contested race to replace Kemp as Secretary of State. 

“Gwinnett County has consistently followed state law in the processing of absentee ballots, as explained to this Court earlier in this case, and has not rejected absentee ballots for reasons beyond the statute,” the new filing said.

Woodall criticized Bourdeaux for going to court “to try and overrule our local, bipartisan officials.” 

“If federal judges rather than bipartisan election boards become the arbiter of local elections, all in our community will be the lesser for it,” he said in a statement Monday evening. 

Bourdeaux’s legal action is separate from a lawsuit filed by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams on Sunday that more broadly asks a federal court to require absentee ballots rejected for “arbitrary” reasons, such as a mistake in a birthdate or missing information, to be counted. 

Abrams is racing to track down all remaining provisional ballots and any other uncounted votes to force a runoff against Brian Kemp, but her window to do so is narrowing as more counties certify their election results. 

Guidance expected today from the state elections board could provide new instructions for how absentee votes are handled.

Bourdeaux’s court filing argues that Gwinnett’s rejection of such ballots violates federal law since those voters were already previously determined to be eligible. She said the county should accept and count those ballots. 

The suit is seeking to block Gwinnett from certifying its election results as initially planned on Tuesday afternoon in order to give the county time to count the absentee ballots. 

Bourdeaux on Monday didn't say directly whether she saw a path to victory in the roughly 3,200 ballots highlighted by her campaign -- portions of Gwinnett also fall within the 4th and 10th Congressional Districts -- but suggested that because approximately two-thirds of the discarded absentee ballots were filed by immigrants and ethnic minorities, they could favor her.

"We need to stop the practice of disenfranchising people in Gwinnett County," Bourdeaux said.

Under the microscope 

Gwinnett has been the subject of scrutiny this election season over several voter access issues.

The Gwinnett County elections board held a closed-door meeting on Friday to discuss matters related to the ongoing absentee ballot litigation. 

Election board chairman Stephen Day declined to talk specifics following the emergency meeting, but it was held one day after the American Civil Liberties Union issued a new press release taking issue with Gwinnett’s rejection of absentee ballot rejections based on missing birth date information.

That came more than two weeks after a U.S. District Court judge issued an injunction in a lawsuit led by the ACLU that ordered Gwinnett — and every other county in Georgia — to allow voters rejected on such basis new opportunities to have their ballots counted. 

Day, a Democrat, said after the meeting that nothing had changed in the way Gwinnett would evaluate ballots. He has defended Gwinnett’s election staff but also called for clearer guidelines to be established.

“We welcome any effort by the legislature or the new secretary of state, whoever that winds up being, in making the laws clear and precise and easily interpretable, as far as how elections divisions such as ours operate and deal with issues of data and what’s valid and what’s invalid,” Day said Friday. “All we want to do is operate exactly on the same interpretive playing field as everybody else.”

Unresolved issues

The front lines of the 7th District fight shifted from provisional to absentee ballots over the weekend. Bourdeaux’s campaign took to social media last week urging voters who had filed provisional ballots to resolve any eligibility questions with the county before the Friday evening deadline. 

Forsyth County reported on Friday that all its votes had been tallied. 

Woodall last week expressed cautious optimism that the contest would continue to trend his way. 

“We’re going to make sure that every vote gets counted, that every issue is going to be resolved,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “And at the end of the day we’re going to have a count and I’m going to be prepared to live with that count.”

The 7th District is Georgia’s last unresolved congressional race after U.S. Rep. Karen Handel conceded to Democratic challenger Lucy McBath in the nearby 6th District last Thursday. 

Read more: Democrats search for votes before Georgia election results finalized

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