Cobb judge extends return deadline for absentee ballots after lawsuit

Cobb County again faces a lawsuit for failing to send out absentee ballots on time. A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 2, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Cobb County again faces a lawsuit for failing to send out absentee ballots on time. A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 2, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

A judge agreed Friday to approve a consent order to extend the absentee ballot return deadline for Cobb County voters whose applications were received on or before Nov. 26, in response to a lawsuit over alleged delays by the county in mailing out the ballots.

Two absentee voters represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia sued the Cobb County Board of Elections after the department allegedly failed to send out over 3,400 absentee ballots on time for the runoff election.

It’s the second time the department has been sued over the same issue — after failing to send out more than 1,000 absentee ballots in the November general election. In that case, a judge extended the deadline for the ballots to be returned, and the county sent most through express mail or hand-delivered them.

The election board’s attorney, Daniel White, said the lawsuit is “factually incorrect” and that all the absentee ballots were sent according to the legal deadlines.

“We disagree that they were untimely mailed. They’ve all been mailed,” White said. “There’s no statute that’s been violated in terms of the deadlines.”

He said the ballots were prepared and packed, but were not picked up in the mail until Nov. 28 because of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

“We understand the frustration, but that’s just the state law,” he added.

In court, White said that while the county does not admit to any violation of state law, officials agreed to the compromise because they want “every voter to be able to have their absentee ballot received.”

Voters who do not receive their absentee ballot in time will be allowed to vote using the federal write-in absentee ballot. Every ballot must be postmarked by Election Day Dec. 6 to be accepted.

“We think that’s a fair solution,” White said.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said in a statement Friday night that “changing state law at the request of political activists on the eve of an election is a horrible idea,” and urged Cobb Superior Court Judge Kellie Hill to reconsider.

“These last-minute changes are unfair, lead to confusion (which just leads to more judges trying to make more last-minute changes,) and gives fodder to those who are not inclined to accept the election results,” the statement reads. “Judges should uphold and enforce the law even when they may not personally agree with it.”

Rahul Garabadu, an attorney at the ACLU of Georgia, said counties “have an obligation to mail absentee ballots to voters as soon as possible after receiving an application” and that Cobb failed to do so during the runoff early voting period.

Georgia law requires issuance of absentee ballots within three business days of receiving the application during the advanced voting period. But during the runoff, thousands of ballots marked as issued on Nov. 23 still had not been received by voters in early December, according to the lawsuit.

White said those ballots were printed and packed but could not be mailed until the following Monday.

“For the second time in a matter of weeks, many Cobb County voters are on the verge of disenfranchisement because they have not yet received their absentee ballots,” Garabadu said in a statement.

The lawsuit — filed jointly with the Cobb County Democracy Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center — requests that the return deadline for postmarked ballots again be extended to the deadline for military and overseas voters, which falls on Dec. 9.

It also asks the court to allow voters who have not received their absentee ballot by 2 p.m. on Election Day, Dec. 6, to vote using the federal write-in absentee ballot option, often used by military and overseas voters, and to require the county to notify all affected voters.

The second lawsuit comes amid a slew of blunders throughout the midterm election cycle. Elections Director Janine Eveler told county leadership last month that her employee base is new and still learning, and “there’s some learning curve in some of the complex things that we do.”

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