Judge declines Kemp’s request to pause absentee ballot injunction

A federal judge has declined to pause an injunction she ordered that changes how Georgia elections officials evaluate certain absentee ballots.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp had requested that U.S. District Court Judge Leigh Martin May stay the injunction she issued last week while Kemp's  legal team appeals the decision regarding signature mismatches to a higher court.

In an order filed late Tuesday — a week before Election Day — May said she would not do so. She wrote that granting a stay “would only cause confusion, as Secretary Kemp has already issued guidance in accordance with the injunction to county elections officials.”

“The Court finds that the public interest is best served by allowing qualified absentee voters to vote and have their votes counted,” May wrote.

Kemp’s appeal of the injunction has been docketed in the United States Appeals Court’s Eleventh Circuit. He has also asked that court to stay May’s injunction until the appeal is heard.

The injunction specifically orders the Secretary of State’s office to inform local elections offices that they should not reject absentee ballots due to alleged signature mismatches. Instead, they’re ordered to mark the ballots as provisional and give voters a “pre-rejection notice” via first-class mail and email, when possible, as well as an opportunity to resolve the discrepancy.

Absentee ballot applications with potential signature issues are to be treated similarly, according to the court. The judge’s order is retroactive, meaning it affects mail-in voters that were already rejected.

In-person early voting in Georgia ends Nov. 2.

Exact numbers are hard to calculate due to variations in how county elections offices report rejected ballots. But the order — which was the result of ongoing lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups — has the capacity to affect several hundred absentee ballots statewide.

Kemp’s legal team has argued that changing the way elections officials review signatures on absentee ballots in the middle of the election season would add to those officials’ already full plate and “threaten to disrupt the orderly administration of elections.”

In the order declining to stay her injunction, May referenced multiple times a statement that Chatham County Board of Registrars chairman Colin McRae submitted in support of the plaintiffs. McRae said his office had had “no significant difficulties” implementing the new rules since they were administered on Oct. 25.

The absentee ballot litigation is just one part of a larger battle over voting rights playing out across Georgia.

The issue has drawn national scrutiny to the state this election season and focused attention on Kemp's decision to continue as secretary of state, an office that oversees elections, even as he runs for governor. Voting and civil rights advocates, as well as his Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams, have accused Kemp of voter suppression.