Voting, civil rights groups home in on Gwinnett’s absentee rejections

A photo of a Gwinnett County absentee ballot envelope. (CONTRIBUTED)

A photo of a Gwinnett County absentee ballot envelope. (CONTRIBUTED)

Gwinnett County has become ground zero in the fight over alleged voter suppression in Georgia, with voting advocates and civil rights groups homing in on what they’ve deem the “excessive rejection” of absentee ballots.

Two separate suits filed this week in U.S. District Court in Atlanta name Secretary of State Brian Kemp and the Gwinnett County elections board as defendants.

One brought by the Coalition for Good Governance asks a judge to order that all rejected absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications be reviewed and reinstated if at all possible. Another filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two other advocacy groups makes similar demands, as does a letter sent to Gwinnett County officials by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

All of the actions come amid media reports, including those by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that found Gwinnett County was throwing out a disproportionate number of such ballots.

Through Sunday, Gwinnett County had rejected about 8.5 percent of absentee ballots, an AJC analysis found. Across Georgia, less than 2 percent had been rejected.

Gwinnett’s 390 rejected ballots accounted for about 37 percent of the total rejected ballots statewide.

Analysis by the Lawyers Committee suggested that the rejections affected Asian, black and Latino voters at greater rates than white voters. More than 60 percent of Gwinnett residents are non-white.

Gwinnett County has denied any wrongdoing.

The most frequent reason Gwinnett election officials rejected absentee ballots was for “insufficient oath information” — that is, signatures, birth dates and addresses.

“The penalty for even the smallest clerical error or a question about the voter’s signature is disenfranchisement, with no meaningful opportunity to cure any perceived discrepancy,” the Coalition for Good Governance lawsuit says.

The suit asks for a number of “preliminary and permanent” remedies to be ordered by a judge. Those include the reinstatement of “any mail ballot that was previously rejected for the sole reason of an incorrect or missing year of birth” and an order that such ballots not be rejected in the future.

The suit also asks a judge to require rejected voters be notified by one-day business mail, telephone and email, and for counties to form “bi-partisan signature review teams” to weigh in before ballots are rejected due to potential signature inconsistencies.

Further, it asks for voters to be given until the Friday after Election Day to resolve any mail ballot eligibility questions.

Advance, in-person voting for the Nov. 6 general election began Monday.

“We are asking the Court to intervene to stop these unjust actions in advance of the November election,” said Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance.

Gwinnett officials’ comments on the situation had been limited, except to say they are following state law. County spokesman Joe Sorenson expounded a bit more late Tuesday, saying that the county is “committed to a process that protects the voting rights of all of its citizens.”

“The [Coalition for Good Governance lawsuit] is filed by five plaintiffs, only two of whom are Gwinnett County residents,” Sorenson wrote in an email. “Neither of the county residents has yet applied for absentee ballots. Notably, none of the allegations assert any violations of the law by the Gwinnett County Board of Registration and Elections or the county.”

Also on Tuesday, the Secretary of State’s Office doubled down on earlier statements saying it’s up to individual counties to decide how to process its absentee ballots. But spokeswoman Candice Broce also said the office had opened an investigation to ensure that counties are “following the law in making these determinations.”

“We will not be bullied by out-of-state organizations or political operatives who want to generate headlines and advance a baseless narrative,” Broce said. “We will do our part to keep elections secure, accessible and fair in Georgia.”

Kemp — who is running for governor in a hotly contested race — is under fire for what some see as an effort by his office to undermine voting rights.

News emerged last week that more than 53,000 Georgia voter registrations were on hold because of discrepancies between registration applications and government records. Under the state's "exact match" law, registration applications can be put in pending status even for small inconsistencies, such as a missing hyphen in a last name or a typo.

Potential voters whose registrations are pending can still cast ballots if they verify their information with a state driver’s license or other form of photo ID.

The lawsuit that the ACLU filed Tuesday on behalf of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project and Asian Americans Advancing Justice focuses more specifically on signature matches. It asks the court to allow absentee voters rejected because of signatures “the opportunity to confirm their identity or otherwise resolve the alleged discrepancy.”

Sally Spelbring, 67, of Lawrenceville, usually votes by mail because she’s in a wheelchair and it makes things much easier.

But Monday, for the first time ever, she got a letter saying that her ballot had been rejected because it was determined her signature didn’t match those from the past.

“I have been able to vote this way for 10 years, not ever having a problem until now,” said Spelbring, who tends to vote Democratic. “And I’m sure I’m not the only one.”

She said she’s now going to have her husband take her to vote in person.

“I’m gonna vote, come hell or high water,” she said.

Several groups sued the state last week over the "exact match" law, alleging it disproportionately harms minority groups.

Multiple plaintiffs, including the Coalition for Good Governance, also went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to force Georgia to conduct November's elections with paper ballots.

Theories abound

Though the county has rejected a disproportionate number of absentee ballots, Gwinnett elections board chairman Stephen Day, a Democrat, said there isn’t any kind of “nefarious scheme.” He said he is still investigating the issue, but he did throw out at least one potential explanation.

“Is it possible Gwinnett is strictly following the letter of the law and other counties use more subjective judgment in deciding whether or not a ballot should be rejected?” he wrote in an email to the AJC. “Yes, it is possible that other counties may be operating on the premise that, if other information on the ballot application or ballot oath firmly identifies the voters as is claimed, then the clerical errors should be overlooked. I have no proof of that, that is just a possible explanation.”

Michael McDonald — a University of Florida political scientist who runs the United States Elections Project, which provides data about elections across the country — has developed another theory.

Gwinnett is the only county in Georgia that, because of its high share of Latino residents, is federally mandated to provide elections materials in both English and Spanish. The current election season is just the second time that such bilingual materials are being utilized.

“In attempting to comply with Section 203 (of the federal Voting Rights Act), Gwinnett County election officials appear to have created a confusing envelope, which places English and Spanish directions side-by-side when requesting a key piece of information, a voter’s year of birth,” McDonald said. “As a result, Gwinnett has rejected 180 or more absentee ballots because voters failed to provide a correct birth year. This is far more than any other county reports.”

McDonald said that, while he believes the envelope design could be the most plausible explanation, rejected ballots would have to be reviewed to confirm his suspicions.