Abrams gains ground as judges order more Georgia votes to be counted

Georgia’s tight races for governor and Congress remained unsettled Tuesday as last-minute votes trickled in, protests rocked the Capitol and judges issued rulings to ensure more ballots are counted.

After a day filled with post-election drama, final vote counts are still at least two days away and Democrat Stacey Abrams needs to gain more than 17,000 votes to force a runoff in the race for governor against Republican Brian Kemp.

Meanwhile, the contest for the 7th Congressional District was closer than ever, with Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux trailing Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall by about 500 votes. That margin could narrow further because hundreds of votes from Gwinnett County are still pending.

The federal courts are the wild cards in both races.

Several ongoing court cases leave open the possibility that previously rejected absentee and provisional ballots could still be tallied, even after Tuesday’s deadline for counties to certify their election results.

Attention focused on Gwinnett, where election officials tallied roughly 2,000 provisional ballots late Tuesday but said they won’t complete their count until Thursday because of a judge’s order on absentee votes.

Democrats were overjoyed by court rulings and additional vote counts that chipped away at Kemp’s lead.

Groups on both sides of the voter access issue crowded into the Gwinnett County Board of Elections meeting on Tuesday afternoon. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Federal judges this week ordered election officials to review thousands of provisional ballots, prevented the state from finalizing election results before Friday evening, and required Gwinnett officials to accept roughly 300 absentee ballots with errors or omissions in birthdates. Under state law, the deadline to certify the election is Nov. 20.

It’s unclear how many additional ballots could still be counted.

Provisional ballots were cast by voters whose information could not be immediately verified at polling places, while absentee ballots had previously been rejected because of missing or erroneous information, even in cases when voters’ identities could be verified through other means.

Still, Abrams faces daunting odds and a tightening window to gain ground on Kemp, who has said it’s mathematically impossible for the Democrat to force a Dec. 4 runoff.

His aides have blasted Abrams for “frivolous” lawsuits and her refusal to concede, and said even if Abrams wins all the outstanding votes still untallied that it won’t be enough for her to overcome the gap.

"BREAKING: Abrams still can't force this into a runoff," one Kemp staffer, Austin Chambers, posted Tuesday on Twitter.

No major media outlet has declared a winner in either race, and with a margin this tight several organizations said they would reassess after counties certify. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution does not call election contests.

Tensions grow more heated

The fiercest legal fight centers on provisional ballots cast by voters whose information often could not be immediately verified at polling places. State records indicate roughly 21,000 of those ballots were cast statewide, but Abrams’ campaign says its survey of data shows about 5,000 more.

“Every hour that goes by, additional votes are processed. Some we know about, some we don’t know about,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager. “Our position is count the provisionals, count the absentees — and don’t rush the process.”

After taking a conciliatory tone toward the vote-counting effort, Woodall on Monday criticized Bourdeaux and other Democrats for filing litigation “to try to overrule our local, bipartisan officials.” He and other Republicans are nervously watching a pair of court rulings that could tighten their leads by counting more ballots that were previously rejected.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Gwinnett officials must still count absentee ballots that contain errors or omissions in birthdates, a court order that could affect roughly 300 ballots that were rejected there. Gwinnett officials said Tuesday that they need two more days to review those ballots before certifying their results.

And a separate ruling by U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg on Monday ordered election officials to review as many as 27,000 provisional ballots that were cast because voters' registration or identification couldn't be verified at the polls.

Totenberg's order didn't say whether additional provisional ballots should be counted, but she required officials to provide more information about provisional ballots that were cast by voters because their registrations couldn't be verified or because they didn't appear at their correct precincts. That case is ongoing.

In addition, a third federal judge was considering whether to order all Georgia counties statewide to count absentee ballots that are missing correct birthdate information on the envelope.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones, who said in court he will issue a decision by noon Wednesday, also will rule on whether people who tried to vote in a county where they weren’t registered and were given provisional ballots will have their votes counted.

While Kemp’s campaign stayed relatively quiet, Abrams and her Democratic allies upped the pressure.

The Democratic Party of Georgia and Abrams launched a new 30-second ad on Tuesday stressing the need to count all ballots. A slate of potential Democratic presidential candidates rallied behind Abrams in Washington. And a demonstration of support for Abrams under the Gold Dome quickly grew tense.

As a crowd of more than 100 people chanted “count every vote” a few steps from Kemp’s former office, police detained about a dozen demonstrators for violating rules prohibiting yelling while the General Assembly is in session.

Among them was state Sen. Nikema Williams, a first-term Atlanta Democrat who said she was standing with her constituents when officers put plastic restraints on her wrists and led her away.

“I was not yelling. I was not chanting,” she said. “I stood peacefully next to my constituents because they wanted their voices to be heard, and now I’m being arrested.”