Democrats search for votes before Georgia election results finalized

Stacey Abrams’ campaign is racing to track down all remaining provisional ballots and any other uncounted votes to force a runoff against Brian Kemp, but any chance she has is narrowing as more counties report their final ballots and certify their votes.

In another tight election, Carolyn Bourdeaux is scrambling to close a gap of roughly 900 votes  between her and U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall as officials in Gwinnett County weigh a trove of absentee and provisional ballots that have yet to be tallied.

The climax could come as soon as Tuesday, the deadline for counties to certify their results and send them to the Secretary of State’s Office. At least 94 of Georgia’s 159 counties have already done so, and 124 counties have already reported provisional ballot totals.

Additional absentee ballots might be counted after Georgia’s new secretary of state, Robyn Crittenden, issued instructions Monday for county election officials to accept mailed ballots that had previously been rejected because of voters’ errors when filling them out.

The wrangling over votes reached a fever pitch Monday as Democrats took the airwaves, to voters’ homes and to the legal system to wring out every outstanding vote and preserve Abrams’ quest to be the nation’s first black female governor and Bourdeaux’s bid to flip a onetime GOP stronghold.

Worried the claims could undermine the legitimacy of his election if he wins, Kemp’s spokesman on Monday repeated his call for Abrams to concede and blasted “frivolous” lawsuits filed by her campaign seeking to give counties more leeway to count provisional and absentee ballots.

The fight has further polarized an already divided Georgia electorate, as leading Republicans declared Kemp the “governor-elect” and influential Democrats echoed Abrams’ demand to wait until all votes are counted.

Cobb County was the first county in metro Atlanta to certify its results Monday, approving 1,432 outstanding ballots, most of them provisional. The county's elections board also rejected 829 ballots, often because they were cast by people who weren't registered to vote in Cobb.

But litigation filed by Abrams’ campaign could force counties to revisit some ballots and give the Democrat a slightly wider window to a potential runoff.

The lawsuit seeks to delay the deadline until Wednesday and require counties to count absentee ballots rejected for missing information and other inaccuracies. It also would require that counties accept provisional ballots that were rejected because the voters live in a different county.

A separate filing by Bourdeaux’s campaign seeks to delay Gwinnett County from certifying its election results in order to count a cache of nearly 1,000 absentee ballots that had been previously rejected. That echoes other lawsuits targeting Gwinnett’s disproportionately high reporting of signature-related absentee ballot rejections.

Meanwhile, Robyn Crittenden instructed all county election officials Monday not to reject mailed absentee ballots just because they lack a voter's date of birth. Crittenden said those ballots can be counted if the voter's identity can be verified by their signature or other means.

Her instructions could have the broadest impact in Gwinnett, where election officials rejected 1,587 absentee ballots — the largest number in the state. Gwinnett is scheduled to certify its election results Tuesday.

But the math of vote counting is not in the Democrats’ favor.

Kemp now leads Abrams by about 58,000 votes, but she needs to net a smaller number — roughly 21,000 votes — to force a Dec. 4 runoff against the Republican. Georgia law requires a runoff if no candidate gets a majority of the vote.

Abrams will try to reinforce the message that the race isn’t over yet with a new TV ad set to run in the metro Atlanta market this week. Her campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, said the ad will detail how the “fight for the most basic fairness persists.”

While many rural counties have already certified their votes, most of the more densely populated metro Atlanta counties that overwhelmingly tilted toward Abrams have yet to do so. Officials in several of Atlanta’s suburban counties will convene Tuesday.

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

‘Their votes should count’

Abrams’ campaign is zeroing in 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 said its own review shows about 5,000 more. The deadline for voters to settle issues with provisional ballots was Friday.

While some of those ballots have already been rejected, her campaign hopes to chase enough down to tighten the margin.

She also wants more absentee ballots counted.

Election officials across Georgia rejected a total of 5,147 mailed absentee ballots, mostly because they had incorrect birthdate information or other inaccuracies, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of absentee ballot data.

Democrats across the state were blasted with texts seeking details of any voting problems, and Abrams sent repeated fundraising pleas insisting the race isn’t over. And the party operated phone banks across the state, dispatching staff to the homes of some who they couldn’t reach.

Carol O’Regan, who lives in Avondale Estates in DeKalb County, took the entire week of the election off from work so she could help the Abrams’ campaign wherever she was be needed. That meant calling Georgia voters who records indicate cast provisional ballots.

“It’s not just about Stacey winning,” O’Regan said. “We told people their vote counted, and their votes should count.”

O’Regan worked out of the Decatur field office, dialing number after number. No one was picking up. So she left voicemails, reading from a script provided by the Georgia Democratic Party and leaving behind the number to the voter protection hotline.

“We understand you had to cast a provisional ballot in the election, and we want to help you clear it up today by 5 p.m.,” she told one caller after another on Friday.

In her first public comments since the night of the election, Abrams had much the same message. In a video posted Sunday on Facebook, she invoked the story of a Republican state House incumbent who succeeded in forcing a new election after some voters cast ballots in the wrong race.

"I'd love to win; I want to win," she said in the video. "But that's not the point. The point is the system has to work. The point is we have to have confidence in that system."

Kemp, meanwhile, busied himself by readying for a transition to power that’s been blessed by outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal. He recently tapped two close allies to serve as his chief of staff and chair of his transition effort.

And his campaign repeated some of the bruising rhetoric it used throughout the election to denigrate Abrams’ legal effort. His spokesman Ryan Mahoney said the results, combined with the small cache of outstanding votes left, show it’s mathematically impossible for Abrams to win.

“Stacey Abrams and her radical backers have moved from desperation to delusion,” he said. “Stacey Abrams lost and her concession is long overdue.”

— Staff writers Tamar Hallerman and Tyler Estep contributed to this report.