A rush for uncounted votes scrambles unsettled Georgia governor’s race

The race for Georgia governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp remains unsettled as judges continue to weigh arguments about ballots that had not been counted. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The race for Georgia governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp remains unsettled as judges continue to weigh arguments about ballots that had not been counted. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Georgia elections officials scrambled Thursday to count a cache of hundreds of ballots that were previously rejected as they raced to comply with the latest federal ruling in the too-close-to-call contest for governor.

Democrat Stacey Abrams called the judge’s order a major victory to extend her quest to become the nation’s first black female governor, but Republican Brian Kemp said it would hardly dent his “insurmountable lead” in the race for Georgia’s top job.

The latest tally showed Abrams is roughly 55,000 votes behind Kemp — and in need of more than 17,000 votes to force a Dec. 4 runoff. Georgia law requires a runoff if no candidate gets a majority of the vote, which is only a possibility because a third-party contender netted about 1 percent.

In the tight race for the 7th Congressional District, Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall appeared to defeat Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux after additional ballots were counted Thursday in Gwinnett County. Bourdeaux gained more than 100 votes but still trailed Woodall by about 400 votes.

A judge on Thursday denied Bourdeaux's emergency motion that would have forced Gwinnett to tally absentee ballots that had previously been rejected because of address and signature issues.

In a separate ruling, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones issued an order late Wednesday that all counties should count absentee ballots missing birthdate information, a decision that could affect hundreds of ballots.

That court order forced election officials across Georgia to revisit absentee ballots that were rejected solely because of a missing or incorrect date of birth. Secretary of State Robyn Crittenden told counties they have to recertify election results by 5 p.m. Friday if their vote totals change.

It’s unclear when the election results will be finalized. Unless judges intervene further, the final count of ballots could be finalized as soon as Friday night. The state’s certification deadline is Tuesday.

The last-minute rush to count every last ballot left the election unresolved, but Abrams and Bourdeaux were running out of options.

There didn’t appear to be many new ballots left to be found Thursday.

About 700 absentee ballots statewide were rejected because of errors or omissions in their birthdates, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis. Nearly 800 other ballots were rejected because of errors in their birthdate and at least one other problem.

And roughly 2,770 ballots were dismissed due to insufficient oath information, which could include errors in birthdates that were cited in the judicial order. The AJC’s analysis is culled from Nov. 8 data before counties certified their votes.

Most county election offices said they already counted those ballots if they could be authenticated.

“The elections office currently is going through all of the absentee and provisional ballots and reviewing all of them, per the judge’s order, to see if there’s any changes,” said Andrew Cauthen, a spokesman for DeKalb County. “If there are additional ballots that need to be counted, we definitely will need to recertify the election.”

DeKalb had the second-highest number of rejected absentee ballots in Georgia, 802, mostly because voters didn’t fill out all information on the return envelope. State election data doesn’t specify how many of those rejections were because of incorrect date of birth information.

In Fulton, the state’s most populous county, no absentee ballot rejections were listed in the state’s election data.

“The only reason we don’t count an absentee is if the signature is missing. If the signature is obviously different, we contact the voter,” Fulton Elections Director Richard Barron said. “That is the policy we follow for every election.”

Abrams hailed the court ruling that could give her a narrow chance at forcing a runoff. Her campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, said several recent court rulings protect voters “from an acute assault on voting rights engineered” by Kemp when he was secretary of state.

Kemp, meanwhile, has tried to cast himself as the eventual winner. Several of his aides were at the Capitol on Thursday to work on the transition to power. And Kemp spokesman Ryan Mahoney repeated anew that Abrams has no mathematical chance at winning enough votes to force a runoff.

“The election is over, and Brian Kemp is the governor-elect,” he said. “It’s time for Abrams to concede and join our efforts to keep Georgia moving in the right direction.”

A divide over how many ballots are left outstanding is driving the post-election drama. Kemp’s campaign said at most only a few thousand ballots are left, far from enough to force a runoff even if Abrams sweeps them all.

In Cobb County, 511 absentee ballots weren’t accepted for a variety of reasons — usually they were missing signatures or returned too late – but not because of a birthdate inaccuracies.

“We never rejected ballots for that reason, so we were not impacted,” said Janine Eveler, who heads Cobb’s elections.

Henry County Elections Director Tina Lunsford said her office already reviewed and counted absentee ballots where voters didn’t write the date of birth, or where they listed today’s date instead. Henry rejected 141 absentee ballots.

“The ones we did not count is if they left the back of the envelope totally blank or if there was absolutely no signature,” Lunsford said. “Everything else we counted.”

Whatever hopes Democrats have might rest with the courts.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg ordered election officials to review as many as 27,000 provisional ballots, but much of that information hasn't yet been reported by county election offices. Totenberg's ruling also didn't say whether those that were rejected should be tallied. That case is still pending.

The Abrams campaign held a press conference Wednesday to highlight the sheer number of provisional ballots that were cast — and assert that enough ballots for her to close the gap are still outstanding.

No major media outlet has declared a winner in either race, and with a margin this tight they are likely waiting until the state certifies the results.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution does not call election contests.