Lawsuit says Georgia ballots postmarked by election day should count

People walk into the Johns Creek early voting polling location on March 14, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

People walk into the Johns Creek early voting polling location on March 14, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

A federal lawsuit says ballots postmarked by election day should be counted, a change that could save thousands of votes from being rejected during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit challenges a Georgia law that requires absentee ballots to arrive in county election offices by 7 p.m. on election day. Ballots that show up late are discarded, as in 2018 when about 3,800 ballots weren’t counted because they were received after election day, according to state election data.

Filed by the New Georgia Project, a voter registration group, the lawsuit came Friday as the number of Georgia voters who have requested absentee ballots for the June 9 primary rose to a new high of nearly 1.3 million.

The lawsuit also asks a judge to order free ballot postage, allow groups like the New Georgia Project to turn in ballots for voters, and require better notification of voters whose absentee ballot requests are rejected.

Absentee voting restrictions should be lifted, said Marc Elias, an attorney for the New Georgia Project.

“That has a potential to lead to widespread disenfranchisement,” Elias said. “The people oftentimes most impacted by that are young voters and minority voters.”

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office didn’t comment on the lawsuit.

Earlier this month, a federal judge upheld the requirement for postage on mailed absentee ballots for the primary.

A settlement with the Democratic Party in March required Georgia election officials to contact voters whose ballots were rejected within three business days. The lawsuit filed Friday seeks similar notifications when ballot request forms are rejected. About 3,100 request forms had been rejected through Thursday.

Absentee voting needs protections so voters don’t have to risk human contact at in-person precincts, according to the lawsuit.

“No one should have to choose between voting and protecting their health,” said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project. “We filed this lawsuit to ensure that registered voters are heard on election day and not taken advantage of during a global pandemic.”

A separate lawsuit filed in April seeks additional changes to Georgia's primary because of the coronavirus, including a postponement of the election and a switch to hand-marked paper ballots.

The effort to extend Georgia's deadline for returning absentee ballots follows a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that set a postmark deadline in Wisconsin's primary, resulting in tens of thousands more votes counted. Opponents of accepting ballots after election day worry it could lead to fraud.

The Supreme Court’s decision applied to Wisconsin, but the lawsuit argues the same change should be made in Georgia. Ballot deadlines have also been challenged in several other states since the Supreme Court’s ruling.