Lawsuit settled, giving Georgia voters time to fix rejected ballots

Workers start counting absentee ballots at the Fulton County Elections Preparation Center in Atlanta in 2016. (AJC file photo)

Workers start counting absentee ballots at the Fulton County Elections Preparation Center in Atlanta in 2016. (AJC file photo)

This article originally published on March 7, 2020

Georgia voters must be quickly notified when election officials reject their absentee ballots, allowing them time to correct problems and have their ballots counted, according to a settlement with the Democratic Party announced Saturday.

Under the settlement in federal court, Georgia election officials agreed to contact voters whose ballots were rejected by email, phone and mail within three business days. Voters must be contacted the next business day if absentee ballots are invalidated during the 11 days before Election Day.

The agreement resolves a lawsuit filed in November over 8,157 absentee ballots that were thrown out in the 2018 general election, about 3% of all absentee ballots returned by mail.

Election officials rejected ballots because they believed voters’ signatures didn’t match those on file, and when information on absentee ballot envelopes was missing or incorrect.

“A huge victory for all Georgians, this decision further secures each citizen their constitutionally guaranteed right to the ballot box,” said Democratic Party of Georgia Chairwoman Nikema Williams.

Many of the absentee ballot rejections occurred in Gwinnett County, which imposed strict standards for absentee ballots and discarded 1,733.

A new absentee ballot envelope design for Gwinnett, with clearer text and instructions, is part of the agreement between the Democratic Party of Georgia, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the State Election Board and Gwinnett election officials. The updated design must be in place for the Nov. 3 general election.

A new absentee ballot envelope design for Gwinnett County features clearer text and instructions.

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Raffensperger’s office didn’t immediately provide comment Saturday.

The  old absentee ballot envelope design for Gwinnett County came under criticism after the 2018 election. It is being replaced this year.

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“This settlement will give Georgians peace of mind that their votes will be counted and that they won’t lose their voices because of flawed state election laws,” said DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos.

Rejected absentee ballots played a role in the tight 2018 election for Congress in Gwinnett County, which was decided by 419 votes. Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woddall defeated Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux.

State law requires election officials to "promptly notify" voters of problems with their signatures, but some voters who mailed their ballots near Election Day weren't informed in time to submit a revised provisional ballot along with identification information. Voters have three days after Election Day to correct issues with an absentee ballot, according to a state law passed last year.

The State Election Board also approved a rule last month that requires quick notification of absentee ballot rejections so that voters have enough time to correct issues.

In addition, the settlement requires more thorough procedures before election officials can reject a ballot because of discrepancies in voters’ signatures.

A majority of county election officials reviewing absentee ballots must agree that signatures don’t match, comparing them with all signatures they have on file.