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State agrees to absentee ballot changes after lawsuit

Georgia’s top elections official agreed Friday to allow the counting of absentee ballots that arrive after the Dec. 4 runoff, following a lawsuit filed by state Democrats claiming that delays in sending out the ballots resulted in “arbitrary and disparate treatment” of voters.

A federal judge approved a consent order between Secretary of State Robyn Crittenden and state Democrats who brought the lawsuit because dozens of counties didn’t send out the ballots until this week.

Absentee ballots must usually be received by Election Day to be counted, but under the agreement they will still be tallied if they’re postmarked as late as Dec. 4 and received by Dec. 7.

The compromise could affect a large number of voters in the runoff, which will decide the secretary of state’s race and a Public Service Commission seat. At least 121,000 voters have submitted an application for absentee mail-in ballots in the runoff election.

The agreement is the latest development in an ongoing legal battle over voting rights waged by the Democratic Party of Georgia, voting rights groups and Stacey Abrams’ new advocacy organization.

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It involves a fuzzy part of state election rules guiding runoff elections. Georgia law requires county officials to send absentee ballots to eligible applicants “as soon as possible” after the results of the general election are certified, but it does not set a deadline.

And it triggered a new round of finger-pointing between parties that have long feuded over ballot access issues.

In the lawsuit, Democrats said at least 65 counties waited until earlier this week to mail their first absentee ballots. With mail delivery taking several days to reach households in parts of the state, the party warned the delay risks disenfranchising voters.

Party chair DuBose Porter said in a court document that without an extension, voters “will lose their fundamental right to vote because their ballots will have been sent to them too late to cast a ballot that will be counted.”

Crittenden said through a spokeswoman her office worked as quickly as possible to prepare the ballots but couldn’t do so until the general election results were certified. She said their efforts were delayed by a federal court ruling sought by Democrats that prevented the certification of the vote until Nov. 16.

“We told the Democratic Party when they initially sought to delay certification that doing so would adversely impact run-off procedures,” said the spokeswoman, Candice Broce, adding: “If they had come to us first, we would have tried to work with them to resolve this problem.”

Georgia GOP chair John Watson described it as a part of a more cynical Democratic strategy to “drag the process out as long as possible, and then sue over the delay they caused.”

Democrats, meanwhile, claimed victory at a press conference on the steps of the federal courthouse. John Barrow, the party’s nominee for secretary of state, said it’s another sign that changes to voting laws are needed next year.

“We’re doomed to have a lot more problems if we don’t fix them,” said Barrow. “And I’m committed to fixing them.”

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