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Trailing but close, Abrams pushes to keep campaign alive

Early Wednesday, trailing but tantalizingly close in the race for governor, Stacey Abrams exhorted her supporters to brace for a do-over: a month-long campaign leading to a Dec. 4 runoff election.

As the day after Election Day ground on, however, the Democrat’s path forward looked increasingly narrow.

Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp declared victory late Wednesday, announcing plans to begin the transition to a new administration on Thursday. And even before his declaration, political strategists and experts in Georgia election law cast doubt on Abrams’ ability to prolong the campaign.

Abrams’ hopes center on picking up enough votes from absentee and provisional ballots to deprive Kemp of an outright win. She also could ask for a recount. And she could file a lawsuit, seeking a judicial solution to a political problem.

Citing “significant irregularities” in Tuesday’s voting, Abrams’ campaign vowed to make sure all ballots get counted.

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“We are moving forward,” Abrams’ campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning. “This is what it is, and we’re going to explore all our options.”

November 6, 2018 Athens - GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp gives thumbs up as he takes on stage with his family during his election watch party at The Classic Center in Athens on Tuesday, November 6, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC)

Abrams’ perseverance followed an Election Day highlighted by a series of presumably unrelated missteps. Voting machines didn’t work properly or were in short supply in some precincts. Some potential voters were deterred by long lines. Absentee ballots may be lost in the mail from parts of southwest Georgia recently ravaged by Hurricane Michael.

Still, “it’s very, very difficult to prevail” in any campaign challenge, said Doug Chalmers, an election-law attorney from Atlanta who has advised Republican candidates. “It’s a high hurdle to clear in a statewide race.”

Despite the grim outlook and Kemp’s claim of victory, Abrams edged ever closer to her opponent on Wednesday as absentee votes and other ballots were counted. In the morning, Kemp had 50.5 percent of the vote, according to unofficial totals published by the Georgia secretary of state (the office Kemp has held since 2010). Early in the afternoon, his percentage dropped to 50.4 – and then to 50.36 and, by the end of the day, to 50.33.

But he needs just 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a runoff, and he remained 13,071 votes ahead of that mark. He led Abrams by about 63,000 votes, out of 3.9 million cast.

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The secretary of state’s office said late Wednesday fewer than 3,000 absentee ballots remained to be counted statewide. In addition, county election officials are examining about 22,000 provisional ballots, which generally are cast by people who lack the required photographic identification or whose eligibility to vote is otherwise challenged. This year, officials in several counties told an unknown number of voters to fill out provisional ballots because of problems in polling places.

“We’re looking at potentially thousands of additional votes and voters who need their votes counted,” Groh-Wargo said.

Regardless, provisional voting in recent Georgia elections offers little encouragement for Abrams.

In 2016, amid heavy turnout for a presidential election, Georgia counted votes from 7,592 provisional ballots – about 45 percent of those submitted. In 2014, during the last governor’s race, officials approved just 24 percent of provisional ballots – 2,863 of 12,151 cast.

County officials have until Tuesday, Nov. 13, to submit final returns to the secretary of state’s office. Kemp’s office must certify the results by Nov. 14.

Abrams could request a recount if she finishes within 1 percentage point of Kemp in the final tally. But a recount is unlikely to matter.

The last time a recount overturned a Georgia election was 1998. Since the advent of electronic vote tabulation, recounts have become all but irrelevant. A 2009 recount in the election for mayor of Atlanta added a single vote to the loser’s total.

Successful court challenges also are rare.

11/07/2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (right) waits backstage with her family and friends before speaking to a crowd of supporters during her election night watch party at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, Wednesday, November 7, 2018. Georgia's gubernatorial race was too close to call, possibly signaling a run-off election. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) (Alyssa Pointer)

State law allows losing candidates to contest elections in cases of fraud, irregularities or misconduct by election officials – but only if they can prove the malfeasance changed the outcome.

“You’ve got to have enough good solid evidence that makes one really, solidly wonder if this election is in doubt,” said David Walbert, an Atlanta lawyer who has represented Fulton County election officials.

Kemp may have inadvertently given Abrams a legal argument by performing two roles in this campaign: candidate for governor and, as secretary of state, chief election officer overseeing the voting.

Earlier this week, a group of activists sued Kemp, seeking to block him from overseeing vote counting in Tuesday’s election. For months, Abrams and her supporters repeatedly asked Kemp to resign or recuse himself, but Kemp denied his candidacy conflicted with his official duties.

On Wednesday, in what could be a preview of a legal challenge, Abrams’ campaign manager again slammed Kemp’s handling of the election.

“We don’t know the whole story,” Groh-Wargo said. “We are not the secretary of state. We do not have access to the public information that is held at the secretary of state’s office in terms of other potential votes, other mail ballots that could be stacked in corners of offices.”

“We are in unprecedented territory here,” she said, “with a secretary of state being in a race that is too close to call as the chief elections officer of Georgia.”

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