The fate of the Georgia race for governor remained uncertain Wednesday as Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp clashed bitterly over pending lawsuits that seek to count more ballots that were rejected by local officials.
With the latest tally showing Abrams’ deficit shrinking slightly, her campaign raced to hold a press conference at the Georgia statehouse to cast suspicion on Kemp’s claims that his victory is inevitable. The Democrat’s top aide, Lauren Groh-Wargo, called him the “secretary of suppression.”
The Republican, meanwhile, countered through a spokesman that Abrams is peddling fake data and filing frivolous litigation to “undermine democracy and attempt to steal this election.”
The bitter feud escalated as a federal judge issued an order late Wednesday that will result in the counting of a new trove of ballots, one of several lawsuits pending even after Tuesday’s deadline for counties to certify their votes. The only county that has yet to certify is Gwinnett, which is set to do so Thursday.
The latest tally showed Abrams needs to net more than 17,000 votes to force a Dec. 4 runoff against Kemp and extend her quest to become the nation’s first black female governor. Kemp says she has no mathematical chance to gain that much ground with so few ballots outstanding.
The tight race for the 7th Congressional District could also hang in the balance. Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux trails Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall by about 500 votes, but that margin could narrow further because hundreds of ballots are still pending in Gwinnett.
In a cramped statehouse conference room, Groh-Wargo and other top Abrams deputies pointed to piles of paperwork with voter data to highlight the sheer number of provisional ballots cast — and criticize Kemp for not stepping down as the state’s top elections official while he ran for governor.
“In a regular campaign, the Secretary of State’s Office would be working with our team. That’s why it’s so incredible that he didn’t resign,” Groh-Wargo said of Kemp, who stepped down two days after the election. “We were raising the alarm bells left and right.”
She accused Kemp of using the office as a political arm of the campaign and said he “mismanaged the election to sway it in his favor.”
That drew a sharp rejoinder from Kemp’s campaign. It repeatedly criticized Abrams for the spate of litigation and described her refusal to concede as a “disgrace to democracy.” And his strategists have dismissed Abrams’ claim that there are still roughly 20,000 ballots still pending.
“All 159 counties have already counted and reported their provisional ballots,” said Kemp spokesman Cody Hall, who needled Abrams for her absence from the press conference.
“Where is Stacey Abrams?” he asked. “Letting the ink dry on the new ‘Stacey for Senate’ signs?”
More legal battles
Abrams’ hopes rest on a string of federal lawsuits that could trigger the counting of absentee and provisional votes that have previously been rejected. A swirl of orders have already raised the possibility that more of those ballots could soon be tallied.
That includes a ruling by U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg on Monday that ordered election officials to review as many as 27,000 provisional ballots that were cast because voters’ registration or identification couldn’t be verified at the polls.
Totenberg’s order didn’t say whether additional provisional ballots should be counted, but she required officials to provide more information about a trove of ballots that were rejected. That case is still pending.
A separate ruling on Tuesday ordered Gwinnett officials to count absentee ballots that contain errors or omissions in birthdates, a court order that could affect roughly 300 ballots that were rejected there. Another cache of as many as 150 absentee ballots with alleged signature mismatches could also be tallied, county officials said.
And a ruling late Wednesday required Georgia election officials to accept a new trove of rejected absentee ballots.
U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ruled in a lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party that county election officials must count absentee ballots that are missing correct birthdate information. It’s not immediately clear how many votes it could affect.
But the judge denied a request by Democrats to accept provisional ballots from people who tried to vote in a county where they weren’t registered.
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. A federal judge said the earliest a certification could take place is 5 p.m. Friday.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution does not call election contests.
The Abrams campaign has prepared for overtime in case she cuts deep enough into Kemp’s margin to trigger a runoff, and her campaign released a TV and digital ad this week urging that all votes be counted.
The ads led to an ethics complaint Wednesday from the Georgia GOP alleging Abrams broke campaign finance laws by funding an ad “for an imaginary gubernatorial runoff.” Democrats dismissed the charge, saying Kemp would join their efforts if he were “as confident in his self-coronation as he purports to be.”
That line of attack — questioning the legitimacy of Kemp’s possible victory — has quickly spread nationally among other prominent Democrats. Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker have both said Abrams is being victimized by an unfair process.
And U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio told a group in Washington, “if Stacey Abrams doesn’t win in Georgia, they stole it.”
Some conservatives see a double standard. Ronna Romney McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, took to social media to quote the Democratic figures claiming Abrams was robbed of a victory.
“I guess the lack of media outrage,” she wrote, “means losing graciously is only for Republicans.”