A court settlement over Georgia absentee ballot verification, incorrectly called a “consent decree” by its critics, is being attacked by former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in his campaign for governor.
The requirements of the settlement differ from Perdue’s assertions that it changed Georgia election law and led to unverified absentee ballots being cast.
Opposition to the settlement is part of ongoing attempts by Donald Trump and his Republican supporters to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 election for president, when Trump lost in Georgia by about 12,000 votes. Three ballot counts and multiple investigations upheld the results.
The March 2020 settlement did two things: It called for election officials to check with their co-workers before rejecting an absentee ballot because of a mismatched signature, and it required election workers to quickly notify voters when their ballots were rejected, as mandated by a state election rule.
Afterward, the rejection rate of absentee ballots because of signature issues remained unchanged in 2020 compared with the previous two general elections. About 0.2% of absentee ballots were rejected because of signature problems in each of those three elections, according to state election data.
“The settlement agreement has been just blown out of proportion. We kept signature match,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said this week. “If there was any discrepancy about that, we had another additional set of eyes, so one person couldn’t reject it.”
Perdue derided the settlement during his campaign announcement this week, attacking both his Republican opponent, Gov. Brian Kemp, and Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams.
Perdue said Kemp “caved to Abrams,” although neither Kemp nor Abrams was a party in the settlement. The settlement was between the Democratic Party, Raffensperger, the State Election Board and the Gwinnett County elections board.
“I would have fought that consent decree to my last breath. That led to imbalanced processes across the state,” Perdue said Wednesday in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Trump has also criticized the so-called “consent decree,” and a federal appeals court last year ruled against a lawsuit by Perdue that opposed Georgia’s signature matching procedures.
The settlement set statewide standards for absentee ballot verification, and election records show that county election officials checked signatures across Georgia. An audit of 15,000 voter signatures in Cobb County last December didn’t find a single fraudulent absentee ballot.
The settlement arose from a federal lawsuit filed in 2019 by the Democratic Party of Georgia over inconsistent signature matching practices. For example, Gwinnett County, the second-largest county in the state, accounted for 21% of all Georgia absentee ballot rejections during the 2018 general election.
Unlike a consent decree, which is a negotiated agreement enforceable by the court, a settlement is an out-of-court resolution between the parties that doesn’t require ongoing judicial oversight.
Raffensperger has said the March 2020 settlement saved signature verification procedures from the lawsuit, which contended they violated equal rights protections in the U.S. Constitution.
With signature matching, election workers compared voters’ signatures on their absentee ballot envelopes with their signatures stored in election computers, collected from when they registered to vote at driver’s license offices, filled out paper registration forms or submitted an absentee ballot application.
A state law passed in 2019 required election officials to “promptly” notify voters and give them an opportunity to verify their identities and have their vote counted. But the law, House Bill 316, didn’t spell out how quickly voters had to be informed.
The settlement required enforcement of a State Election Board rule approved in February 2020 that election officials notify voters within one business day if their ballots were rejected within the last 11 days before Election Day, either by email, phone or mail. For ballots returned sooner, election officials would contact voters within three business days.
The settlement didn’t change state law, but it did outline ballot verification procedures and instruct the secretary of state’s office to publish an official election bulletin with guidance to counties.
Concerns about signature verification led Republican legislators to pass additional voter ID requirements in Georgia’s new voting law, Senate Bill 202. Under the law, voters must submit a driver’s license number, state ID number or photocopy of another form of acceptable ID to vote absentee in Georgia.
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