Judges dismiss two GOP lawsuit challenging Georgia’s absentee ballot rules

Federal judges Thursday dismissed two Republican lawsuits that sought to change the rules for absentee voting in Georgia amid the hotly contested Jan. 5 runoff election.

In the first case, a federal judge in Augusta rejected a Twelfth Congressional District Republican Committee lawsuit that, among other things, sought to eliminate the use of absentee ballot drop boxes in Georgia. In the second, a judge in Atlanta dismissed a request by the state’s two Republican incumbent U.S. senators - Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue - for more scrutiny of signature matching for absentee ballots.

The lawsuits are part of an extraordinary effort by Republicans to ask courts to change the rules for absentee ballots amid the runoff election that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Through Wednesday, more than 423,000 Georgians had already cast absentee ballots for the runoff. Early in-person voting began Monday.

“We are not even on the eve of an election,” J. Randal Hall, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Augusta, said in rejecting one of the lawsuits. “We are, as it relates to this particular election, closing in on halftime.”

Last spring, the State Election Board began encouraging voters to cast absentee ballots to limit human contact at polling places amid the coronavirus pandemic. The board adopted a rule that allows counties to establish drop boxes where voters can return ballots. For security reasons, the boxes must be monitored by video cameras 24 hours a day.

Because of the proliferation of absentee ballots during the pandemic, the board also allowed county election officials to open – but not tally – absentee ballots before the election. Most recently, they required counties to begin such processing eight days before the election – a move designed to speed up the reporting of results.

In the first lawsuit, the Twelfth District Republicans said those rules violate state law and provisions of the U.S. Constitution. They said the rules facilitate voting fraud and “ballot harvesting” – the practice of third parties gathering and returning many ballots. The practice is illegal in Georgia.

The lawsuit also challenged Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s guidance to counties on signature-matching procedures for absentee ballots. It said that guidance has discouraged local officials from rejecting signatures, potentially allowing illegal votes to be cast.

In court documents, Raffensperger’s office said the rules comply with state law. They said the Republicans have presented no evidence of ballot harvesting.

Raffensperger’s office also says the signature review process also complies with state law. And it argued other courts have been reluctant to change the rules of an election already in progress.

Hall cited those precedents in dismissing the Republicans’ lawsuit. He said they could have challenged the election rules months ago. And he said they had not demonstrated any injury that would give them standing to bring such a lawsuit, calling their allegations of fraud “highly speculative.”

Loeffler, Perdue, the Georgia Republican Party and the National Republican Senatorial Committee filed their lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Atlanta last week. The lawsuit focused on rules for the processing of absentee ballots that resulted from the settlement of a federal lawsuit earlier this year.

Under the settlement agreement, absentee ballots can’t be rejected because of a mismatched voter signature on the return envelope unless it’s reviewed by three election workers, with at least two of them agreeing the signature does not match.

The Republican lawsuit said the state’s rules treat ballots differently – only ballots with challenged signatures are reviewed by three people. It argued that the current process could allow illegal votes to be counted, diluting the ballots of legitimate voters.

Among other things, the lawsuit sought to have all signatures reviewed by three election workers. And it requested the new process begin before counties begin opening and scanning absentee ballots on Monday.

Among other things, attorneys for Raffensperger and the Democratic Party argued the Republican claims of fraud were speculative. Without proof of actual or immanent fraud, they said the Republicans lacked standing to bring the lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Eleanor L. Ross agreed and dismissed the case.

The two lawsuits dismissed Thursday aren’t the only Republican lawsuits seeking to change absentee ballot rules. A case pending in Fulton County Superior Court seeks to limit the use of ballot drop boxes to normal business hours. A hearing is scheduled for next week.