Judge considers whether to change Georgia absentee ballot deadline

A federal judge said Wednesday that she’ll soon decide whether to require absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted in Georgia, potentially extending the deadline for mailed-in votes amid the coronavirus pandemic and postal delays.

Plaintiffs in the case warned of “wholesale disenfranchisement” unless U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross overrides state laws that say absentee ballots will only be counted if they’re received by election officials before 7 p.m. on Election Day. A later deadline could result in tens of thousands of additional votes counted.

Attorneys for election officials countered that Georgia offers many ways to vote, and court intervention could result in “widespread chaos” that could delay election results and potentially lead to fraud.

Ross didn’t signal how she would rule after the court hearing held via Zoom on Wednesday, but she said she understands the need for a quick decision before Election Day. The Nov. 3 presidential election is less than 11 weeks away.

U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross.

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The lawsuit by the New Georgia Project, a voter registration group, is seeking far-reaching changes to the state’s laws for handling absentee ballots at a time when more voters than ever are using them. Almost half of voters cast absentee ballots before Georgia’s June 9 primary, and election officials are expecting turnout to reach 5 million voters in November.

Besides an extension of the absentee ballot deadline, the lawsuit also wants the court to mandate free ballot postage, require quick notification of absentee application deficiencies and allow third-party organizations to collect and deliver absentee ballots.

“What’s a recipe for disaster is to go forward in an election where the number of absentee ballots is going to skyrocket in a system that has demonstrated it’s unable to manage and administer the election in a way consistent with the United States Constitution,” plaintiffs’ attorney Kevin Hamilton said. “We saw what happened on June 9. You could see the train coming for the general election.”

But the defendants, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and county election offices, told Ross that court interference in the election would make matters worse.

“Commanding election officials to hastily cobble together a new vote-by-mail system that includes extending the deadline to return absentee ballots, with or without the postmark, and which allows third parties to go door-to-door to collect ballots from every voter, and to do this in this year’s election, without care and planning, risks widespread chaos,” said Vincent Russo, an attorney for the secretary of state’s office.

The lawsuit might be the most signficant of several court challenges to Georgia’s election laws because of its potential impact on this year’s general election.

During the primary, election officials rejected 8,495 absentee ballots because they were received after the day of the election. In this month’s runoff, 2,532 late absentee ballots were thrown out. In both elections, the number of discarded absentee ballots was less than 1% of the total number of absentee votes cast.

But the number of late ballots could easily swing a close election in Georgia. If 1.5 million voters cast absentee ballots and 1% of them are returned late, that would amount to 15,000 votes.

The U.S. Postal Service has warned that mail delivery delays could hold up absentee ballots. The Postal Service, in a letter to Raffensperger last month, said voters should mail their completed ballots at least one week in advance of Election Day, by Oct. 27.

Georgia voters can also cast absentee ballots without having to rely on the Postal Service. Many counties have set up drop boxes where voters can deposit their ballots until polls close on Election Day.

How to vote absentee in Georgia

All registered voters in Georgia are eligible to cast an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse.

Voters can request an absentee ballot by filling out a form available on the secretary of state’s website and returning it to their county’s elections office. A new website to order an absentee ballot is expected to go online before the end of this month.

Election officials will begin mailing absentee ballots to voters by Sept. 20. State law requires absentee ballots to be received by election officials before polls close on Election Day.