Georgia to Modify Absentee Ballot Procedures to Settle Lawsuit

March 9, 2020 by Dan McCue March 9, 2020by PMI

To settle a federal lawsuit, Georgia election officials have agreed to quickly notify voters that their absentee ballots have been rejected, allowing them time to correct mistakes and other issues, and have their ballots counted.

The settlement was announced on Saturday in a joint release issued by the Democratic Party of Georgia, and the national Democratic campaign committees for both House and Senate races.

Under the terms of the agreement, election officials will contact voters whose absentee ballots were rejected, by phone, mail and email within three business days.

In addition, voters must be contacted the very next business day if their absentee ballots are invalidated in the 11 days before a general election or primary.

The agreement ends a lawsuit filed in November 2019, over 8,157 absentee ballots that were thrown out in the 2018 general election. That number represents about 3% of all absentee ballots returned by mail.

In Gwinnett County, Georgia’s second-most populous county and a suburb of Atlanta, 49% of rejected absentee ballots were cast by African-American and Hispanic/Latino voters.

The county’s particularly high rate of voided absentee ballots is widely considered to have played a role in Republican Rep. Rob Woodall’s defeat of Democrat Carolyn Bourdaux by just 419 votes in 2018.

Of all the election ballots thrown out that year — a total of 8,157 — 1,733 of them were tossed in Gwinnett County.

Election officials had argued they rejected the ballots because they believed voters’ signatures didn’t match those on file, and when information on absentee ballot envelopes was missing or incorrect.

Despite a series of reforms following the 2018 elections, the Democrats contended Georgia failed to standardize how election officials notify voters of ballot rejection.

“The lack of enforceable standards for both time and method means voters’ legitimate ballots are too often thrown out based on an incorrect finding by election officials that their signatures don’t match, and are not given sufficient notice to correct or ‘cure’ their ballots — and their votes are not counted,” the party said.

The flawed procedures remained in place even as more Georgians voted absentee. In 2018, nearly 285,000 voters returned an absentee ballot compared to 246,000 in the 2016 presidential election, the Democrats said.

Nikema Williams, chair of the Georgia Democratic Party, called the settlement “a huge victory for all Georgians.”

“While Georgia Republicans continue to try and deny law-abiding citizens their right to vote, Georgia Democrats will keep fighting to make sure every Georgian can make their voice heard in this election,” she said.

Under the agreement, a new absentee ballot envelope will be used in Gwinnett County, with clearer text and instructions.

While the settlement comes too late for the new rules to be in place for Georgia’s March 24 Democratic primary, the court ordered that the new envelope must be used in the Nov. 3 general election.

“This settlement will give Georgians peace of mind that their votes will be counted and that they won’t lose their voices because of flawed state election laws,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In addition to its notification requirements, the settlement requires more thorough procedures before election officials can reject a ballot because of discrepancies in voters’ signatures.

A majority of county election officials reviewing absentee ballots must agree that signatures don’t match, comparing them with all signatures they have on file.

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