A federal judge in Georgia on Wednesday said she would block election officials from throwing out absentee ballots if they believe a voter’s signature on the ballot doesn’t match the one on file.
Georgia state law allows local election officials to reject both absentee ballots and applications for absentee ballots over signature discrepancies. The American Civil Liberties Union sued over the signature match requirement last week after data showed that a single county in the state was rejecting a disproportionately high number of absentee ballots.
The ACLU said Georgia’s policy violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of due process and equal protection. Election officials are not handwriting experts, the ACLU argued, and voters had no chance verify their eligibility if election officials thought their signature was invalid.
U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May agreed with the plaintiffs, noting that because Georgia had authorized absentee voting, it had to make sure that anyone who chose to vote that way was treated the same as any other voter. Giving voters the chance to fix the signature issue, May said, would be a minimal burden to the state ― both because Georgia already has a process for voters to appeal if their voting eligibility is challenged for other reasons, and because ballots aren’t typically rejected for signature mismatches.
May offered a proposed order that would block election officials from rejecting absentee ballots and ballot applications over signature discrepancies. Instead, election officials would be required to provide provisional ballots for affected voters. The voter would then have a chance to verify their identity.
May gave the parties 24 hours to offer objections to her order before she enters a preliminary injunction that could become permanent.
Voting rights have become a center point in Georgia’s close gubernatorial race. Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee, has accused Brian Kemp, her Republican opponent and the state’s top election official, of suppressing votes. Kemp has denied the accusation and his office says local election officials have discretion in deciding which ballots to count.
“This ruling protects the people of Georgia from those who seek to undermine their right to vote. It’s a huge victory, especially with the midterms just days away,” Sophia Lin Lakin, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement.
The suit came after reports that Gwinnett County was rejecting a disproportionate number of absentee ballots. As of Oct. 18, the county had rejected 713 absentee ballots: 185 of them due to their signatures, 437 because information was missing and another 84 because the voter had decided to vote in person during early voting. Just seven ballots were rejected because the voter wasn’t qualified to vote.
The Coalition for Good Governance and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law joined the ACLU in seeking to block election officials from throwing out ballots for other reasons, such as incomplete information, without giving voters a reasonable chance to correct them, but May said she would consider that request at a later date.
In one stinging line in her opinion, May rejected an argument from state election officials that changing the process this close to Election Day would undermine the integrity of the election. Officials often justify voting restrictions by highlighting the need to maintain a perception of integrity and high voter confidence.
“The Court does not understand how assuring that all eligible voters are permitted to vote undermines integrity of the election process,” May wrote. “To the contrary, it strengthens it.”