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Wednesday February 10th, 2016 3:11PM

Judge: Ga. must extend absentee deadline for some

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA - A federal judge on Thursday ordered Georgia's secretary of state to extend the deadline to accept absentee ballots from military service members, their families and citizens living overseas in the event of a primary runoff election on Aug. 21.

U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones says "it is beyond dispute" that the state will violate election rules under the current system.

The Justice Department sued Georgia last month over the issue, and the case was heard Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. Federal prosecutors argued that Georgia's procedures are "inadequate to ensure that its eligible military and overseas voters can participate fully" in the runoff, should one be necessary.

A call seeking comment from the U.S. attorney's office was not immediately returned Thursday.

Under Georgia's election calendar, absentee ballots for the runoff election won't be sent out until after the July 7 deadline for complying with the federal law, or 45 days in advance of the election.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp said through a spokesman Thursday that his office will comply fully with the order.

"While we suggest it would have been more responsible for the (Justice Department) to have voiced their issues with Georgia's system in any of the past three election cycles we have used this calendar, rather than in a lawsuit weeks before our primary election, our office will continue to be on the forefront of military and overseas citizen voting access," the statement read.

Kemp added that he will work with Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia Legislature to "prepare a legislative package that will continue our efforts to make sure Georgia has the most safe and accessible voting system in the nation."

The state had argued that making changes now "would place unnecessary stresses on the elections administrations process," but the judge said any burden is outweighed by potential injury to overseas voters.

"The potential hardships that Georgia might experience are minor when balanced against the right to vote, a right that is essential to an effective democracy," Jones wrote in his order.

The order extends the deadline for receipt of absentee ballots by one week to Aug. 31 and orders the secretary of state's office to send absentee ballots to any eligible overseas voter who requests one by express mail. Those voters would be allowed to return their ballot either by e-mail, fax, or express mail at no cost to them.
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