ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's secretary of state is asking a federal judge to suspend her order governing election officials' handling of absentee ballots and applications that have mismatched signatures while he appeals it.
U.S. District Judge Leigh May issued an order Thursday instructing the state to stop rejecting the ballots and applications because of a signature mismatch without first giving voters a chance to fix the problem.
"Last-minute challenges to longstanding election procedures have long been disfavored because they threaten to disrupt the orderly administration of elections, which is essential to the functioning of our participatory democracy," lawyers for Secretary of State Brian Kemp wrote in an emergency motion.
Two lawsuits filed earlier this month accuse election officials of improperly rejecting absentee ballots and applications in violation of their constitutional rights. The lawyers behind the suits had asked May to make certain immediate changes while the litigation is pending.
May issued an initial order Wednesday and then tweaked it Thursday after seeking input from the groups that had sued and from state and county election officials.
The dispute is playing out against the backdrop of Georgia's tight, nationally watched governor's race between Democrat Stacey Abrams, who's trying to become the country's first black woman governor, and Kemp, a Republican. The two have long sparred over voting rights and ballot security measures, Abrams as a longtime legislative leader and Kemp as Georgia's top elections official.
Abrams has accused Kemp of using his office to make it harder for minority voters to cast ballots. He has denied it vehemently.
Georgia law allows voters to cast an absentee ballot before an election regardless of whether they are able to vote in person on Election Day.
If the voter's signature on the absentee ballot envelope or absentee ballot application doesn't match the signature on the voter registration card, state law says it should be rejected. An absentee ballot can also be rejected if the voter signs in the wrong place or incorrectly fills out spaces designated for address and year of birth on the envelope.
May on Thursday ordered Kemp to instruct county election officials to treat absentee ballots with a perceived signature mismatch as provisional ballots. Election officials must then notify the voter via first-class mail and electronic means if available.
Voters must be allowed to have an attorney present their proof of identification if they can't go in person, the order says.
The process must be completed before election return certification, which has a deadline of 5 p.m. the Monday after the election, the order says. Recertification won't be required for any voter appeals that aren't resolved by that deadline unless it would change the outcome of the election.
For an absentee ballot application with an apparent signature mismatch, election officials must send the voter a provisional ballot along with information explaining how the provisional ballot process works, the order says.
Kemp's lawyers asked May to suspend her order, arguing that imposing new requirements at the 11th hour "will introduce uncertainty and confusion under extreme time pressure at best, and it risks undermining the integrity of the State's election process."
Lawyers for the state had raised those concerns at a hearing Tuesday, and May had addressed them when explaining her original order Wednesday, writing that she "does not understand how assuring that all eligible voters are permitted to vote undermines the integrity of the election process." She also noted that government lawyers had said signature mismatches are rare, which she said means her solution won't be overly burdensome.
One lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and its Georgia chapter on behalf of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project and Asian-Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta. The other was filed by the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda and five individual voters, including two candidates for office.
"We are disappointed that the Secretary of State is unwilling to grant due process to Georgia citizens who vote by absentee ballot," ACLU of Georgia executive director Andrea Young said in an emailed statement.