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Absentee Ballot Rejections Draw Legal Challenge in Georgia County

Voting advocates and civil rights groups have homed in on Gwinnett County and what they deem to be its "excessive rejection of mail ballots because of voters' innocent errors and discrepancies."

By Tyler Estep

Voting advocates and civil rights groups have homed in on Gwinnett County and what they deem to be its "excessive rejection of mail ballots because of voters' innocent errors and discrepancies."

Late Monday, a new lawsuit was filed U.S. District Court in Atlanta against Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the state elections board and the Gwinnett County elections board over the issue. The suit, brought on behalf of five plaintiffs and underwritten by the Coalition for Good Governance, asks a judge to order that all rejected absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications be reviewed and be reinstated if at all possible.

A separate letter sent to Gwinnett County officials by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law made similar suggestions.

Both actions come amid media reports, including those by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that found Gwinnett County was throwing out a disproportionate number of such ballots.

Through Sunday, Gwinnett County had rejected about 8.5 percent of such ballots, an AJC analysis found. Across Georgia, less than 2 percent had been rejected.

Gwinnett's 390 rejected ballots accounted for about 37 percent of the total rejected ballots statewide.

Analysis by the Lawyers Committee suggested that the rejections also affected Asian, black and Latino voters at greater rates than white voters. More than 60 percent of Gwinnett residents are non-white.

Gwinnett County has denied any wrongdoing.

The most frequent reason Gwinnett election officials rejected absentee ballots was for "insufficient oath information," which is where voters fill out their signatures, birth dates and addresses on the envelope used to mail their ballot.

"The penalty for even the smallest clerical error or a question about the voter's signature is disenfranchisement, with no meaningful opportunity to cure any perceived discrepancy," the lawsuit says.

The suit alleges that Georgia, and Gwinnett in particular, have a history of "rejecting an alarmingly high percentage of mail ballots." It asks for a number of "preliminary and permanent" remedies to be ordered by a judge.

Those include that "any mail ballot that was previously rejected for the sole reason of an incorrect of missing year of birth" be reinstated, and that such ballots not be rejected in the future.

The suit also asks a judge to require rejected voters be notified by one-day business mail, telephone and email, and for counties to form "bi-partisan signature review teams" to weigh in before ballots are rejected due to potential signature inconsistencies.

Further, it asks for voters to "be given until the Friday after Election Day to resolve any ... mail ballot eligibility questions."

Advance in-person voting for Nov. 6's general election began Monday.

"We are asking the Court to intervene to stop these unjust actions in advance of the November election," Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, said in a news release. "Certain Georgia laws and policies prevent the counting of valid ballots cast by eligible voters merely trying to exercise their right to vote."

Gwinnett's comments on the situation have been limited, but the county has said it is following state law. It declined Tuesday to comment on the new lawsuit, citing a policy not to comment on pending litigation.

On Monday, the Secretary of State's Office said it's up to individual counties to decide how to process its absentee ballots. A spokeswoman did not immediately comment on the new litigation Tuesday morning.

Kemp _ who is also the Republican candidate in a hotly contested race to be Georgia's next governor _ and his office were already being targeted for perceived voting rights issues.

News emerged last week that more than 53,000 Georgia voter registrations were on hold because of discrepancies between registration applications and government records. Under the state's "exact match" law, registration applications can be put in pending status even for small inconsistencies, such as a missing hyphen in a last name or a typo.

Potential voters whose registrations are pending can still cast ballots if they verify their information with a state driver's license or other form of photo ID.

Several groups sued the state over the "exact match" law, alleging it disproportionately harms minority groups.

Multiple plaintiffs, including the Coalition for Good Governance, have also previously sued Kemp's office in a quest to conduct elections with paper ballots.

Even before litigation was filed, theories abounded about why Gwinnett County appears to reject a disproportionate number of absentee ballots.

Gwinnett elections board chairman Stephen Day, a Democratic appointee, said he does not believe elections staff has enacted any kind of "nefarious scheme." He said he is still investigating the issue but did throw out at least one potential explanation.

"Is it possible Gwinnett is strictly following the letter of the law and other counties use more subjective judgement (sic) in deciding whether or not a ballot should be rejected?" he wrote in an email to The AJC. "Yes, it is possible that other counties may be operating on the premise that if other information on the ballot application or ballot oath firmly identifies the voters as is claimed, then the clerical errors should be overlooked. I have no proof of that, that is just a possible explanation."

Michael McDonald -- a University of Florida political scientist who runs the United States Elections Project, which provides data about elections across the country _ has developed another theory.

Gwinnett is the only county in Georgia that, because of its high share of Latino residents, is federally mandated to provide elections materials in both English and Spanish. The current election season is just the second time that such bilingual materials are being utilized.

"In attempting to comply with Section 203 (of the federal Voting Rights Act), Gwinnett County election officials appear to have created a confusing envelope, which places English and Spanish directions side-by-side when requesting a key piece of information, a voter's year of birth," McDonald said. "As a result, Gwinnett has rejected 180 or more absentee ballots because voters failed to provide a correct birth year. This is far more than any other county reports."

McDonald said that, while he believes the envelope design could be the most plausible explanation, rejected ballots would have to be reviewed to confirm his suspicions.

(c)2018 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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