By Mark Niesse , Tyler Estep
Georgia Secretary of State Robyn Crittenden instructed county election officials Monday to count absentee ballots even if they lack a voter's date of birth, as long as the voter's identity can be verified.
Crittenden issued the guidance for county election officials as they face a Tuesday deadline to certify the results of the Nov. 6 election.
Republican Brian Kemp holds the lead over Democrat Stacey Abrams in the race to become Georgia's governor. Abrams would need to gain more than 20,000 votes to force the race into a runoff.
Crittenden's instructions could affect vote-counting in Gwinnett County, where election officials rejected 1,587 mailed absentee ballots. Gwinnett has the largest number of potential uncounted absentee ballots for Abrams in the state.
Many absentee ballots were rejected in Gwinnett because voters filled out incorrect direct dates of birth or provided insufficient information on the return envelope.
"What is required is the signature of the voter and any additional information needed for the county election official to verify the identity of the voter," Crittenden wrote. "Therefore, an election official does not violate [state law] when they accept an absentee ballot despite the omission of a day and month of birth ... if the election official can verify the identity of the voter."
Crittenden sent the letter after the State Election Board voted unanimously Sunday night to issue guidance for how local election officials should proceed with their counts. Her instructions aren't binding on counties, which are responsible for interpreting and implementing state election laws.
State Election Board member David Worley, a Democrat, said he's "deeply disturbed" by Crittenden's letter.
"It makes it sound permissive, that counties can reject an absentee ballot if they want to," Worley said. "It's a cheap, underhanded trick to allow some counties to reject ballots that federal law requires that they count. Frankly, I think it's despicable."
Crittenden's letter is meant to reinforce state laws and provide clarification to county election officials, according to the Secretary of State's Office. Rules about vote counting haven't changed.
Gwinnett County accounted for 31 percent of all Georgia's rejected absentee ballots, often because of discrepancies with birth dates, addresses, signatures and insufficient information.
Gwinnett Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said she wasn't surprised at the scrutiny Gwinnett has received because of "the role that both parties saw it playing in their success." She defended the way the elections office has conducted its business.
"They always focus a lot on figuring out how to deal with the issues that arise," Nash said last week, "and I have every expectation that they will do that this time around too."
Gwinnett Elections Board Chairman Stephen Day, a Democrat, has also defended county staff.
"There are definitely different political points of view [on the elections board], but we do agree that our staff has acted in the way that the law stated they should act," Day said following Friday's closed-door elections board meeting. "We do understand that there are different interpretations of that."
Gwinnett is scheduled to certify its vote count Tuesday afternoon. Every county in Georgia must certify results by 5 p.m., and the outcomes will be updated online on the secretary of state's website.
(c)2018 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)