A federal judge on Tuesday found that Gwinnett County, Georgia violated the Civil Rights Act due to its improper handling of absentee ballots during last week’s midterm elections. Those ballots must now be counted.
U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May‘s 17-page order determined that GOP election officials in the increasingly diverse county violated the Civil Rights Act by rejecting absentee ballots solely on the basis of missing or incorrect birth years. In plain language, Judge May notes, “rejecting absentee ballots on this basis violates the Civil Rights Act.”
The opinion goes on to reiterate this point on several occasions.
“Plaintiffs…have met their burden in showing a substantial likelihood of success on the merits with respect to their claim that Gwinnett County’s practice of rejecting absentee ballots based solely on an omitted or erroneous birth year violates the Civil Rights Act,” the decision asserts. “In light of the foregoing, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have established a substantial likelihood of success on the merits on their claim that Gwinnett County violated the Civil Rights Act in rejecting absentee ballots solely on the basis of a missing or incorrect year of birth.”
Judge May’s order details why the Civil Rights Act was violated in this instance.
The order explains:
[T]he Civil Rights Act forbids the practice of disqualifying voters “because of an error or omission on any record or paper relating to any application, registration, or other act requisite to voting, if such error or omission is not material in determining whether such individual is qualified under State law to vote in such election.” This particular addition to federal law was “intended to address the practice of requiring unnecessary information for voter registration with the intent that such requirements would increase the number of errors or omissions on the application forms, thus providing an excuse to disqualify potential voters.”
In other words, Judge May is addressing Civil Rights Act procedures intended to frustrate Jim Crow-era red tape that was intended to disenfranchise African-Americans and other historically disadvantaged voters by placing excessive administrative barriers to the ballot.
The decision also notes that Gwinnett County’s birth year rejection qualification is not even mandated by Georgia law itself at the state level–and that Gwinnett County officials have even admitted as much.
Judge May writes:
[A]n elector’s year of birth is not material to determining the eligibility of an absentee voter. To begin, “the only qualifications for voting in Georgia are U.S. Citizenship, Georgia residency, being at least eighteen years of age, not having been adjudged incompetent, and not having been convicted of a felony.” Accordingly, a voter’s ability to correctly recite his or her year of birth on the absentee ballot envelope is not material to determining said voter’s qualifications under Georgia law. Indeed, Defendants acknowledged in a prior briefing that Georgia law only requires that a “county election official can confirm the identity of the voter with the information that is provided.”
The decision grants the plaintiffs an emergency temporary restraining order which forbids Gwinnett County “from rejecting absentee ballots containing an error or omission relating to the absentee voter’s year of birth.”
In effect, this means that Gwinnett County will have to accept the “narrow set of ballots” affected by Tuesday’s ruling.
This decision–which is being hailed as a victory for Democrat Stacey Abrams and a defeat for Republican Brian Kemp–is almost certain to delay the certification of the final vote tally in Georgia’s razor-thin gubernatorial election. Though Judge May’s decision is unlikely to change the outcome of the gubernatorial race barring other developments, the decision could potentially swing another close race between GOP Representative Rob Woodall and Democratic challenger Carolyn Bourdeaux.
Plaintiffs originally filed the lawsuit challenging Gwinnett County’s birth date rejection practice on October 15, 2018–well before the midterm election–with additional ballot criteria they argued was inappropriate, such as “missing signature, incorrect address, [and] other clerical errors.”
Judge May declined to find for the plaintiffs on those additional claims. The decision therefore, is only a partial victory for voting rights advocates.
[Image via Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images]