Federal Judge Hammers Ga. Secretary of State Brian Kemp Over Alleged Voter Disenfranchisement Scheme

A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order which blocks election officials in Georgia from discarding absentee ballots or voter registration applications over mismatched signatures.

U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May issued the 31-page ruling late Wednesday afternoon in response to a lawsuit filed by American Civil Liberties Union attorneys on behalf of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project and Asian-Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.

The voting rights organizations sued Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp for his office’s attempts to reject several hundred absentee voter ballots and absentee voter registration applications over allegations that signatures on those applications were not an exact match for voter signatures on file. (This is a distinct and separate issue from Kemp’s office indefinitely suspending in excess of 53,000 regular–and predominantly African American–voter registration applications.)

The opinion notes the signature mismatch procedure at work in Georgia:

When an absentee ballot is received, the county registrar or absentee ballot clerk must determine if the applicant is eligible to vote in the relevant primary or election by comparing the applicant’s identifying information on file with the registrar’s office. If the elector signed the application, the registrar must compare the elector’s application signature to the elector’s voter registration card signature. If the registrar determines that the signatures do not match, the clerk or the board of registrars “shall deny the application…”

Judge May also notes one of the more controversial sticking points [emphasis added]:

While there is no procedure by which an elector can contest the registrar’s decision, the statutes do not prevent an elector whose application is rejected from applying a second time or voting in person.

If and when they are accepted by county registrars, absentee ballots are subject to a similar signature mismatch procedure for a second time–as well as several onerous requirements for accepting the ballot generally. Judge May describes the apparent incongruity in how these two issues are handled.

The opinion continues:

There is no procedure by which an elector can contest a registrar’s decision that the signatures do not match. By contrast, an elector whose absentee ballot is rejected on grounds that the elector is unqualified to vote is provided with notice, a hearing “on an expedited basis prior to the certification of the consolidated returns of the election,” and given an opportunity to appeal to the board of registrars, as well as further opportunity for judicial appeal.

The plaintiffs sued on the grounds that the above-referenced provisions were a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process and requested an injunction halting Georgia from tossing such ballots and voter registration applications. Judge May agreed.

And the judge had some choice words for Georgia’s secretary of state.

“Preliminarily, the Court does not understand how assuring that all eligible voters are permitted to vote undermines integrity of the election process,” May notes. “To the contrary, it strengthens it. Defendants argue that signature mismatch rejection is ‘rare’…[b]ut that…only bolsters Plaintiffs’ argument that any additional, constitutionally mandated processes will not be an administrative burden.”

“Plaintiffs are entitled to an injunction on the signature mismatch issue,” May concludes.

[Image via Jessica McGowan/Getty Images]

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