Georgia county, election official sued for throwing out black voters' absentee ballots

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, running for governor, faces suit over rejection of black voters' ballots

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published October 18, 2018 6:30AM (EDT)

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp  (AP/John Amis)
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (AP/John Amis)

Georgia's Gwinnett County and the state's secretary of state are facing lawsuits after rejecting a disproportionate number of minority voters' absentee ballots.

A lawsuit by the Coalition of Good Governance names the county and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is also the Republican nominee for governor, in its bid to have the ballots and ballot applications reviewed and reinstated where possible.

A separate lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union along with multiple other voting rights groups makes a similar request, as does a letter by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to the county's officials, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

The lawsuits come after WhoWhatWhy reported that the county was rejecting a disproportionate number of minority voters' absentee ballots.

According to an updated report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gwinnett County has rejected 8.5 percent of absentee ballots, compared to 2 percent of ballots rejected statewide. The county, which has rejected 390 ballots so far, accounts for 37 percent of all ballots rejected in the state despite making up less than 12 percent of the state's overall mail-in ballots.

According to University of Florida professor Michael McDonald, who runs the United States Elections Project, Asian and Pacific Islander voters were rejected at four times the rate of white voters and black voters were rejected at nearly three times the rate of white voters. More than 60 percent of the county's voters are non-white.

The ballots were reportedly rejected for minor errors. The state requires a voter's date of birth on the absentee envelope but many people put the current date. In other cases, a ballot is rejected because a county official does not believe the signature on the ballot matches the one on the voter registration card.

The county denied any wrongdoing, saying that the ballots were rejected due to invalid signatures, birth dates and addresses.

McDonald suggested that the high rate of rejections may not be part of a nefarious scheme but rather an unintended consequence of a federal law that requires counties with large Hispanic populations to provide election materials in both English and Spanish. Gwinnett County is the only Georgia county that has such a large number of Hispanic voters.

“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 told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “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.”

The Coalition of Good Governance argues in its lawsuit that regardless of the reason, the punishment for a minor error should not be voter disenfranchisement.

“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 suit says, calling for the reinstatement of “any mail ballot that was previously rejected for the sole reason of an incorrect or missing year of birth” and a judge's order that such ballots not be rejected in future elections.

The suit also requests that voters whose ballots are rejected be notified within one day and calls for the creation of “bi-partisan signature review teams” to review ballots before they are rejected.

The suit goes on to ask for voters to be given until the Friday after Election Day to resolve any errors on their mail-in ballot.

Kemp distanced himself from the situation, saying that it is up to individual counties to process absentee ballots.

Kemp faces multiple other lawsuits after his office blocked 53,000 voter registrations under the state's “exact match” law, which rejects applications even for small discrepancies like missing hyphens or single-letter typos. According to civil rights groups, the exact match program has been used to remove as many as 700,000 voters from the state's rolls in the last two years.

Voters whose applications are still pending as a result of the law can still submit ballots if they show up in person with a photo ID.

Kemp is in a tight race against former state lawmaker Stacey Abrams, who would become Georgia's first African-American governor if elected. Virtually every poll released in the race shows the two in a dead heat.

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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