A federal court on Wednesday blocked Georgia from throwing out absentee ballots and applications because of signature mismatches, a decision heralded by voting rights proponents 13 days before midterm elections.
While acknowledging that the state has a strong interest in election integrity, District Judge Leigh Martin May issued a temporary restraining order that allows voters to contest the state’s initial determination and confirm their identity.
A state law allows election officials to reject absentee ballots if they see a signature mismatch in the voter’s paperwork. While it doesn’t happen often, voters have no way to contest the decision. Now they will be issued provisional ballots that can be checked after Election Day.
“The court does not understand how assuring that all eligible voters are permitted to vote undermines integrity of the election process,” May said. “To the contrary, it strengthens it.”
“Permitting an absentee voter to resolve an alleged signature discrepancy … has the very tangible benefit of avoiding disenfranchisement,” said the judge, a nominee of President Barack Obama.
May gave lawyers until noon Thursday to comment on whether the language in her order is “confusing or will be unworkable.”
Her decision was applauded by Sophia Lakin, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.
“This ruling protects the people of Georgia from those who seek to undermine their right to vote,” Lakin said. “It’s a huge victory, especially with the midterms just days away.”
Candice Broce, spokeswoman for the Georgia secretary of state’s office, declined to comment and referred all questions to the attorney general’s office.
Georgia has been a high priority among voting rights lawyers because the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Brian Kemp, is the current secretary of state responsible for election administration. He is running against Democrat Stacey Abrams, former minority leader of the state House of Representatives, who would be the nation’s first African-American woman governor.
The Georgia NAACP filed complaints Tuesday with state election officials alleging that some voting machines mistakenly showed votes cast for Abrams registering for Kemp.
Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that 53,000 voter registrations were put on hold because information on the voter applications did not precisely match information on file with the Georgia Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration.
The national NAACP, which has focused some of its get-out-the-vote efforts in Georgia, has vowed to watch for voting concerns in the state.
“The essence of our democracy is at stake,” Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, said in a statement.