This story was updated at 8 a.m. Thursday
The contest for Georgia’s 16 electoral votes intensified Wednesday as President Donald Trump’s campaign and state Republican party filed a lawsuit here targeting absentee ballots as Trump’s lead over Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden continued to shrink.
The president’s campaign, which had sued in three states Wednesday, filed the lawsuit in Chatham County requesting a judge to ensure state laws are being followed on absentee ballots and that no ballots received after the 7 p.m. cutoff on Election Day are counted.
“An unlawfully counted vote suppresses a lawful voter as thoroughly as if that voter was physically barred from voting at the polling place,” David Shafer, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, said in a statement.
A Republican observer claims he saw a poll worker remove unprocessed absentee ballots from a back room and mix them in with processed ballots that were ready to be counted, the Savannah Morning News reported. The Trump campaign is alleging that, as a result, 53 late absentee ballots were intermingled with ones that arrived on time. A local election official told the Savannah newspaper that he believes “the observer is mistaken.”
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who is a Republican, told reporters Wednesday that “every legal vote will count” in the new battleground state.
“The law’s very clear, and we follow the state law,” Raffensperger said when asked if his office would defend the legality of absentee ballots submitted to a drop box by the deadline. “We don’t believe that judges should legislate.”
As of about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, Trump held a narrow 32,000-vote lead over Biden in a state he won by 5 percentage points just four years ago. At the time, there were still nearly 91,000 votes left to count, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
By Thursday morning, Biden was just 19,000 votes behind Trump.
The difference between Trump and Biden as of Wednesday night was even tighter than Democrat Stacey Abrams’ near-miss run for governor in 2018, when she lost to Gov. Brian Kemp by about 55,000 votes.
Georgia saw a historic number of absentee ballots this year as voters turned to that form of voting as an alternative to entering a polling place during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state has had no-excuse absentee voting for years, but usually, only a small number of voters utilize it.
This year, the paper ballots that traveled through the mail or turned up in new-to-Georgia drop boxes across the state are now at the center of the national race to 270 electoral votes in the presidential matchup. Georgia is one of six states still processing votes.
The state election board allowed local election officials to start processing absentee ballots early to help reduce the strain on Election Day. In some areas of the country, absentee ballot processing started Wednesday morning.
“We have saved days and days” by doing that, he said. “You’re going to be waiting a long time on some of these states, much to many people’s consternation, because we understand it’s a close election.”
Raffensperger said Wednesday morning that his office had urged local officials to wrap up election results by the end of the day the extent possible.
“We’ll be off everyone’s radar and they’ll be worried about the states up north,” he told reporters.
But the night ended without a clear picture of who would walk away with Georgia’s 16 electoral votes. Voting rights groups, meanwhile, have emphasized the importance of making sure every vote is counted.
“The voting has ended. The counting continues,” Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “This election will be over after every eligible voter’s ballot is counted. Then begins the next phase of civic engagement: advocate for, promote, and extend our civil rights and civil liberties, remind elected officials of our priorities, and hold them accountable.”
Aunna Dennis, executive director for Common Cause Georgia, said Wednesday that her group was working to ensure all votes are tallied over the coming days.
“We know that folks had to cure their ballots, we know that some folks had to vote on emergency ballots, folks had to vote on provisional ballots, so we have to make sure that those ballots are counted,” Dennis said.
“We are still making sure that democracy prevails and that every Georgia voter has access to an equitable and fair ballot process,” she added.
One of Biden’s top surrogates in Georgia, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, issued a statement Wednesday urging the same.
“This fight is not over until every Georgian has made their voice heard and every single vote has been counted,” she said. “Georgia has thousands of outstanding votes that still need to be counted.
“County election officials are currently processing the record numbers of absentee and in-person early votes and cure provisional ballots. We must let them continue this work until it is done, and every Georgian’s voice has been heard.”
Georgia Recorder reporter Ross Williams contributed to this report.