Federal judge hears arguments in Georgia absentee deadline lawsuit

    A federal judge has extended the absentee ballot deadline by three days for the Nov. 3 election because of the coronavirus pandemic. In this file photo, Fulton County election workers sorted absentee ballots during a pilot audit after the June 9 primary. Stephen Fowler/GPB

    A federal judge heard arguments Wednesday over a motion for preliminary injunction that seeks to count absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day instead of received by that deadline, potentially allowing thousands more votes to be counted in an expected record-setting election this November.

    The lawsuit filed by the New Georgia Project also seeks to allow voters of all ages to submit a single absentee request per election cycle and would require the state to provide prepaid postage on absentee ballot return envelopes.

    Kevin Hamilton, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that the coronavirus pandemic requires changes to Georgia’s absentee voting procedures, and pointed to the June 9 primary as evidence.

    “Georgia’s June 9th primary was a complete and total disaster, and the press described it as a ‘giant warning sign’ and a ‘hot flaming mess,'” he said. “No amount of distraction or legal writing can cure that cold reality.”

    Hamilton said that the record 1.1 million absentee ballots returned put a strain on local elections officials, and said that “processing those ballots all but broke the system with over 10,000 absentee ballots delayed in the mail and ultimately arriving too late to be counted.”

    According to an analysis by GPB News and the Georgia News Lab, 8,479 absentee ballots were rejected in the primary for coming in after the 7 p.m. Election Day deadline, about 0.74% of the total number of ballots returned.

    That number is from the state’s absentee voter file and is incomplete, because some counties erroneously listed ballots as rejected for missing the deadline when they had not been returned, and others did not upload late ballots at all.

    In the August 11 runoff, at least 1,700 ballots were received after the deadline as of Tuesday, a similar percentage of the 261,000 absentee ballots returned in that election.

    Vincent Russo, a lawyer for the secretary of state’s office, said the court granting the requests would create a “hastily cobbled-together” system that leaves room for error and confusion.

    “To do this in this year’s election without care and planning risks widespread chaos,” he said. “Such an outcome would neither ensure the integrity of the election nor engender public confidence in the outcome.”

    Lawyers for the state also argued that Georgia has multiple voting options available and a large window of time for a voter to request and return an absentee ballot before the deadline as evidence the court should not approve the motion.

    “We do not have any declarant who says that the burden is going to prevent them from voting or that it concerns them about voting,” attorney Josh Belinfante said. “They simply express a policy preference that they would rather vote or request an absentee ballot once as opposed to several times.”

    Voters can request their absentee ballot for the November election today, and ballots will begin to be mailed out around September 15. Absentee applications can be emailed, faxed, mailed, or returned in person to your county elections office. By the end of this month, voters will also be able to request their ballot through an online portal.

    Absentee ballots can also be returned via mail, placed in a secure drop box in many counties, or directly hand delivered to your county elections office.

    This story appears through a Georgia Recorder partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting.