Georgia election officials must stop rejecting absentee ballots with voters' signatures that do not appear to match those on record, a federal judge said Wednesday.
Two federal lawsuits have charged that election officials in Gwinnett County, located northeast of Atlanta, have violated voters' rights by rejecting hundreds of absentee ballots, some of which were tossed due to "signature mismatch" issues.
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US District Judge Leigh Martin May issued a proposed ruling that would prohibit election officials from rejecting absentee ballots due to alleged signature mismatches, but said the parties in the case would have until noon Thursday to comment on the instructions for handling those situations.
The proposed order stated that county officials would be required to mark absentee ballots with signature mismatches as provisional, send voters pre-rejection notices and resolve issues within three days after Election Day.
Sophia Lakin, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed one of the lawsuits, said that although Georgia election officials can suggest changes to the judge's proposed instructions, the ruling shows a loosening of restrictions.
"This ruling protects the people of Georgia from those who seek to undermine their right to vote. It's a huge victory, especially with the midterms just days away," Lakin said.
Joe Sorenson, a spokesperson for Gwinnett County, said the county is reviewing the judge's preliminary injunction order and will provide its comments to the court by Thursday.
Katie Byrd, a spokesperson for the office of Georgia's attorney general, said she is unable to comment on active litigation but said the office is aware of Thursday's deadline. Both the secretary of state's office and Brian Kemp campaign spokesman referred CNN to the attorney general's office.
Kemp, the secretary of state, is the Republican running for governor against Democratic former state Rep. Stacey Abrams.
In a statement, Abrams campaign spokeswoman Abigail Collazo praised the ruling as a "step in the right direction."
"But there is still more work to be done to ensure every eligible ballot is counted," she added. "Every eligible voter must be allowed to make their voice heard in our democracy, and we will continue to fight to ensure that each and every ballot cast by eligible Georgia voters will be counted."
In total, election officials in Georgia have rejected 157 absentee ballots for signature mismatch issues, according to state data analyzed by CNN Wednesday. More than 881,000 absentee ballots have been cast.
Gwinnett County has also faced criticism from voting rights activists who say the rejections disproportionately affect minority voters. The county has rejected more than 600 absentee ballots as of Wednesday, though only a small fraction of those were tossed for signature mismatches. Others were rejected for missing birthdates, address discrepancies and other reasons.
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor, analyzed the rejected absentee ballots in Gwinnett County last week and found ballots cast by Asian Americans and African Americans were rejected at a higher rate than those submitted by whites.
Some voters in Gwinnett County told CNN last week that they found the rejections confusing.
Lilieth Walters, whose ballot was tossed due to a signature issue, said she did not know her ballot was rejected until CNN told her.
"What was the issue with my signature?" she asked. "Maybe I didn't sign the same way I normally do, but ... a signature shouldn't prevent one from voting."
Kemp in a debate on Tuesday night said he would not recuse himself from a potential recount and has refused calls from both Georgia Democrats and the Abrams campaign to resign his position.
Abrams also accused Kemp, who has been the secretary of state for eight years, of creating "an atmosphere of fear around the right to vote in the state of Georgia."