Georgia county tosses out hundreds of minority absentee ballots
By Curt Devine and Drew Griffin, CNN
(CNN) -- One suburban Georgia county has become a flashpoint for concerns over voter suppression for rejecting hundreds of mail-in absentee ballots weeks before Election Day.
Gwinnett County, located northeast of Atlanta, now faces two federal lawsuits and accusations from voting rights activists who say the rejections disproportionately affect minority voters, particularly Asian Americans and African Americans.
The county has rejected 595 absentee ballots, which account for more than a third of the total absentee-ballot rejections in the state, even though Gwinnett County accounts for only about 6% of absentee ballots submitted in Georgia, according to state data analyzed by CNN Friday. More than 300 of the rejected ballots belonged to African Americans and Asian Americans.
Officials tossed out the ballots due to missing birthdates, address discrepancies, signatures that do not match those on registration records and other issues, according to the data.
A lawsuit brought by the Coalition for Good Governance on behalf of a group of Georgia voters demands that a judge order the county to notify voters within one day of the rejections and provide adequate time to address the discrepancies.
Court documents in a separate suit with similar demands filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two advocacy groups describe the county's rejections as a "constitutional train wreck." That suit specifically challenges the county's rejection of ballots based on signature mismatches, which the suit calls a violation of due process. A judge has scheduled a hearing for that case Tuesday.
Gwinnett County released a statement that said it's "committed to a process that protects the voting rights of all of its citizens and fully complies with the law in the process," but some voters have 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. She said she has worked at poll stations and plans to help others vote on November 6.
"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."
State data shows Carol Hutcheson's ballot was denied due to a missing birthdate, but she said she hadn't received any notification from the county even though she said she mailed in her absentee ballot about two weeks ago.
"I swear I thought I put the right information on there. Right now, I'm fuming," said Hutcheson, a Republican.
Three others reached by CNN said they received letters from the county notifying them of the rejections. The letters included instructions on how to resubmit absentee ballots or vote in person. Voters whose absentee ballots were rejected can still vote in person on Election Day or during the early voting period that is already underway.
"I screwed up and it was my fault," said Clyde Hall, who said he made a mistake when writing his birthdate on his absentee ballot, but he didn't consider the rejection a problem because he could cast another ballot.
Gwinnett County spokesman Joe Sorenson declined to answer specific questions from CNN related to the rejections, citing ongoing litigation, but he said in a statement that none of the allegations in the lawsuits assert any violations of the law by the Gwinnett County Board of Registration and Elections or the county.
"The handling of absentee ballot applications and the acceptance and rejection of ballots by Gwinnett County (have) complied with the law and will continue to do so," Sorenson said.
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida associate professor of political science, tracks state voter data and found that Gwinnett County tossed out 15% of absentee ballots submitted by Asian Americans, 11.4% of those submitted by African Americans and only 4% of those submitted by whites.
"It's not the fault of the voters. It's the fault of the elections officials for creating a confusing ballot," McDonald said.
McDonald believes part of the problem stems from the design of the county's absentee ballot. He said because a comparatively high number of Latinos live in Gwinnett County, election officials there are federally mandated to include both English and Spanish instructions on the ballots. He said the absentee ballots now contain long strings of bilingual text that could appear confusing.
Kristen Clarke, the president of the Washington DC-based advocacy group Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the racial disparities in the county's rejections set off red flags for her organization.
Clarke's group sent a letter to Gwinnett County that argued officials should "err on the side of the voter" and accept more of the ballots, since she said Georgia county officials have discretion to decide if ballots contain sufficient information to establish a voter's identity and eligibility.
"Sadly, this is a pattern we're seeing across Georgia this election cycle. We are seeing policies and practices being implemented in ways that bear more heavily to minority voters across the state," Clarke said.
Clarke's organization and the Campaign Legal Center filed a separate lawsuit earlier this month that challenges the constitutionality of Georgia's "exact match" law, which stipulates that voters' registration applications must match information on their state ID's or Social Security records. A recent Associated Press report found about 53,000 people, the majority of whom are African-Americans, had their registrations placed in limbo because of some type of mismatch with that information.
Georgia's Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is also running as the Republican candidate for governor, has said that voters on the pending list can vote in November's election so long as they show proper identification at polling places.
Kemp has also called reports of voter suppression a politically driven rallying point for Democrats.
"Despite any claim to the contrary, it has never been easier to register to vote in Georgia and actively engage in the electoral process," Kemp said in a previous press release.
Kemp's spokesperson with the Georgia Secretary of State's office, Candice Broce, said her office opened an investigation on behalf of the state's election board to ensure counties follow the law on absentee ballots.
"We will not be bullied by out-of-state organizations or political operatives who want to generate headlines and advance a baseless narrative. We will do our part to keep elections secure, accessible, and fair in Georgia," Broce said.
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