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Why the political fight in Georgia is far from over

Brian Kemp has declared victory, but a string of recent court rulings supports Stacey Abrams’s call for all votes to be counted.

With the Georgia election too close to call, Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp are fighting over the significance of uncounted votes.
Jessica McGowan/Getty Images; Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The fight for the Georgia governor’s race isn’t over yet.

Though Republican Brian Kemp declared victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams last week, a string of recent court rulings has called for Georgia to count votes that the state previously rejected, further extending the contest and narrowing the margin Abrams needs to trigger an official recount or runoff.

The latest of these rulings came Wednesday evening, when US District Judge Steve Jones ruled that Georgia counties cannot certify election results until they count absentee ballots previously rejected for things like missing or incorrect birth dates. The ruling came in response to a recent lawsuit filed by the Abrams campaign that not only wanted these absentee ballots counted, but also wanted to count provisional ballots filed by voters who tried to vote in the wrong county. USA Today reports that Jones declined the latter part of the campaign’s request.

Abrams’s team called the affirmative ruling a “major victory for Georgia voters.” Kemp’s campaign argued that the ruling “denied Abrams’s requests to create new voters and slammed the door on attempts to count illegal votes,” and again called for Abrams to concede the race.

Jones’s ruling builds off of a previous decision made by US District Court Judge Leigh Martin May. On Tuesday, May ruled that election officials in Georgia’s Gwinnett County violated voters’ civil rights by rejecting absentee ballots because of missing or incorrect birth dates. May ruled that the county must accept those ballots.

And on Monday evening, District Judge Amy Totenberg blocked the state from certifying election results until Friday at 5 pm and issued guidance on provisional ballots, ordering Georgia’s secretary of state office “to establish and publicize a hotline or website where voters can check whether their provisional ballots were counted and, if not, the reason why.” Since Kemp resigned from his position as secretary of state, this will be up to Acting Secretary of State Robyn A. Crittenden.

The recent court rulings continue a back-and-forth between the campaigns that began last week when Abrams told supporters that she would not concede the race until all votes were counted. The margin between the candidates has narrowed, with Kemp beating Abrams 50.28 to 48.78 percent as of Sunday, according to the Georgia secretary of state’s office.

Under Georgia law, an election winner must get a “50 percent plus one” majority in order to win. If they do not meet that threshold, it goes to a runoff election in December. A separate law requires that if all votes are tallied and candidates are within 1 percent of one another, votes must be recounted.

With close to 4 million votes already counted, Abrams’s campaign told reporters on Tuesday that their candidate needs 18,259 votes to trigger a recount and 20,595 votes to trigger a runoff. The campaign also estimated that some 28,716 votes have yet to be counted.

With the race yet to be called, a contest that already grabbed plenty of pre-election attention due to several voting rights controversies, a last-minute hacking allegation, and a number of Election Day voting issues now hinges on the remaining ballots. Abrams and her team argue that staying in the race is about more than a single candidate — it is a fight for election integrity in Georgia. Abrams’s campaign has filed a number of legal actions in recent days, calling for uncounted votes in the state to be counted.

“This is not about vote counts — it is about values,” Abrams’s campaign tweeted last week. “It is about whether we choose to hear every voice and count every vote.”

Kemp says the race is over, but Abrams says all the votes need to be counted

Kemp resigned as Georgia’s secretary of state on November 8, two days after a group of five Georgia voters sued him to force him out of that office. The voters, represented by the Protect Democracy nonprofit, argued that it was a conflict of interest for him to remain in office as votes were counted. The lawsuit sought to have Kemp barred from having anything to do with counting the remaining votes and from overseeing a potential recount or runoff election.

During a press conference last week, Kemp said he was not concerned about the suit and was stepping down to begin his transition to governor. “We’ve won and now I’ve got to move on, but the process is true and has been for many, many years in Georgia,” he told reporters.

Meanwhile, Abrams has faced increased pressure to concede in recent days, with Kemp’s campaign calling “Stacey Abrams’ antics” a “disgrace to democracy” over the weekend and adding that her concession was “long overdue” on Monday.

Kemp’s campaign has also accused Abrams of trying to “steal” the election, a charge that has also been levied at Democrats in Florida as two races in that state undergo a mandatory recount. “It’s incredibly shameful that liberal lawyers are doubling down on lawsuits desperately trying to create more votes for Stacey Abrams,” Kemp campaign spokesperson Ryan Mahoney said in a Monday statement, the New York Times reports. “They don’t want to win this election. They are trying to steal it.”

President Donald Trump, who campaigned with Kemp shortly before the election, tweeted last week that “it was time to move on” and declared that the still-undecided governor’s race was over. In a later tweet, he questioned why votes were still being counted in Georgia and Florida, where several races are within range of a recount.

But Abrams’s team maintains that in a contest this close, all votes must be counted before the race is called. Her first legal victory came on November 9, when District Judge W. Louis Sands ruled that Dougherty County, Georgia, must accept all absentee ballots received between November 6 and November 9 to accommodate a delay from Hurricane Michael last month.

Abrams has been arguing that Kemp abused his power as secretary of state

Abrams’s campaign has argued against calls to concede the election and blamed Kemp for a number of issues on Election Day, which saw voters in a handful of precincts with large nonwhite populations deal with hours-long lines, an insufficient number of voting machines, and a dearth of provisional ballots.

Abrams’s campaign also noted that ballots were still being counted in some counties, despite these countries previously reporting that all votes were in. The Abrams campaign said they spoke with college students living out of state who sent absentee ballots in well before the deadline but have yet to receive confirmation of their ballots being counted, and Georgia voters who reported problems at the polls.

The campaign offered several of these examples at a press conference last Friday, where multiple voters shared stories of problems during early voting and on Election Day and struggles getting absentee ballots.

Tate Delgado, a University of Southern California student whose permanent address is in Gwinnett County, Georgia, told reporters that he applied for an absentee ballot but the request was rejected due to a signature mismatch.

Signature mismatches in Gwinnett County were in the news last month when a lawsuit challenged the rejection of close to 600 absentee ballots, many from voters of color. District Court Judge Leigh Martin May ruled on October 24 that the state could no longer automatically throw out absentee ballots because of this issue.

A letter notifying Delgado of the issue with his application was sent before the election, but it was mailed to his Georgia home rather than his college residence. Delgado was unable to vote in the election.

“I think the blame has to clearly lie with the person overseeing the election,” Delgado told reporters.

The campaign has encouraged voters who cast provisional and absentee ballots to report these issues with a voter protection hotline, and Abrams’s team and the Georgia Democratic Party have been operating a phone bank to track down voters who submitted ballots that have not been counted.

On Tuesday, a group of protesters—and state Sen. Nikema Williams, a Democrat—were arrested in the Georgia capitol as they called for all votes to be counted. Williams said that she was “standing peacefully beside constituents I represent” and that she was arrested “because I refused to leave the floor of this building where I’m a state senator.”

The protesters were charged with disrupting conduct of orderly business, and Willams faces an additional charge of misdemeanor obstruction of justice, according to NBC News. The Abrams campaign has called for the charges against Williams to be dropped.

Criticisms of Kemp have also spread beyond Georgia. While speaking at the National Action Network conference in Washington on Wednesday, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), argued that “if Stacey Abrams doesn’t win in Georgia, they stole it.”

The recent issues come after a wave of scandals and lawsuits leading up to the Georgia election

In the weeks before the election, Kemp was repeatedly criticized for a number of measures taken by his office, including voter purges that removed more than a million names from the state’s voter rolls between 2012 and 2016. He has also faced several complaints and lawsuits alleging that he was suppressing minority voters, particularly black voters, in an effort to keep Abrams from winning the election.

Several voting and civil rights groups, Abrams’s campaign, and former President Jimmy Carter all called for Kemp to resign from his position as Georgia’s top elections official, arguing that it was a serious conflict of interest.

On October 9, the Associated Press reported that 53,000 voter registrations, 70 percent of them from black applicants, were being held by Kemp’s office for failing to clear an “exact match” process that compares registration information to Social Security and state driver records. While Kemp’s office argued that these voters would be allowed to vote on Election Day if they presented an ID, a number of voters reported problems when they tried to vote, and some said they were turned away from the polls.

And on November 2, a federal court ruled that more than 3,000 voters incorrectly flagged as “noncitizens” by the exact match process must be allowed to vote in the upcoming election because the state failed to update their citizenship status after they were made US citizens. District Court Judge Eleanor Ross argued that there was “a very substantial risk of disenfranchisement” if these voters were not allowed to cast ballots in the election.

There have been other issues as well, most notably when it comes to the high number of people purged from voter rolls in the state. According to the Brennan Center, Kemp’s office purged roughly 1.5 million registered voters between the 2012 and 2016 elections. The AP reports that 670,000 voters were purged last year. A recent report from American Public Media finds that around 107,000 of these voters were purged due to a controversial “use it or lose it” law that removes voters from the rolls if they don’t vote for a certain amount of time.

Kemp countered that much of the criticism of his office is misplaced, and that Abrams and other Democrats are attempting to hurt his campaign by “faking outrage for political gain.” He added, in a recent press release, “Despite any claim to the contrary, it has never been easier to register to vote in Georgia and actively engage in the electoral process.”

But for outside observers, the issues in the state clearly contradicted that claim. “It’s impossible to know if his [Kemp’s] attempts to restrict the franchise are what pushed him over the line,” Emory University professor Carol Anderson wrote in the Atlantic on Wednesday. “But if the Georgia race had taken place in another country — say, the Republic of Georgia — U.S. media and the U.S. State Department would not have hesitated to question its legitimacy, if for no other reason than Kemp’s dual roles as candidate and election overseer.”