GOP launches legal war on absentee voting ahead of Georgia runoffs

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Federal judges in Georgia will hear arguments Thursday in Republican-led lawsuits to restrict absentee voting ahead of next month’s Senate runoffs — the first salvos in a GOP effort to change voting rules for future elections following President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020.

Republicans have filed three lawsuits in the state ahead of the Jan. 5 runoffs, in which hundreds of thousands of people have already voted by mail or in person for races that will decide control of the Senate in 2021. The suits primarily target the use of drop-boxes to return absentee ballots, as well as aiming to raise the threshold for signature verifiers to accept absentee ballots.

The net result of the suits, which are backed by a combination of local, state and national Republican Party organizations, would make successfully voting by mail harder in Georgia, which Republicans say is necessary to protect the security of the elections — and others claim is an attempt to suppress votes for Democratic candidates.

The legal efforts are likely just the start of a yearlong push by state Republicans to tighten voting rules in response to the 2020 election, which prompted unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud from Trump, his supporters and other GOP leaders who are convinced that the contest wasn’t fair. Republican lawmakers in Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania, among others, have already announced their intention to seek changes to state election laws next year in response to perceived irregularities, and Trump’s opposition to mail voting in 2020 — coupled with the way those late-counted ballots broke against him in some key states — has destroyed the decades-long bipartisan consensus on expanding the practice.

Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the two Republican candidates in the Georgia runoffs, said in a joint statement last week that their lawsuit was aimed at “reasonable and actionable steps we can take immediately to further ensure the integrity and accuracy of our January 5 elections.”

So far, more than 378,000 voters have returned votes via absentee ballot, and more than 846,000 absentee ballots have been mailed out to voters but have yet to be returned. That’s slightly fewer than at the same point in the general election, though large numbers of people have voted early in person since voting sites opened this week. Democrats have continued to highlight absentee ballots, and the state Democratic Party has already begun canvassing efforts to help educate voters on the absentee process and curing ballots.

Georgia has been a center of protest on the right since the Nov. 3 general election, after President-elect Joe Biden narrowly defeated Trump in the state. Trump has relentlessly attacked election systems and officials across the country since his loss, but he has reserved special attention for Georgia, swiping at Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, two Republicans whom Trump endorsed in 2018, for not backing his fraud claims. Earlier this week, the president retweeted Lin Wood — an attorney who has promulgated some of the wildest conspiracies with the election — calling for Kemp and Raffensperger to be jailed.

Loeffler and Perdue have broadly embraced the president’s rhetoric on the election, supporting a lawsuit the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that sought to effectively disenfranchise every voter in the state by tossing out the state’s presidential election results. The pair has also joined Trump in attacking Raffensperger, parroting unsubstantiated allegations of irregularities in the state.

But the senators took a different tack in a lawsuit they joined alongside the state GOP and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, commending state officials’ efforts while seeking to tighten their rules.

“Georgia election officials, from the state level to the local level, have undertaken significant efforts to assure the integrity of the Georgia election process in the runoff,” reads the suit. “Those efforts should be commended, and this lawsuit is brought to augment and further improve them.”

A judge scheduled a hearing for the suit on Thursday.

The suit calls Georgia’s absentee ballot signature verification process “unreliable and non-transparent,” and it seeks to effectively toss out a consent decree to which Raffensperger agreed in March in response to a Democratic-led lawsuit. The consent decree mandated that ballots could only be rejected if two out of three election officials consulted determined the signature on a ballot envelope doesn’t match one on record. Election officials also had to contact the voter in question in a timely manner to give them a chance to fix problems with, or “cure,” their ballot.

The signature verification process has been at the center of many Georgia conspiracy theories, including ones spread by Trump, who falsely claimed the consent decree “makes it impossible to check & match signatures.” Raffensperger, who has faced threats against his family and his staff, has consistently defended the integrity of Georgia’s elections and defended the signature verification process again this week at a press conference.

“Let me be clear: Before an absentee ballot is ever cast, a signature match is confirmed twice,” Raffensperger said, referencing both when an absentee ballot request form is turned in and when the ballot itself is returned. “Not once, twice. As in the signature is matched twice. I don’t know how much clearer I can make that for everyone to understand.”

The GOP lawsuit seeks to reverse the ratio for rejecting a ballot, asking that every ballot envelope be reviewed by three officials, and if one of the reviewers says the signature doesn’t match, the ballot would be rejected and sent through the cure process.

A second federal lawsuit, filed by Republicans in one of Georgia’s 14 congressional districts and would-be electors, also set to be heard Thursday, looks to block the use of drop-boxes for submitting absentee ballots, roll back signature review guidance and prevent county election administrators from opening ballots until Election Day.

A third suit filed in state court by the Republican National Committee and state Republican Party seeks to restrict the use of drop-boxes to business hours and suggests changes related to poll observers.

Democrats are seeking to intervene in the cases to defend the procedures currently in place.

“We’ve done a lot of litigating, and we are tired. But we are not done,” Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic lawyer who has run point on much of the party’s election litigation this cycle, said last week.

On Wednesday, Elias also filed state lawsuits against four Georgia counties on behalf of the liberal group New Georgia Project, saying each county is not providing an adequate amount of early, in-person voting time.

The GOP lawsuits are likely only the first step in a wave of Republican attempts to enact new rules around voting — including restricting access to mail voting, which Trump has blamed for his 2020 loss — in Georgia and elsewhere.

Republicans in Georgia’s state Senate said earlier this month they would seek to “reform our election laws” by requiring an excuse to vote by mail, such as being out of state on Election Day or a medical issue, which would restrict the use of absentee ballots. The majority of states currently offer no-excuse absentee voting, with no clear ideological split between states on that issue.

Georgia Republicans also proposed instituting a photo ID requirement for voters using mail ballots, something Raffensperger said he supports.

“The Georgia Senate Republicans have heard the calls of millions of Georgians who have raised deep and heartfelt concerns that state law has been violated and our elections process abused,” the lawmakers said in their announcement.

Meanwhile, Georgia state House Speaker David Ralston called for the secretary of state to be appointed by the General Assembly and not elected by voters, which would require amending the state constitution.

Individual lawmakers in other states, like Pennsylvania, have also floated rolling back mail voting. But Georgia is one of a handful of competitive battlegrounds where Republicans have unified control of state government, giving them the power to enact new laws over the objection of Democrats ahead of the 2022 elections, when Kemp, the governor, is expected to face a rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Some Republicans have put their opposition to mail voting in nakedly political terms following the president’s loss.

“Why is Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger working so hard to add drop boxes and take other steps to make it harder for Republicans to win,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted. “Is he really that intimidated by Stacey Abrams?”

All the while, Republicans are also encouraging their voters to have confidence in absentee ballots in the runoff. At Trump’s rally in Valdosta earlier this month, the video screen had a message encouraging absentee requests. Vice President Mike Pence told rally goers on a separate visit to the state to have confidence in using the process.

“We’re going to secure our polls. We’re going to secure our drop boxes. So get an absentee ballot and vote — and vote today,” Pence said. “Don’t wait. Fill it out, and turn it in.”

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