Federal courts in Georgia -- and now Florida, on Thursday -- are ordering election officials in both states to count thousands of ballots that previously had been rejected because of how voters signed and dated them.
In the past 24 hours, a fourth federal court ruling was issued in Georgia that will ensure an entire category of ballots must be counted -- those cast by mail that had been rejected based on examining the absentee ballot envelope.
"Judge [Steven C.] Jones [of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia] is the fourth Federal judge in the past three business days to find that portions of the Secretary of State's administration of the 2018 election violate the United States Constitution," a statement from the Democratic gubernatorial campaign of Stacey Abrams said.
Abrams is hoping that as previously uncounted ballots trickle in, she will get enough votes to trigger a recount or a runoff with the GOP candidate who is leading, ex-Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp. While Judge Jones has opened the door a bit on counting more absentee ballots, he did not order more leniency on provisional ballots. Those are given to voters not on polling place lists, which was the other pool of uncounted votes eyed by Abrams.
"Hampered by shoddy record keeping as orchestrated by Brian Kemp, counties simply did not maintain the documentation that would have been necessary to ensure that every eligible vote cast was a vote counted," said the campaign's statement, which did not note how many additional votes were needed to trigger a recount or runoff.
(The campaign did reply to a request for updating those figures, where the counting will continue through Friday, based on a ruling by U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg earlier this week.)
First Federal Court Ruling in Florida
A similar scenario is unfolding in Florida, where Democrats in top races -- led by Sen. Bill Nelson, who trails GOP Gov. Rick Scott by 12,500 votes -- hope to enlarge the universe of rejected ballots that can be counted. These absentee and provisional ballots were disqualified because the signatures on their envelopes did not appear to match records from voter registration files or signing poll-books in past elections.
Early on Thursday, Chief Judge Mark Walker of the U.S. District Court's Northern District in Florida, ordered the state to allow voters whose absentee or provisional ballots had been rejected to return to county election offices with identifying information to allow those ballots to now be counted. He extended the deadline for this "cure" through Saturday at 5 p.m.
"What this case comes down to is without procedural safeguards, the use of signature matching is not reasonable and may lead to unconstitutional disenfranchisement," Walker's injunction said.
"Let this Court be clear: it is NOT ordering county canvassing boards to count every mismatched vote, sight unseen," the Court order said. "Rather the county supervisors of election are directed to allow these voters who should have had an opportunity to cure these ballots in the first place, to cure their vote by mail and provisional ballots now, before the second official results [from ongoing statewide recounts] are fully counted."
Walker's ruling came hours before all Florida counties are slated to finish the first round of three statewide recounts by 3 p.m. Thursday -- in races for governor, senator and agriculture commissioner. If the winning margins in any of those races (or other county-level races) are less than 0.25 percent, which will be the case in Nelson's race, then the recount process goes to round two. There, ballots with no votes for Senate (called under-votes) or multiple votes (over-votes) will be manually examined, to further refine totals until a winner is officially declared.
This first ruling by Walker is very significant because he has more than a half-dozen federal lawsuits before him that challenge details of how Florida is counting its votes. On Wednesday, he held a five-hour-plus hearing that touched on many more issues than whether or not Florida's signature-matching standards amounted to state-managed voter suppression.
The bottom line for trialing Democrats, however, whether Sen. Nelson or gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, is that there does not appear to be a deep reserve of uncounted ballots -- in unopened absentee and provisional ballot envelopes due to signature mismatches -- based on figures from top Florida election officials during Wednesday's hearing.