Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ campaign said Wednesday that with less than 16,000 ballots needed to force a runoff with her Republican opponent, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, her path to collect every outstanding vote could include litigation.
Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo joined with Dara Lindenbaum, senior counsel at Washington’s Sander Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock, to announce that the campaign estimated that at least 15,000 paper absentee ballots remained uncounted. They said those ballots were cast primarily in Gwinnett and Clarke counties, which is home of the University of Georgia.
Groh-Wargo also said that potentially thousands more provisional ballots have been cast—and have not yet been converted to regular ballots or tallied—because of a spate of problems associated with the state’s antiquated and often dysfunctional electronic voting equipment.
“We anticipated problems,” she said. “We have attempted to be prepared. We have been running a large, voter protection and legal operation that is now activating to ensure we fight for every vote.”
On Tuesday, she said lawyers were successfully deployed to court to extend hours at several precincts in Gwinnett and Fulton counties where malfunctioning voting equipment stymied voters for hours.
Kemp told supporters at his election party Tuesday night that “the math is on our side to win this election” but stopped short of claiming victory, according to the Associated Press. His campaign counsel, Vincent Russo, could not be reached Wednesday.
At 4:50 p.m. Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that Kemp had declared victory.
Kemp needs 50 percent plus one of the certified vote to avoid a runoff. At about 3 p.m. Wednesday, the secretary of state’s website listed Kemp with 1,972,278 votes (50.35 percent) to Abrams’ 1,907,965 votes (48.71 percent). Libertarian Ted Metz had 37,056 votes.
Around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Kemp’s Secretary of State office issued a release stating, “Clarke, Fulton, Hall, and Gwinnett counties completed tabulation of their remaining absentee ballots. Less than 3,000 non-provisional votes remain state-wide. Cobb and Chatham are expected to complete tabulation today.”
“County officials have reported less than 22,000 provisional ballots cast state-wide,” the release stated.
Groh-Wargo acknowledged the campaign doesn’t know “the full story” with regard to outstanding, uncounted absentee ballots and provisional ballots in Georgia’s 159 counties.
“We have no perfect data here, so we are at a disadvantage,” she said. While some county election officials have cooperated with the campaign in providing that information, others have not been as forthcoming, she added.
Lindenbaum said that, in DeKalb County, the county attorney informed her “he has no idea how to get provisional ballot numbers … because they have never mattered before.”
Groh-Wargo also said that malfunctioning machinery and inadequate numbers of voting machines in some precincts led to long lines and caused many voters to cast an untold number of provisional paper ballots.
Even Kemp had trouble casting his electronic ballot Tuesday, according to local news reports. The Republican gubernatorial candidate’s voter card registered as “invalid” when he inserted it. He returned the card to a poll worker and was supplied with a second, working card that allowed him to cast his ballot.
Groh-Wargo also raised questions about mail-in absentee ballots intended for Dougherty County’s election registrar. She said they may have not arrived by Election Day because the county’s mail is being routed through Tallahassee in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
While Dougherty County is inland from the Gulf of Mexico, the storm remained a Category 2 storm when it blew through the county, leaving significant damage in its wake.
Groh-Wargo said the state Democratic Party chairman sent a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal asking him to extend the time frame for mail-in absentee ballots to be accepted and counted until Friday in Dougherty and 38 other South Georgia counties where Deal declared a state of emergency because of the hurricane. By Wednesday morning, the party had received no response, she said.
Groh-Wargo laid responsibility for the state’s aging voting equipment squarely at Kemp’s feet, claiming the secretary of state “kept very old machines running on very old software.” Georgia’s electronic voting system was purchased in 2002. The Microsoft 2000 software that powers the individual machines and servers that tally the votes expired in 2013.
“What we saw over the course of the early vote was nothing short of stunning,” she said. Women with children in tow waited as long as three hours to vote, she said. When the polls opened at 7 a.m., “They were lining up in the cold and the dark and the rain to cast ballots. … Machines were breaking down. Counties didn’t have adequate paper ballots” for those who wanted to cast provisional ballots.
Kemp repeatedly has insisted he is just doing his job and has blamed “outside agitators” for attacking him. He also called suggestions that he could potentially manipulate the electoral process “outrageous.”
The Abrams campaign’s emphasis on locating and verifying absentee and provisional ballots follows multiple lawsuits pending against Kemp and two of the state’s largest election boards, in Fulton and Gwinnett counties. Kemp has ignored repeated calls by Democrats and Abrams’ campaign for him to step down as the state’s chief election officer because he is running for office.
Last week, two federal judges issued separate temporary restraining orders involving absentee ballot rejections and one concerning more than 3,000 voter registrations, many filed by newly minted U.S. citizens, that Kemp’s office had placed in limbo after flagging them as possible noncitizens because their names did not appear either in the state’s driver’s license database or the federal Social Security Administration database.
One order directed Kemp to instruct county election boards that absentee ballots could no longer be summarily rejected because a voter’s signature on a ballot did not exactly match one already on file without notifying voters and giving them a chance to verify their identity.
The second order said that voters whose registrations flagged them as noncitizens must be allowed to vote as long as they could verify their citizenship at the polls. Nearly 50,000 other registrants whose registrations were also placed on hold because names and other personal information were not an exact match to other databases were told they could vote as long as they could show proof of their identity at the polls.
Kemp also is a defendant in a suit brought last year by Georgia voters and the nonprofit Coalition for Good Governance that sought to force the state to abandon its electronic voting system and return to paper ballots before Nov. 6. Judge Amy Totenberg of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia denied the motion because there was too little time to implement such a massive change before early voting began in October. But she warned the current system “poses a concrete risk of alteration of ballot counts” that could affect the vote.
Late Tuesday afternoon, two nonprofit organizations—Common Cause of Georgia and Protect Democracy—along with several Georgia voters sought two new, separate temporary restraining orders against Kemp.
The Common Cause case, assigned to Totenberg, asked for a court order to ensure that outstanding provisional ballots are properly counted.
The second suit, assigned to District Judge William “Billy” Ray, seeks to bar Kemp from continuing to exercise the powers of his office with regard to all election issues, including vote counting, certification of the election results or overseeing any runoff or recount procedures.
On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, Candice Broce, called the TRO petition “a twelfth-hour stunt.”