ATLANTA (AP) -- A federal judge on Monday ordered Georgia to extend its deadline for accepting mail-in ballots for November's general election from the close of polls on Election Day until three days later.
Georgia law says absentee ballots must be received by the close of polls on Election Day. U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross ordered that absentee ballots that are postmarked by Election Day and arrive at county election offices by 7 p.m. three business days later be counted.
The New Georgia Project, a voter registration group, and several individual voters had sued to demand the deadline extension and other changes. Ross declined to order any of the other changes they sought.
New Georgia Project CEO Nse Ufot applauded the judge's ruling, saying in a statement that it “further confirms that we have a living breathing democracy that responds to the changing needs of society.”
The secretary of state's office plans to immediately appeal the ruling, Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said.
“Extending the absentee ballot receipt deadline is a bad idea that will make it nearly impossible for election officials to complete their required post-election tasks in the timeline that is required by law,” she said in a statement.
Lawyers for the state had argued that a later deadline could interfere with election officials' ability to perform audits and other post-election tasks by certification deadlines.
Ross noted that Georgia election officials received a record number of absentee ballot requests for the June primary election after Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger encouraged Georgians to vote by mail amid concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. With the virus outbreak still going, there will likely be even more absentee ballot requests for the November general election, Ross wrote.
Even in the absence of an ongoing pandemic, absentee ballots have been rejected in past elections because they were received after the deadline. The plaintiffs have demonstrated that “Georgia voters can be and have been disenfranchised by the current receipt deadline through no fault of their own,” Ross wrote.
Ross wrote in the order that she is “reluctant to interfere with Georgia's statutory election machinery.” But she said the risk of disenfranchisement is great and the “narrowly tailored” remedy of extending the deadline by three business days is appropriate.
“Extending the deadline would ensure that voters who receive their ballots shortly before Election Day are able to mail their ballots without fear that their vote will not count,” Ross wrote.
The lawsuit alleged that five aspects of Georgia law on absentee ballots can disenfranchise lawful voters in violation of their constitutional rights.
“Ordinarily, the impacts of these provisions on the right to vote are deeply troubling. But in the ongoing pandemic, they are constitutionally indefensible,” lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote in a court filing.
The lawsuit also asked the judge to order Georgia to provide prepaid postage to return absentee ballots; to order the state to allow voters to designate any third party to submit their absentee ballots; to establish a uniform set of standards for notifying voters about problems with absentee ballots; and to allow all voters to submit a single absentee ballot application for each election cycle.
Ross declined those requests, saying the burden placed on voters is not significant enough to outweigh the state's interest in maintaining the current rules.
The lawsuit is one of several challenging the way Georgia handles elections. A long-running lawsuit filed by election integrity advocates challenges the constitutionality of Georgia's voting machines and election system. Another filed by Democratic groups asks a judge to order Georgia election officials to take steps to prevent long lines on Election Day.