(Reuters) - Two federal courts on Friday issued rulings that order Georgia to allow some 3,000 naturalized U.S. citizens to vote in elections next week and prevent the state from throwing out some absentee ballots.
The rulings are a rebuke to Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office oversees the voter rolls and who is the Republican candidate in the state’s hotly contested gubernatorial race.
The issue of voter suppression has been central to the governor’s race in Georgia, where Kemp is facing Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams, who is seeking to become the country’s first female, black governor.
U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross in Atlanta issued the order to allow some 3,000 recently naturalized U.S. citizens to vote after their registrations were put on hold.
Civil rights groups sued Kemp in October over 50,000 voting registration applications placed on hold due to Georgia’s “exact-match” law, requiring that personal information on voter applications match what is on state databases.
Ross’ ruling allows the naturalized citizens to vote in Tuesday’s midterm election if they present proof of citizenship at the polls.
In the case on absentee ballots, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit rejected Kemp’s request to stay a lower court’s ruling blocking election officials from throwing out absentee ballots for a supposed signature mismatch, without giving voters an opportunity to contest that and confirm their identity.
Kemp’s spokesman, Candice Broce, called the ruling about naturalized citizens a “minor change”, while criticizing the decision on absentee ballots.
“Despite this outcome, our concern remains that it is inappropriate to change long-standing procedures this close to an election,” Broce said in a statement on the decision on absentee ballots. “Nonetheless, the state and counties will comply with” the ruling.
Civil rights groups celebrated the ruling on naturalized citizens as a major victory.
“With respect to Tuesday’s election, we deem this a total victory in our fight against Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s exact-match scheme,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The ruling on absentee ballots stems from a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and others against Kemp and county registrars. A District Court judge granted the temporary restraining order last week, prompting the state to appeal the decision.
“Once again, a court has blocked Georgia’s attempt to obstruct voters,” said Sophia Lakin, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “This ruling is a huge victory as we round the final turn to the midterms.”
Reporting by Maria Caspani, Julia Harte and Tim Ahmann; writing by Bill Tarrant; editing by Leslie Adler