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Court orders buoy Abrams as Georgia counties race to certify results | TribLIVE.com
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Court orders buoy Abrams as Georgia counties race to certify results

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Sen. Nikema Williams (D-Atlanta) is arrested by capitol police during a protest over election ballot counts in the rotunda of the state capitol building Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Atlanta.

ATLANTA — The postelection drama in Georgia intensified Tuesday as protests rocked the state Capitol, dozens of counties raced to tally final election ballots, and judges issued court rulings that appeared to buoy Democrat Stacey Abrams’ hopes of forcing a runoff against Republican Brian Kemp.

The clashes played out in the courtroom and under the Gold Dome ahead of a key deadline for counties to certify their election results, with new developments swiftly playing out in courtrooms and county election offices as lawyers tangled over how to count outstanding votes. At one raucous demonstration at the Capitol, a state senator was detained.

Democrats were overjoyed by federal court rulings that require officials to review thousands of provisional ballots, prevent the state from finalizing election results until Friday evening at the soonest, and mandate Gwinnett County officials to accept roughly 400 absentee ballots with errors or omissions in birthdates.

Still, Abrams faces daunting odds and a tightening window to gain ground on Kemp. The day opened with Kemp holding a lead of roughly 58,000 votes over Abrams, though she needs to net a smaller number — roughly 20,000 votes — to land in a Dec. 4 runoff against the Republican.

All but about 25 of Georgia’s 159 counties have certified their results, and most of them have fully reported provisional ballot totals. But several of the densely populated metropolitan Atlanta counties that tilt toward Abrams had not yet certified.

Abrams’ hopes rest on the uncounted trove of absentee ballots and provisional ballots — as well as litigation that could trigger the reassessment of absentee ballots that were rejected by county officials.

The last trickle of ballots could also determine the outcome of the too-close-to-call 7th Congressional District contest between Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall and Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, who trails by roughly 900 votes.

The provisional ballots were cast by voters whose information could not be immediately verified at polling places, while the absentee ballots had previously been rejected because of missing or erroneous information, even in cases when voters’ identities could be verified through other means.

Kemp’s campaign has long insisted that even if Abrams wins all the outstanding votes still untallied — an unlikely prospect — that it won’t be enough for her to overcome the gap. And his aides have blasted Abrams for “frivolous” lawsuits and her refusal to concede.

“BREAKING: Abrams still can’t force this into a runoff,” one Kemp staffer, Austin Chambers, posted Tuesday on Twitter.

No major media outlet has declared a winner in either race, and with a margin this tight several organizations said they would reassess after counties certify. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution does not call election contests.

The fiercest legal fight centers on provisional ballots cast by voters whose information often could not be immediately verified at polling places. State records indicate roughly 21,000 of those ballots were cast statewide, but Abrams’ campaign says its survey of data shows about 5,000 more.

“Every hour that goes by, additional votes are processed. Some we know about, some we don’t know about,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager. “Our position is count the provisionals, count the absentees — and don’t rush the process.”

Many of those ballots are likely coming from Democratic-leaning counties. In Gwinnett alone, at least 2,400 provisional ballots will be tallied later Tuesday — including roughly 1,500 cast in the 7th District race.

After taking a conciliatory tone toward the vote-counting effort, Woodall on Monday criticized Bourdeaux and other Democrats for filing litigation “to try to overrule our local, bipartisan officials.” He and other Republicans are nervously watching a pair of court rulings that could tighten their leads by counting more ballots that were previously rejected.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Gwinnett officials must still count absentee ballots that contain errors or omissions in birthdates, a court order that could affect roughly 400 ballots that were rejected there. Gwinnett County officials said Tuesday they need more time to review those ballots before certifying their results.

And a separate ruling by U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg on Monday ordered election officials to review as many as 27,000 provisional ballots that were cast because voters’ registration or identification couldn’t be verified at the polls.

It’s unclear whether additional provisional ballots will be counted, but Totenberg’s order required officials to provide more information about provisional ballots that were cast by voters because their registration couldn’t be verified or because they didn’t appear at their correct precincts.

While Kemp’s campaign stayed relatively quiet, Abrams and her Democratic allies upped the pressure.

The Democratic Party of Georgia and Abrams launched a new 30-second ad Tuesday stressing the need to count all ballots. A slate of potential Democratic presidential candidates rallied behind Abrams in Washington. And a demonstration of support for Abrams under the Gold Dome quickly grew tense.

As a crowd of more than 100 people chanted “count every vote” a few steps from Kemp’s former office, police detained about a dozen demonstrators for violating rules prohibiting yelling while the General Assembly is in session.

Among them was state Sen. Nikema Williams, a first-term Atlanta Democrat who said she was standing with her constituents when officers put plastic restraints on her wrists and led her away.

“I was not yelling. I was not chanting,” she said. “I stood peacefully next to my constituents because they wanted their voices to be heard, and now I’m being arrested.”

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