ATLANTA - The federal government has sent a letter to Georgia officials saying the state's schedule for runoff elections violates federal law on military and overseas absentee ballots and threatening a lawsuit if the matter isn't resolved quickly.
U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez on June 15 sent the letter to Attorney General Sam Olens and Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Olens' office declined to comment on the letter, but Kemp said the state is in the middle of the primary election and doesn't intend to make changes suggested by federal officials.
Runoff elections are required in Georgia if no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the vote.
Federal law requires that absentee ballot be sent to military and overseas residents at least 45 days before federal elections, including runoffs, the letter says. Georgia's state primary runoff is scheduled for three weeks after the state primary election, and Georgia's general election runoff is scheduled for four weeks after the general election. Both of those elections have federal offices on the ballot, and the time between the election and the runoff is less than 45 days in both cases.
Unless steps are taken to fix this, the failure to comply with the 45-day deadline "will deprive affected voters the opportunity to vote" guaranteed by federal law, the letter says. The fact that Georgia plans to send write-in absentee ballots at least 45 days before the runoff elections is not sufficient because the full candidate list won't be included and won't be available until 21 or 28 days before the runoffs, the letter says.
The U.S. Department of Justice says in the letter it wants to resolve the matter quickly and offers Georgia officials the opportunity to work together to try to reach a solution.
DOJ sent a consent decree three days after sending the letter, Kemp said in a statement Friday. The consent decree outlines steps the state should take for military and overseas absentee ballots, including extending deadlines by which absentee ballots must be received, sending absentee ballots for runoff elections by express mail and allowing absentee voters the option of returning their ballot by email, fax, or express mail at no cost to the voter.
"If the DOJ was earnest, they would have previously contacted us about their concerns rather than sending a notice of a lawsuit a month before the primary election," Kemp said. "Currently ballots have been printed and absentee voters (military and overseas included) are voting, while the DOJ is attempting to twist the state's arm into agreeing to a consent decree, the terms of which would place unnecessary stresses on the elections administration process, before even filing the lawsuit."
DOJ hasn't previously raised concerns about Georgia's ability to send out absentee ballots to military and overseas voters and in 2005 approved the state's timing for run-off elections after the state's Legislature changed prior election laws following a DOJ complaint, Kemp said.
"Our office is committed to safe and secure elections that every Georgia citizen, at home or abroad, has the opportunity to participate in," Kemp said. "For this reason, we will not enter into the proposed consent decree with the DOJ and we look forward to defending Georgia's system."
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