ATLANTA – A federal judge has ordered Georgia election officials to review all provisional ballots cast in the midterm elections and prohibited the state from certifying the election before Friday.
And another judge ruled Tuesday that absentee ballots that have been rejected because there were problems with the date of birth must be counted.
Georgia's bitterly fought contest for governor remains undecided. Republican Brian Kemp leads Democrat Stacey Abrams by nearly 59,000 votes.
Kemp has declared himself the winner of the vote last week, resigned as Georgia's secretary of state and named a transition team.
Abrams has refused to concede. Supporters have filed legal challenges demanding that deadlines for accepting ballots and certifying counts be extended and that rejected ballots be reconsidered.
The legal battle ignited protests at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday where at least 15 people were arrested including State Senator Nikema Williams.
Protesters were demanding that every vote be counted in the midterm election.
In a ruling released late Monday, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg ordered election officials to provide reports explaining why each voter was required to cast a provisional ballot, and to establish a hotline or website where voters can determine whether their provisional ballot was counted.
Counties are required to certify their counts by 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Before Totenberg's ruling, state elections officials had planned to certify the election on Wednesday. State law requires the secretary of state – now Kemp's successor, Robyn Crittenden – to certify it by Nov. 20.
Totenberg ruled in response to a lawsuit filed by Common Cause Georgia against Kemp in his capacity as secretary of state. The watchdog group accused Kemp of carelessly administering an election where there was an "unsecure, unreliable voter registration database."
"According to plaintiff’s complaint," Totenberg wrote, "information in the state’s voter registration server, used at the polls to determine whether voters are eligible to vote, is vulnerable to multiple security breaches and exploitable by manipulation of voter data."
She noted that 21,190 provisional ballots were cast in the midterms.
Common Cause Georgia sought to ensure all provisional ballots cast by eligible voters were properly counted. Director Sara Henderson called the ruling "a victory for the voters of Georgia."
"We are all stronger when every eligible voter is allowed to participate in our elections," she said in a statement. "This victory helps achieve greater voter confidence in our elections.”
A spokeswoman for the secretary of state said officials are reviewing the order and considering their options with legal counsel.
In a separate ruling Tuesday, a federal judge said that absentee ballots that were rejected because of problems with the date of birth must be counted.
Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager, called the court rulings “wins for Georgians' fundamental right — the right to cast a ballot.”
“Given the confusion sowed by the Secretary of State's office last week and the number of voters who experienced irregularities regarding their registration status, these victories were necessary steps in the fight to count every eligible vote in Georgia,” Groh-Wargo said in a statement.
“We remain grateful to groups like Common Cause who know this is about more than just one campaign — it is about committing to a fairer, more democratic system."
Kemp's campaign maintains that he will prevail despite the court rulings.
“While Democrats attempt to undermine Brian Kemp’s convincing victory seven days ago, we remain confident in the local elections officials who are certifying the results,” spokesman Cody Hall said in a statement.
Abrams, 44, is trying to become the first Democrat elected governor in Georgia in 20 years, and the first black woman governor in the nation. Kemp, 55, is trying to keep the office in Republican hands.
During the campaign, Abrams and her supporters accused Kemp, who as secretary of state was Georgia’s top election official, of trying to suppress the Democratic vote by removing voters from the state rolls.
Kemp’s office said it was investigating the state Democratic Party for what it called a "failed attempt to hack the state's voter registration system."
Both sides denounced a racist robocall targeting Abrams.
Abrams' supporters believe there could be enough outstanding ballots to trigger a recount, or a runoff election.
A runoff election, held when no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, would pit the top two – Kemp and Abrams – in a head-to-head vote next month.
Abrams' campaign filed a lawsuit Sunday asking a federal judge to order elections officials to count rejected absentee and provisional ballots in the governor's race, and to move the deadline for counties to certify the election to Wednesday. It also asked that provisional ballots from Georgians who were registered in one county but voted in another be counted.
U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones heard arguments in the case during a hearing Tuesday. He is expected to issue a ruling by noon Wednesday, according to Kurt Kastorf, an attorney for the Abrams campaign.
Crittenden, the secretary of state, issued a letter to county election officials on Monday afternoon instructing them to accept absentee ballots that are missing the voter's date of birth. She said officials can verify the voter's identity with their signature or other information provided on the ballot.