Stacey Abrams preparing new challenge in Georgia race

ATLANTA (AP) — Stacey Abrams' campaign is preparing an unprecedented legal challenge in the unresolved Georgia governor's race that could leave the state's Supreme Court deciding whether to force another round of voting.

The Democrat's longshot strategy relies on a statute that's never been used in such a high-stakes contest. It is being discussed as Georgia elections officials appear to be on the cusp of certifying Republican Brian Kemp as the winner of a bitterly fought campaign that's been marred by charges of electoral malfeasance.

Top Abrams advisers outlined her prospective case to The Associated Press, stressing that the Democratic candidate hasn't finalized a decision about whether to proceed once state officials certify Kemp as the victor. That could happen as early as Friday evening.

SEE ALSO: Florida U.S. Senate race triggers hand recount

Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, Abrams' campaign chairwoman, is overseeing a team of almost three-dozen lawyers who in the coming days will draft the petition, along with a ream of affidavits from voters and would-be voters who say they were disenfranchised. Abrams would then decide whether to go to court under a provision of Georgia election law that allows losing candidates to challenge results based on "misconduct, fraud or irregularities ... sufficient to change or place in doubt the results."

The legal team is "considering all options," Lawrence-Hardy said, including federal court remedies. But the state challenge is the most drastic. And some Democratic legal observers note Abrams would be dependent on statutes that set a high bar for the court to intervene.

Kemp's campaign, which already has shifted into transition mode presuming he'll be inaugurated in January, said Abrams is pushing a "publicity stunt" and said her refusal to concede is a "ridiculous temper tantrum."

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Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams campaigns in Atlanta on Election Day
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Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams campaigns in Atlanta on Election Day
ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 06: Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams gives a thumbs up to supporters outside Busy Bee Cafe during a campaign stop on November 6, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. Abrams made a number of final campaign stops on Election Day. As voters go to the polls on Election Day, Abrams is in a tight race against Republican opponent Brian Kemp to become Georgia's next governor. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 06: Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams get s hug from a young supporter at Busy Bee Cafe on November 6, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. Abrams made a number of final campaign stops on Election Day. As voters go to the polls on Election Day, Abrams is in a tight race against Republican opponent Brian Kemp to become Georgia's next governor. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 06: Rev. Jesse Jackson stands with Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams outside the Busy Bee Cafe on November 6, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. Abrams made a number of final campaign stops on Election Day. As voters go to the polls on Election Day, Abrams is in a tight race against Republican opponent Brian Kemp to become Georgia's next governor. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 06: Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams poses for photographs with employees of Busy Bee Cafe on November 6, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. Abrams made a number of final campaign stops on Election Day. As voters go to the polls on Election Day, Abrams is in a tight race against Republican opponent Brian Kemp to become Georgia's next governor. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 06: Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams gets a kiss from a supporter during a campaign stop at Busy Bee Cafe on November 6, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. As voters go to the polls on Election Day, Abrams is in a tight race against Republican opponent Brian Kemp to become Georgia's next governor. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 06: A supporter holds a campaign poster of Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams outside Busy Bee Cafe on November 6, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. Abrams made a number of final campaign stops on Election Day. As voters go to the polls on Election Day, Abrams is in a tight race against Republican opponent Brian Kemp to become Georgia's next governor. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
Democratic nominee for Georgia governor Stacey Abrams thanks Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State for speaking at a Get out the Vote Rally held in Savannah at the Longshoreman Union Monday, Nov. 5, 2018 (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News via AP)
Democratic nominee for Governor Stacey Abrams speaks Monday, Nov. 5, 2018 at a Get out the Vote Rally in Savannah at the Longshoreman Union.. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News via AP)
Buena Vista resident Charlie Matthews, 73, right, presents Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams with red roses during a campaign stop at Annie D's restaurant on Election Day in Buena Vista, Ga., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Matthews said that he dedicated the flowers to Abrams on behalf of all the deceased women in his family that did not live to see her make it this far in Georgia's governor race. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams waves at supporters following a campaign stop at Pearly's Famous Country Cooking on Election Day in Albany, Ga., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
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She already faces a narrow path to the governor's mansion. Unofficial returns show Kemp with about 50.2 percent of more than 3.9 million votes. That puts him about 18,000 votes above the threshold required to win by a majority and avoid a Dec. 4 runoff. The Associated Press is not calling the race until state officials certify the results.

Abrams would assert that enough irregularities occurred to raise the possibility that at least 18,000 Georgians either had their ballots thrown out or were not allowed to vote.

Lawrence-Hardy told the AP that Abrams will weigh legal considerations alongside her belief that many of her backers — particularly minority and poorer voters who don't regularly go to the polls — heeded her call to participate and ran into barriers.

"These stories to me are such that they have to be addressed," said Lawrence-Hardy, who was among the army of lawyers who worked on the Bush v. Gore presidential election dispute in 2000. "It's just a much bigger responsibility. I feel like our mandate has blossomed. ... Maybe this is our moment."

Kemp, who served as the state's chief elections officer until two days after the election when he resigned as secretary of state and declared victory, has maintained that any uncounted ballots won't change the outcome. Kemp supporters have gathered at some local elections offices protesting what they cast as an attempt to steal the election.

The circumstances leave Abrams, a 44-year-old rising Democratic star, with a tough decision. The former state lawmaker became a national political celebrity with her bid to become the first black woman in American history to be elected governor. Her strategy of running as an unapologetic liberal who attracts new voters to the polls resonated in a rapidly changing state. Yet Abrams also must consider her own political future and the consequences of a protracted legal fight she might not win.

All of that is playing out against the backdrop of Kemp's unabashed embrace of President Donald Trump's nationalism.

Since Election Day, Abrams campaign workers have transitioned from get-out-the-vote efforts to helping voters determine whether their ballots were counted and documenting reported problems. The idea is to assemble a body of evidence to support the claim that the problems could account for Kemp's 18,000-vote margin above the runoff trigger.

Related: Candidates cast their votes on Election Day: 

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Candidates casting their votes during the 2018 midterm election
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Candidates casting their votes during the 2018 midterm election
Democratic candidate Christine Hallquist votes during the midterm election in Hyde Park, Vermont, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Caleb Kenna
Democratic Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arrives to vote in the midterm elections in the Bronx, New York City, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Missouri Attorney General and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley, left, checks in to the polling place before voting, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX), candidate for U.S. Senate arrives with his family to vote in the 2018 midterm elections in El Paso, Texas, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Republican candidate for Governor Ron DeSantis arrives to vote, carrying his daughter Madison, in the midterm elections at a polling place in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, center, carrying son Davis, age 16 months, leaves the polling place after voting with wife R. Jai, right, during midterm elections in Tallahassee, Florida, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Colin Hackley TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Alaska independent U.S. House candidate Alyse Galvin smiles after emerging from a voting booth on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Anchorage, Alaska. Galvin, who arrived at the polling location with her family, is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young for Alaska's lone U.S. House seat. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)
California gubernatorial Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom walks with his daughter, Montana, 9, to turn his ballot after voting Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Larkspur, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp gives the thumbs up sign as he and youngest daughter Amy Porter leave after voting Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Winterville, Ga. Kemp is in a close race with Democrat Stacey Abrams. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Virginia Republican senatorial candidate Corey Stewart, center, and his wife Maria Stewart, left, voting at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Woodbridge, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) Wife Maria Stewart
Marty Nothstein, Republican candidate in Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, arrive at his polling station to vote Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018, in New Tripoli, Pa. Nothstein is facing Democrat Susan Wild for the seat held by Charlie Dent who retired. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
Anthony Brindisi, left, Democratic candidate for New York's 22nd Congressional District, casts his vote at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, N.Y., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Brindisi, a Democratic Assemblyman, is hoping to defeat Republican Congresswoman Claudia Tenney in New York's 22nd Congressional District race. Pictured at right are his wife, Erica McGovern Brindisi, and his daughter, Lily Grace Brindisi. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)
Democratic congressional candidate Amy McGrath checks in with poll workers before voting on Election Day in Georgetown, Ky., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
Haley Stevens, candidate for Michigan's 11th Congressional District, gives a thumbs up as exits her polling place Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Rochester Hills, Mich. Stevens is running against Lena Epstein. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Candidate for Pennsylvania's 1st Congressional District Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., gestures after casting his ballot in Langhorne, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
California gubernatorial Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom ties the shoe laces of his son Hunter, 7, as his son, Dutch, 2, looks on after voting Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Larkspur, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Dana Balter, candidate for the House of Representatives in New York's 24th Congressional District, applies her "I Voted" sticker after casting her vote in Syracuse, N.Y., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
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COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 06: Missouri's Republican U.S. Senate Candidate Josh Hawley casts his vote on election day at The Crossings Church on November 6, 2018 in Columbia, Missouri. Hawley, the current Missouri Attorney General, is hoping to unseat current Democratic incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill. (Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)
TURLOCK, CA - NOVEMBER 06: Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham of California's 10th Congressional District casts his vote at the Berkeley Ave Baptist Church on November 6, 2018 in Turlock, California. Denham, a four-term Republican incumbent and Air Force veteran, is competing against Democratic challenger Josh Harder in one of seven closely-contested congressional races currently held by the GOP in California won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 as the Democrats hope to regain control of the House in the midterm elections. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
WHITMAN, MA - NOVEMBER 6: Republican U.S. Senate candidate Geoff Diehl and his wife KathyJo Boss leave Whitman Town Hall in Whitman, MA after casting their votes on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
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Democratic congressional candidate running in the 49th district Mike Levin gets an "I Voted" sticker put on by his wife Chrissy after they voted during midterm elections in San Juan Capistrano, California, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
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U.S. Democratic Congressional candidate Jahana Hayes waits in line to fill out her ballot to vote at a voting station during the midterm election in Wolcott, Connecticut, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin
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Affidavits from poll workers reviewed by the AP describe long lines that discouraged people from voting, poll workers failing to offer provisional ballots to people who didn't show up on the rolls or were at the wrong polling place and election equipment that froze and had to be rebooted.

Cathy Cox, a Democrat who served as secretary of state from 1999 through 2007 and is now the dean of Mercer University's law school, said Georgia law puts a heavy burden on candidates such as Abrams who ask a court to intervene.

"I would say with pretty great confidence there has probably never been an election ... without some irregularity, where some poll worker did not make some mistake," Cox said in an interview. The key, she said, is proving someone erred to the point that it could change the outcome.

Lawrence-Hardy agreed the law requires a quantitative analysis. She said Abrams' team doesn't have a list of 18,000 disenfranchised voters. The evidence, she said, would consist of hundreds, if not thousands of such examples, along with data analysis of projected lost votes based on other problems, such as a lack of paper ballots at precincts where voting machines broke down and voters left long lines.

Cox said courts must attempt to apply a nonpartisan standard of "doubt" to the election. "Would a reasonable person have a reason to doubt this election? Not would a hard-core partisan Democrat doubt a partisan Republican opponent," she said.

Abrams and voting rights activists have argued for months that Kemp mismanaged the elections system as secretary of state, with Abrams often calling Kemp "an architect of suppression."

Under Georgia law, Abrams could file a challenge against Kemp or his successor as the secretary of state. The challenge must be filed within five days of certification in a trial court of the county where the chosen defendant resides. The defendant has between five and 10 days to respond, and the presiding judge sets a hearing within 20 days after that deadline, a calendar that could push a dispute well beyond what would have been a Dec. 4 runoff.

If the judge determines the election is so defective that it casts doubt on the results, the judge can declare the election invalid and call a new vote among the same candidates. Cox called that "the real extreme remedy."

A more "surgical" course, she said, would be to affirm irregularities but only order that certified results be reopened and recertified once those problems are remedied. The judge could then declare a winner or order a runoff if the results are close enough.

The judge could also declare a winner after hearing the evidence, but Cox said that's unlikely because the case will probably hinge on uncounted votes and there's no way to know before a count which candidate won those votes.

Once the judge rules, the loser has 10 days to appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.

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Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP and Brumback at https://twitter.com/katebrumback.

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