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. Dozens filled the rotunda in the center of the Capitol's second floor Tuesday just as the House was scheduled to convene for a special session. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Georgia senator decries her arrest at vote count protest

November 14, 2018 - 12:53 pm

ATLANTA (AP) — Amid lingering uncertainty over Georgia's still unsettled race for governor, a state senator on Wednesday tearfully decried her arrest a day earlier during a protest with her constituents as they demanded all votes be counted.

Sen. Nikema Williams, an Atlanta Democrat, was one of 15 people arrested as dozens gathered in the second-floor rotunda of the statehouse loudly chanting "Count the votes!" and waving signs with the same slogan. Police zip-tied Williams' hands behind her back and led her from the Capitol to one of two vans holding other arrested protesters.

Unofficial results in the governor's race give a slim majority to Republican Brian Kemp, who served until last week as Georgia's secretary of state and chief elections official. But Democrat Stacey Abrams maintains that enough uncounted absentee, mail-in and provisional ballots remain to force a Dec. 4 runoff and keep alive her bid to become the first black woman in American history to be elected governor of a state. Other down-ballot contests also remain undecided.

She told Senate colleagues, who are gathered for a special legislative session, that she was booked and strip-searched at the Fulton County jail and held for five hours. She said her 3-year-old son heard news of her arrest on the radio and told a baby sitter: "That's mommy."

"I didn't do anything to obstruct anyone from doing their job or their business on the floor," Williams said. "What I did was I stood with my constituents as they wanted their voices to be heard."

The Georgia Constitution says legislators "shall be free from arrest during sessions of the General Assembly ... except for treason, felony, or breach of the peace."

Four Democratic lawmakers delivered remarks in the Senate condemning Williams' arrest. No Republican senators stood to address Williams' arrest.

GOP Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle asked the Republican chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee to meet with authorities "to look at the facts surrounding this issue and see if we can bring some kind of resolve to the matter at hand."

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones was expected to rule Wednesday on requests Abrams' campaign made in a lawsuit filed Sunday.

The campaign has asked Jones to order county election officials to accept any absentee ballots with missing or insufficient information as long as that doesn't "substantially obstruct" officials from verifying the absentee voter's identity. It also asked him to order county election officials to accept voter information that's submitted to fix issues with provisional ballots, and to count those votes, until 5 p.m. Wednesday. And it asked that provisional ballots cast by voters in the wrong county be counted as if the voter had shown up at the wrong precinct.

Lawyers for state and county election officials argued that the Abrams campaign was trying to use a postelection lawsuit to rewrite Georgia's election laws. They say county election officials have been properly counting ballots and have been able to complete their duties in the time allowed.

The lawsuit was one of several election-related complaints filed before multiple federal judges. The cases mainly concern the counting of absentee and provisional ballots.

U.S. District Judge Leigh May ordered Gwinnett County election officials Tuesday not to reject absentee ballots just because the voter's birth year is missing or wrong. She also ordered the county to delay certification of its election results until those ballots have been counted.

Jones said he will consider whether he should effectively extend May's order to Georgia's other 158 counties.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg late Monday ordered state officials not to do their final certification of election results before 5 p.m. Friday.

State law sets a Nov. 20 deadline, but secretary of state's office elections director Chris Harvey testified last week that the state had planned to certify the election results Wednesday, a day after the deadline for counties to certify their results. He said that would allow preparations to begin for any runoff contests, including those already projected in the races for secretary of state and a Public Service Commission seat.

Totenberg's order left untouched the county certification deadline. Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for secretary of state's office, said Wednesday that all counties but Gwinnett have certified their totals.

Totenberg also ordered the secretary of state's office to establish and publicize a hotline or website enabling voters to check whether their provisional ballots were counted and, if not, why not. And she ordered the secretary of state's office to review or have county election authorities review the eligibility of voters who had to cast provisional ballots because of registration issues.

Unofficial returns show Kemp with a lead just shy of 60,000 votes out of more than 3.9 million cast. Abrams would need a net gain of about 21,000 votes to force a runoff.

The Associated Press has not called the race.

Kemp's campaign has repeatedly called on Abrams to concede, calling her campaign's lawsuit "a disgrace to democracy" that ignores mathematical realities.

The Georgia Republican Party, which on Tuesday joined the secretary of state's office in defending against the lawsuit, said in an emailed statement that Democrats were trying to "sue their way to a win" after losing at the ballot box.

Abrams' campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, told reporters after the hearing that, "Our quest for basic fairness continues and that is why we want every single vote to be counted here in Georgia."

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Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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