Voters wait in line at a precinct in Cobb County on May 18, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

A federal judge has extended the time Georgia election officials can accept absentee ballots if they are received up to three days after the general election on Nov. 3.

In a ruling Monday, Judge Eleanor Ross of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ordered that mail-in ballots that are postmarked by Election Day must be counted if they arrive by 7 p.m. on Nov. 6, which is within three days of the original deadline.

The ruling looks to calm some fears of absentee voting reliability amid an expected slow delivery by the U.S. Postal Service and huge numbers of mail-in ballots in Georgia and across the country due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Extending the deadline would ensure that voters who receive their ballots shortly before Election Day are able to mail their ballots without feat that their vote will not count,” Ross wrote in her 70-page ruling.

Ross’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed in May by the voter registration group New Georgia Project against Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that aimed to have the absentee acceptance deadline extended beyond 7 p.m. on Election Day.

The judge agreed the mail-in acceptance deadline should be extended but dismissed other claims sought in the lawsuit, including bids to make postage free for absentee ballots and to mail absentee applications to all registered Georgia voters, as occurred for the June 9 primary.

Plaintiffs had also asked for the receipt deadline to be extended by five days, which the judge shortened to three days in her ruling.

More than 7,200 absentee ballots were rejected from among roughly 1.1 million cast in the June primary due to being received after the 7 p.m. Election Day deadline, Ross’s ruling noted.

With many more Georgians expected to vote by mail in the upcoming general election, Ross wrote that “the burden on many voters will be severe” if absentee ballots that arrive shortly after the strict Election Day deadline are rejected.

“The court notes it is reluctant to interfere with Georgia’s statutory election machinery,” Ross wrote. “However, where the risk of disenfranchisement is great, as is the case here, narrowly tailored injunctive relief is appropriate.”

The ruling was immediately hailed by Georgia Democratic leaders, who touted the extended deadline as a boost for voter access ahead of the troubled and pivotal general election that will see presidential, U.S. Senate, congressional and statehouse contests on the ballot.

“Today’s decision is a huge victory for Georgia voters, and a huge win in the fight for every vote to be counted,” said Georgia Democratic Party Chairwoman and state Sen. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta. “All Georgians deserve to have their voice heard, and in the midst of a global pandemic, it is the responsibility of our democracy to make voting by mail and early voting options as accessible as possible.”

Raffensperger’s office plans to appeal the ruling over concerns the extended deadline would hinder the ability of local election officials to process ballots in a timely manner, said Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs.

“Extending the absentee ballot receipt deadline is a bad idea that will make it nearly impossible for election officials to complete their required post-election tasks in the timeline that is required by law,” Fuchs said Monday.

Monday’s court ruling came as Raffensperger’s office launched a new online portal for Georgia voters to request absentee ballots via the internet rather than asking for one by mail or at county election offices.

Raffensperger’s office is now pushing to recruit more poll workers for the general election after a shortage during the June primary contributed to long lines and technical know-how issues with the state’s new voting machines.