At least 53,000 voter registration applications, the large majority of them from black voters, are being held for additional screening in the state of Georgia, potentially removing the ability for a significant number of people to vote in the November election, the Associated Press reported this week. The news has ignited a controversy closely tied to Georgia’s upcoming gubernatorial election, with voting rights advocates arguing that Republicans are attempting to suppress the black vote and rig the election just weeks before Election Day.
These concerns mostly revolve around Brian Kemp, Georgia’s current secretary of state and the Republican candidate for governor. Kemp refuses to leave office before the election, prompting voting rights advocates, civil rights groups, and the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, to argue that it’s inappropriate for the man in charge of voting systems in the state to continue to manage those systems while running for office. Kemp’s opponents argue that the pending applications prove he cannot be trusted to oversee the election.
The Georgia governor’s race has been one of the most closely watched contests in the country in recent months, largely because a victory for Democrats in the state would mean electing the nation’s first black female governor, Abrams.
The report immediately sparked controversy, especially as the midterm elections draw closer. Two big voter ID decisions this week in Missouri and North Dakota, for example, could help decide control of the Senate. In a state like Georgia where minority turnout is expected to play a significant role in the outcome of a close gubernatorial contest, voter suppression could affect the outcome.
In that sense, the recent Georgia news is part of a much larger set of concerns that local and national voting rights groups have long held, concerns that revolve around the power of voters of color and whether that power is being suppressed through various voting laws and restrictions. With Kemp continuing to oversee the state office in charge of voting, advocates worry that he will use his power to affect Georgia’s political power balance for decades to come.
Kemp is under fire for using a controversial “exact match” process
According to the AP, Kemp’s office is holding the applications because they were flagged in the state’s “exact match” process. Under this system, information on a voter application must exactly match data on file with the state’s Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration. If the information does not match — often due to things like a misspelled name, a middle name not being fully written out, or a missing hyphen — an application is held for additional screening and the applicant is notified and given a period to correct their information.
The AP says there was a significant racial disparity among the applications flagged in the system. While the state is roughly one-third black, 70 percent of the 53,000 applications held are from black Georgians.
Years before the current controversy, Kemp’s office used an older version of the exact match process, and automatically canceled registrations for those who failed to correct their information within 40 days. In 2016, a coalition of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit arguing that the process disproportionately affected voters of color in the state. The case was settled in 2017 after Kemp’s office agreed to a number of reforms that removed the deadline period and allowed those flagged in the system to vote if they provided identification at the polls.
Shortly after that settlement, Georgia passed a law that codified parts of the later version of the exact match system and reinstated a deadline. On Thursday, several groups, including the Georgia NAACP, the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta, joined other civil rights groups in filing another lawsuit over the exact match process, arguing that it continues to disproportionately affect nonwhite applicants and that the 2017 law serves no legitimate purpose and violates a number of federal measures.
Kemp’s office has repeatedly argued that voters flagged in the system will still be able to vote on Election Day if they present identification. But civil rights groups counter that the entire process needlessly creates confusion for voters who don’t know that they’ve been flagged in the system, or those who think a pending registration means they shouldn’t even bother going to the polls.
“It’s a strain on our system of democracy when less than a month before an election, which could produce the first African-American female governor in our nation’s history, we are seeing this type of voter suppression scheme attempted by a state official, whose candidacy for the governorship produces an irremediable conflict of interest,” NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson argued in a statement.
Voting rights in Georgia have been a source of controversy for some time
Concerns about voting rights have increased considerably in the years since the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Previously, this provision meant that several states with a history of racial discrimination, including Georgia, had to get any changes to voting measures preapproved by the Department of Justice to ensure that the measures did not target minority voters. The Supreme Court’s ruling meant that these states no longer had to get voting measures approved by the government.
As secretary of state, Kemp has aggressively investigated voting rights activists. In 2010, his office began investigating a group of black activists in the city of Quitman, saying that the activists — who spearheaded a get-out-the-vote campaign encouraging residents to fill out absentee ballots — had committed voter fraud and coerced voters. Kemp’s office claimed the activists committed fraud by filling out ballots for other people. The activists were later charged with felonies, but their cases ended without convictions. One activist was prosecuted for helping her disabled father with his ballot.
The two candidates in Georgia’s gubernatorial contest have long sparred over voting rights. In 2013, Abrams founded the New Georgia Project, which aimed to increase the number of registered black voters in the state.
Abrams is no longer affiliated with the organization, but those still at the New Georgia Project say their registration efforts have been complicated by Kemp’s office. In 2014, Kemp launched an investigation into the organization, claiming that a preliminary review “revealed significant illegal activities” including forged voter registrations and inaccurate information on applications. The investigation later found a small number of incorrect applications out of the thousands of registrations the group had collected.
The current voter registration debacle pulls these old fights back into view. Abrams recently called her opponent “a remarkable architect of voter suppression.” On Thursday, Abrams’s campaign called for Kemp to resign from his position, saying that he cannot be an impartial party in an election he is competing in.
“As he has done for years, Brian Kemp is maliciously wielding the power of his office to suppress the vote for political gain and silence the voices of thousands of eligible voters — the majority of them people of color,” Abrams spokesperson Abigail Collazo said in a statement, according to CNN.
Kemp, meanwhile, says that the backlash to the news is largely overblown, adding that those on the list will still be able to vote in the upcoming election. He also accused the New Georgia Project of “faking outrage for political gain.” He defended himself from allegations of voter suppression, telling the AP that any black voters with held applications are due to the poor coordination of the New Georgia Project’s efforts to register them.
But those claims have been complicated by other actions Kemp has taken, most notably the significant number of voters purged from the rolls in Georgia in the past five years. According to a report released this summer by the Brennan Center, Kemp’s office purged roughly 1.5 million registered voters between the 2012 and 2016 elections. The AP notes that Kemp’s office purged some 670,000 voters last year.