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. Concerns over voter registration have been mounting as more Georgians learn their registration has not been cleared before the October 9 deadline that would allow them to vote in the upcoming election in November.
These concerns have regularly revolved 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 and civil rights groups 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.
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, Stacey Abrams.
According to the AP, Kemp’s office is holding these 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.
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 about the state, which revolve around the power of voters of color and if 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.
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. Kemp has strongly 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.
Purging the voter rolls can keep a state’s list of voters up to date by removing people who have died or moved out of state. Kemp argues that people have registered to vote at higher rates than average during his term in office. In the summer, according to the Brennan Center, Kemp’s office had 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.