In the weeks leading up to the 2018 midterms, no state has attracted as much attention as Georgia, where allegations of voter suppression — coupled with the potentially historic gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Stacey Abrams — have prompted several lawsuits, fueled accusations of election rigging, and placed a spotlight squarely on voting systems in the state.
Georgia has been at the center of several recent complaints charging that state officials are attempting to diminish black voters’ power. Many of these complaints 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 Abrams’s campaign 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 says he is working to ensure “election integrity,” and that allegations of voter suppression are a “farce.”
Complaints about voting in the state center around several issues, from concerns over more than 50,000 voter registrations being put on hold to local voting machines not working. Kemp’s own comments have only fueled the fire, with Rolling Stone reporting on leaked audio of Kemp complaining about increased voter turnout this election cycle.
The Georgia governor’s race is one of the most closely watched contests in the country, largely because a victory for Democrats in the state would mean electing the nation’s first black female governor, Abrams. Polls currently show the candidates in a dead heat, with Kemp holding a 2-point lead. In a state like Georgia where minority turnout is expected to play a significant role in a close gubernatorial contest, voting rights groups fear voter suppression could affect the outcome.
With Kemp continuing to oversee the state office in charge of voting, advocates worry his directives could affect Georgia’s political power balance for decades to come. But the recent Georgia news is part of a much larger set of concerns that local and national voting rights groups have long held in the five years since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, concerns that revolve around the power of voters of color and whether that power is being diluted through various voting laws and restrictions. And while Georgia is where voter suppression scandals have attracted the most national attention, these issues are hardly unique.
Kemp is under fire for using a controversial “exact match” process
On October 9, the Associated Press reported that 53,000 voter registrations, 70 percent of them from black applicants, were being held by Kemp’s office for failing to clear an “exact match” process that compares registration information to Social Security and state driver records. If the information does not match — often due to inconsistencies 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.
As CityLab’s Brentin Mock reports, data shows that many of these blocked voter registrations come from urban areas with high black populations. In areas with smaller black populations, the percentage of pending registrations from black voters often exceeds the percentage of black residents living in the area.
Previously, 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 a new, similar version of the exact match system and reinstated a deadline, rejecting uncorrected registrations after a 26-month period.
On October 12, a coalition of civil rights groups — including the Georgia NAACP, the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta — filed a lawsuit calling for an end to the exact match program, noting that it has disproportionately affected voters of color. Kemp’s secretary of state office defended the pending registrations, argued that voters will still be able to cast a ballot if they present identification at the polls.
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. Anecdotally, news reports from the AP, CNN, and the New York Times have all uncovered voters who were unaware that their registrations or ballots were being questioned.
“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 said in an October 12 statement.
In the weeks since that report, more controversies have unfolded
Recent attention has revolved around withheld registrations and absentee ballots, but there have been other issues as well, most notably when it comes to the high number of voters purged from voter rolls in the state.
Kemp’s office has purged thousands of voters, many of them voters of color, in the past five years. According to the Brennan Center, Kemp’s office purged roughly 1.5 million registered voters between the 2012 and 2016 elections. The AP reports that 670,000 voters were purged last year. A recent report from American Public Media finds that around 107,000 of these voters were purged due to a controversial “use it or lose it” law that removes voters from the rolls if they don’t vote for a certain amount of time.
Rejected absentee ballots in the state have also been an issue. US District Court Judge Leigh Martin May ruled on October 24 that the state could no longer automatically throw out absentee ballots because of “signature mismatches.” Georgia law requires that election officials reject ballots if the voter’s signature on a ballot did not match the signature on their voter registration card. Earlier in October, the American Civil Liberties Union partnered with the Georgia Muslim Voter Project and Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta to file a lawsuit over the mismatch law, arguing that voters of color were more likely to have ballots rejected, pointing to Georgia’s Gwinnett County, where close to 600 ballots were rejected due to mismatched signatures.
Meanwhile, local officials removed 40 black senior citizens from a bus heading to the polls in majority-black Jefferson County for early voting. Jefferson County Administrator Adam Brett defended the removal, arguing that the bus had not been authorized to take the seniors to the polls and that the action constituted “political activity” at a county-run senior center.
In August, election officials in Georgia’s Randolph County proposed closing all but two polling places in the majority-black county. The plan was scrapped after garnering fierce opposition from voting rights advocates and criticism from Kemp and Abrams.
That plan attracted national attention, but according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, some 214 polling places have been closed since 2012, “often in rural, impoverished areas” and in areas with significant black populations.
Kemp’s office and other state and county officials have denied that these changes were voter suppression efforts aimed at minorities. But when looked at cumulatively, it is undeniable that voters of color in the state have been disproportionately affected.
In 2018, voter suppression efforts “seem to be clustered in states with highly competitive elections at the top of the ticket, where the party in power sees some tangible material electoral benefit in swiping off voters in the electorate,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said during an October 23 call with reporters.
Voting rights in Georgia have been a source of controversy for some time
Despite renewed attention about voter suppression in Georgia, concerns about voting rights in the state go back much further, especially in the years since the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
Previously, this provision, known as Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, 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 or a US District Court to ensure that the measures did not hamper minority voters. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder meant courts and the DOJ no longer needed to vet voting measures for these states.
With that requirement gone, Georgia quickly moved to enact stricter voting laws, like the aforementioned exact match policy.
Voting rights issues in the state are not simply about policy. Since Kemp became secretary of state eight years ago, his office 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.
In 2014, Kemp trained his sights on the New Georgia Project, a group founded by Abrams to increase the number of people of color registered to vote. 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 was later ended after failing to find widespread evidence of illegal activity.
The current voter suppression debacle pulls these old fights back into view. Abrams has called her opponent “a remarkable architect of voter suppression,” adding that his actions have left voters in the state confused and unsure if they can cast a ballot. “Voter suppression isn’t only about blocking the vote,” she said during a debate with Kemp on Tuesday. “It is also about creating an atmosphere of fear, making people worry that their votes won’t count.”
Abrams’s campaign has taken an even stronger tone. “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 an October 11 statement to CNN.
Kemp, meanwhile, argues that the backlash to recent voting rights stories is largely overblown, calling accusations of voter suppression a “farce” during the Tuesday debate. He’s accused the New Georgia Project and civil rights groups of “faking outrage for political gain.”
“Kemp is fighting to protect the integrity of our elections and ensure that only legal citizens cast a ballot,” campaign spokesperson Ryan Mahoney told the AP this month.
Georgia has become a battleground in fights over voter suppression scandals — but the problem goes much deeper
On one hand, it is understandable why Georgia has attracted so much attention over the past month. The gubernatorial contest is tight, with polls showing just a 2-point difference between Abrams and Kemp. Add in the fact that any limits on black turnout are likely to hurt Abrams and it creates a powerful narrative where voters of color with the power to decide an election are being suppressed from doing so.
But there is a second, larger story here as well, one that revolves around contentious voting rights battles in states across the country. When the Shelby County v. Holder decision came down in 2013 and blunted the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court argued that states previously subjected to Section 5 had been penalized for long enough. But with these restraints no longer there, states have moved to enact procedures that may not seem discriminatory but still disproportionately affect minorities.
“If there’s a lesson in 2018, it’s that voter suppression has come roaring back,” Ho told reporters. “The number of new laws and practices are something that we haven’t seen since the 2012 election.”
The problems this cycle are not limited to Georgia. In Tennessee, the Tennessee Black Voter Project and the Memphis NAACP have filed a lawsuit arguing that election officials in Shelby County are not giving voters time to correct issues on their registrations. In Texas, another battleground for voting rights in recent years, a group of black students are suing Waller County election officials for failing to offer Prairie View A&M students on-campus voting locations and limiting the number of early voting days in the surrounding town. On October 25, the county announced that it would expand early voting.
While voting rights struggles are often discussed because they affect black voters, other groups, like recently naturalized citizens, young voters, Asian Americans, and Latinos are also affected.
More than 16 million voters have been removed from the rolls across the country between 2014 and 2016, according to the Brennan Center. Voter ID laws, which some Republicans have admitted to using in an effort to curb high turnout among groups that typically back Democrats, have spread; currently, 34 states either request or require voters to show identification at the polls. And a handful of states like Georgia and Texas, many of them previously subject to the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement, have adopted some of the strictest voting measures in the country.
As Vox’s German Lopez wrote in 2017, there’s been data suggesting that voter ID and other voting restrictions have not had a significant effect on voter turnout. Still, several of the restrictions in places like Georgia have created barriers to the ballot that have been repeatedly found to disproportionately affect voters of color.
The fight over voting laws in 2018 fits into a broader political debate about voting rights. Supporters of stricter voting measures argue that the restrictions are necessary to preserve election integrity and combat fraud (which is exceedingly rare), while opponents argue that America’s historic aversion to fair access to the ballot should lead to efforts to make voting easier, not harder. So far, those in favor of stricter voting measures have been winning.
What’s happening in Georgia, then, is not unique. It is part of a much larger web of voting restrictions that has had years to develop and is now in widespread use in the current midterm elections. The question now is what happens next.