Politics & Government

Georgia secretary of state fighting accusations of disenfranchising minority voters

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp is under fire from voting rights advocates over policies that block voter registration applications and remove voters from the rolls.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp is under fire from voting rights advocates over policies that block voter registration applications and remove voters from the rolls. Courtesy of Brian Kemp

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp has drawn lots of criticism and three lawsuits from voting rights advocates who say state election policies disproportionately harm Georgia’s growing number of minority voters in the run-up to the November presidential election.

The lawsuits challenge Kemp’s methods of removing voters from the rolls. Some of the purged voters were inactive and hadn’t cast ballots in recent elections. The others were blocked from voting because information on their registration forms didn’t completely match information in databases used by the state.

Kemp has largely dismissed the suits and denied the allegations. His opponents say the policies violate the federal Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act.

They fear the election-year moves in Georgia, and similar efforts in other Republican-led states, could disenfranchise large swaths of Democratic-leaning minority voters in a tight presidential race.

Nary a letter out of place

The most recent lawsuit challenges a state policy that automatically rejected voter registration forms if letters, numbers, hyphens, spaces or even apostrophes in the applications didn’t match up perfectly with state records. Applicants were given 40 days to correct the discrepancies or their applications were blocked.

The plaintiffs, which include the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said the practice violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the First and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs said the discrepancies were often due to human data-entry errors, including misspellings associated with maiden names, hyphenated names or initials.

Of nearly 35,000 registration forms that were canceled or placed in “pending status” for the data mismatches from July 2013 to July 2016, nearly 64 percent were submitted by blacks, according to the suit.

That made blacks eight times more likely than whites to have their voter registrations blocked or delayed because of the requirement, the suit claimed. Asian-Americans and Latinos were more than six times as likely as white voters to have their applications halted.

On the eve of a Sept. 26 hearing where plaintiffs were seeking a court order to block the data matching requirement, state attorneys representing Kemp agreed by letter to scrap the policy until the suit is resolved.

The state also agreed to allow thousands of voters whose registrations had been blocked by the policy since 2015 to vote in the November election.

“The secretary of state’s office is attempting to apply the same solution to affected applicants dating back to October 1, 2014,” the letter said.

Neither Kemp’s office nor the Georgia Attorney General’s Office would provide an explanation for the abrupt change in the data match policy

Kicking inactive voters off the rolls

Kemp’s process for removing inactive voters from the rolls is being challenged by Common Cause Georgia and the Georgia NAACP as a violation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. The so-called “Motor Voter Act” bars states from removing individuals for not voting.

Georgia law allows people who haven’t voted or had contact with the elections system for the past three years to be placed on an inactive list and then removed from the rolls altogether if they don’t respond to confirmation-of-address notices within 30 days – and vote in the next two general elections.

The policy has helped fuel a rise in the number of inactive Georgia voters from nearly 714,000 in November 2012 to more than 1.3 million as of this September.

Over the same period, the number of Georgia’s registered voters dropped from more than 5.35 million to 5.17 million.

With election-year registration efforts in full force, voting rights activists say the rolls should be getting larger, not shrinking.

“Georgia’s population is growing, so you can’t tell us it’s because all these people are moving out of state,” said Brinkley Serkedakis, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia. “There has to be another problem.”

In an email statement, Candice Broce, Kemp’s spokeswoman, said the lawsuit was “completely without merit and frivolous.”

“The secretary of state’s office does not ‘purge’ any voters,” Broce wrote. “We follow strict guidelines set out in federal and state law to conduct list maintenance activities that are required by law.”

In a December 2015 letter to Common Cause attorneys, state lawyers representing Kemp stressed that voters aren’t being removed for not voting. Rather, “a voter is removed because they have not had any contact with election officials in Georgia for a minimum of seven years, and they have not returned a postage prepaid, pre-addressed return card to confirm their residence.”

Kemp has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. But in May, the U.S. Department of Justice asked a federal judge to deny that request, saying the state’s interpretation of federal law is incorrect. The case is pending.

A call for transparency

Getting information from Kemp’s office about which voters have been removed and withheld from state rolls – and why – has also proved difficult. Project Vote sued Kemp this year, accusing him of withholding public records that would provide those answers dating to July 2013.

“More than two years after its initial request, and with a critically important presidential election looming, Project Vote still has not received all of the records it requested and to which it is entitled under the National Voter Registration Act,” the suit claims.

In a statement, Broce said Kemp’s office had “been more than cooperative and transparent” with Project Vote through all of its information requests. Attorneys for Kemp asked that the lawsuit be dismissed. They said that some of the documents being sought weren’t covered by the National Voter Registration Act.

In a Sept. 20 ruling, U.S. District Judge William S. Duffey denied the request for dismissal and gave Kemp’s office until Oct. 7 to provide most of the records requested by Project Vote.

Another Kemp-related court challenge

Kemp has also drawn criticism for his efforts to require voters to provide documentary proof of U.S. citizenship, like a passport or a birth certificate, on a federal mail-in registration form favored by voter outreach groups.

The federal form already requires applicants to attest to their citizenship under penalty of perjury. But in January, Brian Newby, the executive director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, granted requests from Georgia, Alabama and Kansas to impose the proof-of-citizenship requirement for the federal forms – a first since they were authorized by Congress in 1993 as part of the National Voter Registration Act.

Newby and the commission, an independent bipartisan organization that developed and maintains the registration form, have since been sued over the proof-of-citizenship requirement, which plaintiffs say violated federal law and broke with previous commission policy.

On Sept. 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit blocked enforcement of the rule change in all three states until the case is decided at trial in U.S. District Court in D.C.

In a statement, Elizabeth Poythress, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, said the ruling “will help prevent an additional unnecessary burden for voters in Georgia.”

“In order to provide consistent and accurate processing of the federal forms, we are calling on the secretary of state, Brian Kemp, to immediately issue a directive to all 159 county election offices stating that the federal voter registration forms must be accepted and processed without documentary proof of citizenship,” Poythress said.

Broce said no such order was needed because Kemp had never acted on the rule change, which quickly faced a court challenge.

“We have never instructed county officials to require documentary proof of citizenship for either form since we have not implemented this requirement in Georgia,” Broce said in an email.