House Democrats pass bill to make voter purges harder

Three months after Georgia’s voting turmoil sparked rage among Democrats in the state and nationwide, little is being done to remedy the biggest problems.

The U.S. House passed a sweeping series of changes on Friday aimed at making purging voter rolls more difficult while making voting easier. But no Republican voted for the bill, and it’s likely to go nowhere in the GOP-run Senate.

In Atlanta, the changes being seriously considered by the state are seen by Democrats as incremental at best.

Georgia’s elections last fall were rocked by controversy over voter purges and difficulty casting votes, particularly in minority communities.

Gov. Brian Kemp, then secretary of state, cut about 666,000 voters from the rolls in 2017, mostly for inactivity. Kemp himself would start his own gubernatorial campaign that year. Democrats slammed him for, as they put it, overseeing his own election.

Less than a month before the election, Kemp’s office got hit with a lawsuit brought by several civil rights groups over his office’s enforcement of an “exact match” voter registration law. It came just after the Associated Press reported that Kemp’s office put holds on the registrations of some 53,000 people, most of them black, for what could be minor mismatches between their registration forms and IDs, such as name typos or missing hyphens.

Voting rights groups and Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate who was seeking to become the nation’s first African American female governor, alleged these were efforts at voter suppression. Kemp rejected such claims.

Georgia wasn’t alone. In Washington this week, the Democratic-run House Administration Committee issued a 446-page report detailing similar trouble in several states.

That report cited data on Georgia’s purges, saying: “There are many reasons why someone may miss voting in an election. This should not result in their removal from voter registration rolls for subsequent elections.” It also found purges affect underserved communities disproportionately.

In Atlanta, Republicans and Democrats are mainly on opposite sides at the Georgia state Capitol, fighting over a 38-page bill that would rework parts of the state’s voting system.

The Republican majority is likely to be successful. Democrats say the GOP isn’t going far enough.

Republicans are pushing for $150 million to buy new touch-screen voting machines. A voter would touch his or her choices on a screen, and a machine would print that filled-out ballot onto paper, then the voter would turn in that paper for counting.

That system has “fairly obvious advantages in voter accuracy and voter accessibility,” said Georgia Rep. Barry Fleming, a Republican. It leaves no room for doubt on voter intent, he said.

But critics doubt that any system that involves a computer is safe from tampering.

“We are putting something between your vote and your vote getting counted,” said state Rep. Bob Trammell, leader of the minority state House Democrats, speaking against the bill.

Georgia Democrats have proposed bills in the state legislature this year that would get rid of the state’s voter purge system altogether and make a driver’s license application have the same effect as a voter application. Neither proposal has received a hearing in the Republican-run legislature.

In Georgia, early voting for state-level office now lasts about three weeks, including a Saturday. An ID is required for in-person voting.

Under Fleming’s proposed changes, an “exact-match” voter registration provision would still exist, but flagged voters would get a chance to prove their identity the first time they vote. Fleming’s bill would still purge voters from the rolls for inactivity, but after about nine years, up from as little as seven years now.

His bill is moving through the state Senate and stands a good chance of passage in the Republican-controlled chamber.

In Washington, the Democratic-run House spent the week debating and approving changes to voting laws. The bill passed Friday would bar purges that rely on someone’s failure to vote in previous elections. It would allow a voter to submit a sworn written statement as a form of identification.

But Republicans have scoffed at Washington’s efforts to effect change in states.

“Typical Democratic response to losing an election. Instead of coming up with better ideas and candidates, they would rather change the rules of the game,” said Georgia Republican Party Chairman John Watson.

Republicans were also angry that Washington is trying to take away states’ ability to run their own elections.

“Stacey Abrams, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other liberal Washington Democrats are pushing a bill that is little more than a glaring federal power grab designed to strip state and local governments of their rights to administer and oversee elections,” said Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican.

“This is my personal call to all the states in the country. Do not turn your elections over to the federal government,” he urged.

Democrats disagreed, and saw the Friday vote as the first step in a long journey. “We put down a marker today,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat.

David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.
Legislative reporter Maggie Lee began covering the state Capitol in Atlanta for The Telegraph in 2011.