AJC analysis: Georgia sees surge in voter rolls

An unusually high number of residents have registered to vote in the Peach State this year, and thousands are still awaiting approval just days before early voting starts Monday across Georgia.

With voting officials still scrambling to process applicants, it could mean the start of another controversial election in the state.

More 212,000 have been added to voter rolls so far this year as the Nov. 4 midterm election approaches.

On average, a county election office may see 50 to 70 pending voter applications, said Chris Harvey, the chief investigator for the Secretary of State’s Office. This year, it’s 2,000 to 3,000, which Harvey called “uncharacteristically high.”

“We’re aware of the many voters still in pending status,” said Harvey, who on Tuesday urged residents who believe they properly registered to contact their county election office to confirm their voting status. He also said a widespread investigation into allegations of voter registration fraud, which has now found 50 forged registration documents across the state, is not causing a slowdown.

“Nothing to do with the investigation is delaying the processing of those applications,” Harvey said.

Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties led the state in the number of new voters registered since March 1, according to an analysis of state registration records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The totals include registration applications processed as of Friday. A final tally to include new voters who registered on Monday — the state’s final deadline for the November election — will likely come next week as local counties finish working with the remaining applications.

The total number of active voters in Georgia now tops 5.1 million — up from more than 4.9 million as of March 1. It will rise. On Monday alone, for example, Fulton officials received 2,200 online voter applications in addition to several thousand other applications the county still needs to process.

“Our goal is to have everything entered by Friday,” Fulton Elections Director Richard Barron said.

The statewide bump follows anecdotal reports from local election officials of a higher than normal volume of voter registration applications this year, which is a nonpresidential election year when turnout generally dips.

It may also not represent the true scope of new registrants.

The New Georgia Project, the Democratic-backed group now under state investigation, has said it cannot locate more than 40,000 applicants on Georgia’s voter rolls despite in some cases filing their paperwork months ago. That gap follows a novel registration drive that resulted in more than 85,000 people asking to be added to the rolls.

It is up to local election offices to do that work in Georgia, and the processing of so-called “pending” voters can be held up for a number of reasons, including the need to verify Social Security numbers, citizenship status and home addresses, or to reconcile a clash with information kept by the state’s Department of Driver Services.

It is also often a paperwork nightmare, since a vast majority of the pending applications involve paper forms on which writing may be illegible or which may be incomplete or missing crucial information such as a signature or date of birth. By law, local officials must mail a letter to the prospective voter, who has 30 days to respond. In some cases, however, the forms may also be missing an address, or the intended recipient may have moved with no forwarding address.

In the New Georgia Project’s case, Harvey said despite receiving more than 60,000 scanned copies of registration applications compiled by the group — with more coming — his office cannot easily trace each applicant. He has now asked the group for an electronic spreadsheet to speed up the process. The effort is being watched closely not only in Georgia but by national voting rights groups including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which was part of a 2008 federal lawsuit against then-Secretary of State Karen Handel to stop her practice of requiring additional identification to register to vote here.

The current situation is “a fundamentally (and) legally problematic situation,” said Barbara Arnwine, the group’s executive director. And it comes as Georgia has been under a microscope about its elections, including a federal lawsuit that forced this year’s early primaries to give overseas voters more time to return their ballots. Many here also remember the 2012 election chaos in Fulton that included missed deadlines, registered residents told they couldn’t vote and the casting of 9,600 provisional ballots — more than half of such ballots used across the state.

Pending voters in Georgia may cast a provisional ballot Nov. 4, although they will still have to provide any missing information. Still, experts said Georgia faces a serious problem if it cannot account for all applications filed in time before Election Day.

“The biggest concern for voters is to make sure all those people who legally and completely filled out those voter registration forms are added to the rolls,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University. Because in the end, Gillespie said, it will be state officials, not locals, who “will look like they’re not in control of the process.”

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