Federal lawsuit alleges Georgia blocked thousands of minority voters

A federal lawsuit accuses Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp on Wednesday of disenfranchising thousands of minorities ahead of the presidential election, alleging that the state’s “strict matching” requirement for information on registration forms blocked them from voter rolls.

The Republican Kemp’s office called it an unwarranted attack by liberal groups.

But according to the suit, black, Latino and Asian-American applicants were far more likely than whites to be rejected due to mismatches with state and federal databases, disproportionately affecting minority voters across the state and violating the federal Voting Rights Act.

In all, the state denied 34,874 registration applications from 2013 to 2016 due to mismatched information. Of those, black applicants were eight times more likely to fail the state’s verification process than white applicants, and Latinos and Asian-Americans were six times more likely to fail, according to the suit.

“These are not small effects we’re talking about,” said Michelle Kanter Cohen, the election counsel for the Washington-based nonprofit Project Vote. “The numbers are staggering.”

The accusations in the lawsuit were strongly denied by Kemp, who has traveled the state to tout the accessibility of Georgia's elections this year. His spokeswoman, Candice Broce, said Wednesday that "the verification process Georgia currently uses was pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010."

“This lawsuit,” Broce said, “is an effort by liberal groups to disrupt voter registration just weeks before November’s important election.”

The Georgia NAACP, the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda and the legal nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta brought the lawsuit, and they are being helped by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Project Vote, among other national voting advocacy groups.

It is the third lawsuit filed this year over the state's handling of voter records. Project Vote sued Georgia in July over concerns that it was not disclosing public information explaining why voter registration applications are rejected. In February, the Georgia NAACP and government watchdog group Common Cause sued over the state's longtime practice of sending "confirmation of address" notices to voters who haven't cast a ballot in three years and removing them from voter rolls if they do not respond.

Kristen Clarke, the Lawyers’ Committee president and executive director, said Wednesday’s lawsuit was avoidable. Her group had been talking with Kemp’s staffers over the past year about the voter matching process. But a few weeks ago Kemp’s office notified the group that it would not make any changes to its registration policy prior to November’s election.

“Litigation is always a last resort,” said Clarke, who rejected the assertion that the groups were merely playing politics. “We’re a pro-democracy group. Our work is non-partisan.”

Georgia’s requirement is stricter than what is mandated by federal law, voting experts say. For instance, some other states will process registration forms and move voters onto the rolls, verifying identification at the polls.

In Georgia, the groups said would-be voters were being penalized by a process fraught with error because of data entry mistakes, limitations in the matching software and other glitches applicants had no way of knowing existed. Other problems, they said, included applicants who use their surname as a first name, which is common among some Korean-Americans.

They also point to a 2009 report from the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General, which said that the flaws and errors in the agency’s voter registration verification system were preventing eligible applicants from registering.

Georgia uses a voter registration process that requires all of the letters and numbers comprising an applicant’s name, date of birth, driver’s license number and last four digits of their Social Security number to exactly match the same letters and numbers for the applicant on the state’s Department of Drivers Service or federal Social Security Administration databases.

If a single letter, number, hyphen, space or apostrophe is out of place and if the applicant fails to correct the mismatch within 40 days of being notified of the problem, the application is automatically rejected.

According to the lawsuit, out of 34,874 denied voter registration applications between July 2013 to July 2016, approximately 63.6 percent identify as black, 7.9 percent identify as Latino, 4.8 percent identify as Asian-American and 13.6 percent identify as white.

In contrast, the suit said nearly half of those who successfully registered or changed their voter information in the system during the same period were white.

The lawsuit comes less than a week before early voting starts in Georgia's presidential election. Local counties begin Tuesday to mail out absentee ballots to voters who requested them. The state's voter registration deadline ahead of the election is Oct. 11.