Georgia agrees to add thousands to voter rolls ahead of Nov. election

Georgia has agreed to temporarily suspend a requirement that has prevented tens of thousands of residents from registering to vote as it works toward a possible settlement in a federal lawsuit that accused Secretary of State Brian Kemp of disenfranchising minorities ahead of the presidential election.

As a result, thousands of voters whose applications have been rejected since Oct. 1, 2014, may be allowed to cast a ballot on Nov. 8. The state has also agreed to stop the automatic rejection of applications that don’t exactly match information in state and federal databases as part of the agreement, which was finalized late Monday.

In a letter to U.S. District Judge William O’Kelley, the state Attorney General’s Office said Kemp was voluntarily taking the actions to avoid any unexpected emergency measures imposed by the court as the lawsuit moved forward.

O’Kelley canceled a preliminary injunction hearing early Monday as a result of that effort, which will require a lot of heavy lifting from Kemp’s office so close to the election.

“Any mass data update into a system that large is cause for concern, and one the size and scope that Secretary Kemp has undertaken on his own volition is an order of magnitude larger than any previously undertaken by Georgia election officials outside of a complete system transfer,” Georgia Senior Assistant Attorney General Russell D. Willard wrote to O’Kelley.

Advocacy groups filed the suit two weeks ago, alleging that 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.

The Republican Kemp’s office at the time had called it an unwarranted attack by liberal groups. His office did not immediately respond Monday evening to a request for comment.

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.

The accusations in the lawsuit have been strongly denied by Kemp, who has traveled the state to tout the accessibility of Georgia’s elections this year. The verification process Georgia uses was pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010.

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.

In a statement Monday evening, Kristen Clarke, the Lawyers’ Committee president and executive director, said the groups have agreed to withdraw their emergency motion for the preliminary injunction. “All eligible Americans deserve the right to register and vote and we will work to lift the barriers that deny people the ability to participate in our democracy,” Clarke said.

The suit is the third 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.

Georgia has used a voter registration process that requires all of the letters and numbers making up an applicant’s name, date of birth, driver’s license number and last four digits of his or her 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.

Early voting in the presidential election has already started, as local counties began last week to mail out absentee ballots to voters who requested them. The state's voter registration deadline ahead of the election is Oct. 11.

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