Georgians stung by confusion over voting law

Reform stalled after Kemp balked at proposal

More than a year after an ill-fated state investigation of absentee voters sparked allegations of racism and voter suppression in rural Georgia, officials have not issued a planned reform that might prevent a recurrence.

The reform was aimed at clarifying the state's absentee voting law, which was being interpreted as making it a crime for anyone to even place a voter's sealed ballot in a mailbox with their consent. Following the controversy and an Atlanta Journal-Constitution examination of the case, the Georgia Attorney General's Office told voting officials this March that it would likely issue advice to clarify interpretation of the decade-old law. The advice, it said, would come "presumably" by an Elections Board meeting to take place in June.

But Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office helped lead the controversial investigation, balked. Now, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office said the issue is still under review.

“There is no set date” for when the guidance will come, the spokesman, Nicholas Genesi, recently wrote to the AJC.

Confusion over the law, which experts say was clumsily written, has resulted in trauma for citizens across the state. While the law says voters must “mail or personally deliver” their ballots to the voting office, state officials have interpreted the law as requiring voters to “personally mail” their ballot. Investigators have also targeted people for helping voters fill out an absentee ballot envelope.

More than 100 felony voter fraud charges were brought against African-American voter activists in Brooks County, mostly for helping willing voters to cast ballots how they wanted. The charges hung over their heads for years, until the entire case collapsed in December 2014.

Months after the close of that case, some Telfair County residents still stood accused of violating the law in 2012. Telfair County Sheriff Chris Steverson defended some of his constituents, including his mother-in-law, whose cases were brought before the state Elections Board this past March. The board, with Kemp presiding, halted cases against two women who assisted relatives in voting, to be resolved with a letter instructing them on proper procedure. One of those whose cases were halted, Martha Williams, said she only knows she’s in the clear because her son-in-law, Steverson, went to the meeting. She received no notice from the state.

Most of the other cases were bound over to the Georgia Attorney General’s office for possible sanctions, such as fines.

"These Georgians remain with a cloud over them, wondering, 'When am I going to be arrested?' for something that doesn't constitute a violation of the law," Steverson said recently, speaking not only of his county's case. "That's a huge burden on these citizens…It's an embarassment to the state of Georgia."

Steversen, a former Secretary of State’s investigator himself, said a couple of the people involved in the Telfair case have resolved never to vote in elections again: “They said it’s just not worth what they’ve gone through.”

One of the most mystifying targets of the Brooks County investigation was Debra Dennard, a young black woman who was arrested and jailed for helping her disabled parents to vote, something expressly allowed in the law.

Dennard lived under felony charges for just shy of three years, until prosecutors dropped the entire Brooks County case. Her mother died in the mean time. Her father in an AJC interview said that Debra helped him vote as he wished and took his ballot to the post office for him with his consent. The AJC reporter saw that he sits in a wheelchair, has visible diabetes damage to his hands, and is missing both feet. The investigator’s own interview notes marked him as disabled, and her mother as illiterate, both legitimate openings for assistance by a close relative.

Taking a willing voter’s completed, sealed ballot to the mailbox was the basis for dozens of felony charges in Brooks County.

Other charges involved other assistance, most of it to voters who consented. All charges were either rejected by a jury or dismissed.

But the bitter aftertaste lives on in the south Georgia county. The election in question unseated a white majority from the school board for the first time, and some of those arrested were actually victorious black school board members. Given that investigators interviewed more than 400 absentee voters in the sparse community to get to the bottom of it, suspicion set in among many blacks that the goal was to intimidate and suppress their vote. Indeed, some locals said they would never vote again as a result.

Kemp was unfazed.

“That’s the way we’ve been interpreting the law,” he said.

Officials with his office repeatedly explained that they had always done it this way.

On another issue, that of helping a voter fill out the envelope that holds his or her absentee ballot, Senior Assistant Attorney General Russ Willard said he was issuing advice immediately that this was not a violation of the law: “There’s no equivocation on that point.”

That followed an adamant statement to the exact opposite from Chris Harvey, who was the state’s chief investigator on voting and now is the office’s director of elections.

“Contrary to Sheriff Steverson’s understanding, filling out an absentee ballot envelope oath of elector (which includes writing the voter’s address and date of birth) is assisting under the law…He indicated that was not a violation of the code; I put to the board that it is and that the board has always upheld that it is.”

In the case of envelopes, though, Harvey immediately accepted the attorney general’s advice.

But when Willard told the board that the General Assembly had not meant to criminalize taking the ballot to the mail, and that guidance was in the offing, Kemp told the AJC he might or might not follow it when it came.

“I don’t know that there can be just an arbitrary decision by the attorney general’s office,” Kemp said in an interview. “I mean we have precedent that’s out there and we have what the law and the rules say today.”