A high-profile Democratic voting group faces new scrutiny

Seven months after an ambitious effort to register left-leaning voters first clashed with Georgia’s secretary of state, the New Georgia Project remains under sharp scrutiny. But now it’s coming from fellow Democrats and donors concerned about the group’s results and transparency.

It comes as a new Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis reveals discrepancies between the number of voter registration applications the project reported submitting in five key counties and the amount registrars said they actually received.

In an exclusive interview with the AJC, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams — whose political future could be on the line — defended her group’s work and said its efforts will grow.

“I cannot imagine having delivered a better outcome given our objective,” she said. “To accomplish in six months the collection of more than 86,000 applications reflects the good work done by hundreds. I am deeply pleased by it.”

But the result was only 46,000 new voters added to the rolls, according to Abrams.

Abrams’ legal scuffle with Secretary of State Brian Kemp, with charges of voter fraud and countercharges of voter suppression, grabbed attention nationally as Democrats claimed they were close to turning Georgia into an election battleground.

But for all the money spent to find and turn out new voters, Democrats barely moved the needle. Jason Carter, the party’s gubernatorial challenger, got 45 percent of the vote in November’s race for governor; former Gov. Roy Barnes got 43 percent in 2010.

In late February, Democratic donors and strategists gathered at a Midtown Atlanta law firm to discuss what went wrong. When the New Georgia Project’s work came under question, several who attended the meeting described a sharp inquiry that mirrored questions resonating in political circles: Where did the money go?

New Georgia Project Director Nse’ Ufot, who was at the meeting, said the group would submit tax-filing documents with financial information later this year, but that it wouldn’t disclose more detailed expenditures and risk “breaking the confidentiality of our donors.” Abrams cited donors who have “continued to support our efforts” as a sign of confidence in the group, though she wouldn’t disclose details.

That answer isn’t enough to satisfy some on Abrams’ side of the aisle who have raised new questions about the accountability of an organization that some operatives have said raised as much as $4 million. The questions were first aired publicly by the Atlanta alt-weekly Creative Loafing in a February story on what it called “The New Georgia Problem.”

“If reports are true that the New Georgia Project raised $4 million but registered fewer voters than in 2010, they would expect additional scrutiny of their efforts and be open to learning from what didn’t work last year,” said Bryan Long of Better Georgia, a left-leaning activist group.

According to voter file information compiled by Long, there were 239,272 new registrants in Georgia in 2010, including 83,896 African-Americans. In 2014, through Oct. 29, there were just 186,297 new registrants, including 72,363 African-Americans.

A prickly problem

Long before field operatives knocked on their first door, Abrams and the director she tapped, Lauren Groh-Wargo, lined up dozens of attorneys and crafted a crisis management strategy for all manner of problems.

It was never intended to go public, Abrams said, but it burst into the spotlight in June after a Savannah field staffer told a local TV station he questioned whether the group was a “legitimate business.”

The group quickly launched a website and marshaled a public relations effort to control its message. Over the next few months, about 800 field staffers gathered more than 86,000 voter registration applications. Abrams and her deputies described a verification process that involved phone calls, database checks and retraining for staffers flagged for problems.

The project’s tactics eventually earned the attention of Kemp’s office, which launched a still ongoing investigation into allegations of fraud after receiving complaints.

The legal back-and-forth sharpened when the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights sued Kemp’s office in October claiming the Republican slow-walked 56,001 of the group’s voter registrations ahead of a tight election and alleging the New Georgia Project could not find the names of thousands of applicants on the voting rolls.

Abrams and her deputies acknowledged that about 11 percent of the applications it submitted were incomplete, but she said that figure is consistent with other large-scale voting drives. She said the group followed the letter of the law by submitting each of the forms it collected to state officials, and that an unfinished form doesn’t mean it’s invalid or fraudulent.

By the end of the saga, Kemp said about 40,000 of the project’s alleged missing voters were actually on the rolls, 10,000 were pending and 6,000 were invalid — they were dead, they were felons or they could not be found. A judge in October rejected the civil rights group’s legal claim.

In an interview, Kemp said that investigators are working to track down canvassers and voters who appeared multiple times in the project’s applications. He attributed any issues with getting the project’s voters on the rolls to the “sloppiness” of canvassers and not a dark political motive.

“We knew all along the truth is on our side. We don’t pretend to be perfect, but we work hard every day to get close,” he said. “I guess they feel like if they keep saying there were missing voters enough, people will believe them. But that’s not enough.”

Julie Houk, an attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee, said the criticism of the New Georgia Project is “preventing people from focusing on what’s causing these problems that prevent people from getting on the rolls in Georgia.”

The project, meanwhile, said it reached its goal of submitting about 120,000 voter applications with the help of the NAACP, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and about a dozen other partner groups who completed about 35,000 forms.

It said many of those groups wanted to stay under wraps, meaning the AJC could not independently verify the numbers. The project told the AJC in September that its allies at that point had submitted 20,000 applications.

The New Georgia Project claims it was responsible for submitting 81,000 voter registration applications after subtracting about 5,000 duplicates, and of those, 46,000 became voters on the rolls by Election Day. But the organization could not say how many of those people voted.

Other details are difficult to pin down. Organizers said they must withhold some other details that critics want exposed because of the investigation and litigation. Even the group’s files are kept under lock and key in a small storage room at an Atlanta law office.

Critics are calling for the group to give a full accounting of how it spent funding that poured in from national donors such as George Soros, a prominent billionaire financier of liberal causes. The project is required to submit a tax filing to the Internal Revenue Service this year, but as a nonpolitical charity, the group is not bound by more stringent Federal Election Commission disclosure rules.

“The New Georgia Project needs to be open and transparent,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat and an Abrams critic. “It seems as if other people — donors, supporters — have the same legitimate concerns that I have about transparency. It makes it even more troubling that we know no more now than we did then.”

The questions swirling around the project pose a prickly problem for Abrams, a rising star in the Democratic Party whose political ambitions will be tied to her group’s future. She acknowledged as much in the interview, though she called her voter registration work a “stand-alone process” that shouldn’t be conflated with her political persona.

“Those two things are separate,” said Abrams, who added: “It’s disappointing to find work with good intentions criticized by the people whose constituents would benefit the most.”

Voting discrepancies

An AJC review of the lawsuit filed on behalf of the New Georgia Project has raised new questions about its voter registration efforts.

The lawsuit states the project submitted 81,606 applications — about 5,000 short of its claimed final tally. It also lists figures for five targeted counties, and each told the AJC it received fewer applications than the project claimed it had submitted.

The lawsuit says the organization submitted 11,308 applications to DeKalb County and 11,222 to Muscogee County, but elections officials in both those counties told the AJC they each received only about 8,000 applications. Clayton County’s registrar said she only received about half of the 3,157 applications the project said it submitted. And officials in Chatham County said they received 6,202 applications — roughly 500 fewer than the group reported.

A Fulton County spokeswoman said the estimated number of applications the county received fell nearly 2,000 short of the 36,982 the project stated in the lawsuit. Of those, Fulton County said about 23,000 were submitted, 8,000 were mailed to other counties and 4,000 weren’t processed due to missing information.

The New Georgia Project stands by its numbers, which were attached to the lawsuit in a sworn affidavit. The group’s attorney, Dara Lindenbaum, said she’s uncertain where the county figures came from and said that many counties said they weren’t keeping detailed records.

An AJC survey of about 40 counties highlighted the difficulties in tracking the project’s progress. Some counties provided only rough estimates of how many applications they received, while others said they kept no records of which outside groups submitted applications.

Abrams and her deputies said the group was reviewing its policies, though they didn’t discuss specifics.

What remains clear is that the project isn’t going away. Abrams said it remained focused on an ambitious long-term goal to register 800,000 new voters over the next five years, a move that could redefine Georgia’s electorate.

“We still have more than 700,000 people out there who want to be good citizens and need to be brought into the fold,” she said. “And reaching out to them and letting them embrace their franchise is our fundamental mission.”

Staff writer Kristina Torres contributed to this article.

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