Voting rights controversies have taken center stage in Georgia’s nationally watched race for governor, further polarizing an electorate choosing between two rivals who have long fought over ballot access.
More than 53,000 voter registration applications have been put on hold because of discrepancies in government records. Over 1.4 million voters’ registrations have been canceled since 2012, often because they didn’t vote for several elections in a row.
And hundreds of absentee ballots are being rejected, especially in Gwinnett County, because signatures don’t match or some information is missing. These disputes have triggered a spate of federal lawsuits — at least five have now been filed — that seek last-minute voting changes. In each case, state and local officials say their efforts are aimed at preventing voter fraud.
The incidents are getting droves of attention, turning the state into the backdrop of countless national stories — and the butt of jokes on late-night television — focused on whether the right to vote is being threatened in the cradle of the civil rights movement.
Meanwhile, as in-person early voting started this week, voters swarmed to the polls, some of them waiting in three-hour lines. The number of people who have voted early so far this year has tripled compared with this point in the last midterm election in 2014.
The inevitable clash over voting rights is playing out amid escalating finger-pointing between Georgia’s candidates for governor.
Democrat Stacey Abrams has seized on the voting obstacles to paint her opponent as an incompetent bureaucrat who is using his position as secretary of state to discourage new and infrequent voters, many of them minorities, from exercising their rights.
Republican Brian Kemp has shot back, going on national television to accuse Abrams of supporting the right of “illegals to vote” and warning that a lawsuit filed by her allies could threaten the integrity of the ballot box.
While voting fraud is rare in Georgia, Kemp can point to several cases.
Allegations of forged voter registration forms in 2014 resulted in the State Election Board referring 14 canvassers for potential prosecution last year; their cases remain open and they haven’t been charged. The canvassers worked for a independent company retained by the New Georgia Project, a voter registration drive founded by Abrams. The New Georgia Project denied wrongdoing.
And this month, Georgia’s judicial watchdog agency opened an investigation into a $50 discount on municipal court fines in the city of South Fulton for residents who registered to vote or confirmed their voter status.
In a race already defined by stark policy divides on most of the state’s most pressing debates, the back-and-forth over the right to vote reopened a deep vein of animosity building between the two candidates for much of this decade.
Georgia voters, concerned about voting integrity and their ability to cast a ballot, are caught in the middle.
Chaya Renee James, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Georgia, tried to vote for the first time this election by mailing an absentee ballot. But Gwinnett County election officials rejected her ballot because she made a mistake when filling out the part of the form labeled “Oath of Elector,” writing in her name instead of the name of the county.
James is worried that high rates of rejected ballots will discourage voters, and she said she’s lost confidence in election officials who are throwing out ballots with small errors like hers.
“It’s really hard not to think that something is up. People are being hindered when it comes to voting,” said James, who now plans to vote at a county early-voting site instead of by mail. “I’m not willing to refrain from voting. That doesn’t help anything.”
But voters such as Larry Berry of Gainesville said it’s important for government officials to ensure only U.S. citizens are able to cast a ballot in the election. He’s concerned that residents in the country without documentation could illegally use their driver’s licenses to request a ballot. Being a U.S. citizen is a requirement to vote in Georgia.
“I don’t think they should be allowed to vote,” said Berry, 69. “So many have slipped through the system. We ought to get ICE in on the operation. If they’re trying to break the law to vote, they should let them deport them.”
One voter on the pending list, Carol Hollis of Americus, said her registration application was put on hold because her Georgia driver’s license listed an incorrect birth date. Hollis, 67, said she’s determined to talk with county election officials to ensure she’s able to vote.
“They sent me a letter and I called them and I thought everything was OK,” Hollis said. “I want to be able to vote. I’d better get down there and get this taken care of.”
The voting rights fight has played out as a debate over voting integrity versus voting access.
Kemp built up his political profile in the state as a no-nonsense overseer of state elections who insisted that his policies helped block illegal ballots and sparked a record jump in voter registration. There are now more than 6.9 million registered voters in Georgia, up from 6 million during the last midterms four years ago.
Abrams made a national name through her voter registration projects and her clashes with Kemp, whom she’s dubbed an “architect of voter suppression” for his support of photo ID laws and adherence to “exact match” standards she says disproportionately target minorities.
Both have tried to weaponize a spate of recent developments to energize their bases at last week’s launch of a crucial three-week period of in-person early voting.
Voting rights issues have become a flash point in the race in part because of worries that minority voters could be disenfranchised. About 80 percent of voters whose registrations are pending because of discrepancies are minorities.
But some of the names on the list of pending voters are clearly illegitimate. For example, two applicants listed their names as “Jesus Christ,” and some of the people on the list might not be eligible to vote because they’re not U.S. citizens.
Abrams’ supporters hope that throngs of voters will feel motivated to show up at the polls when they perceive a threat to their voting rights. She paints Kemp’s support for strict voting laws as a “larger pattern of behavior” that includes an accidental disclosure of confidential voter data to media outlets and political parties in 2015 and the canceling of voters from the rolls since he took office in 2010.
“He tries to tilt the playing field in his favor or in the favor of his party,” Abrams said. “This should not require the erosion of public trust.”
Her allies have gone a step further, pummeling Kemp for his refusal to immediately step down from his role in overseeing the state’s elections. Kemp has long refused to resign, pointing to others who stayed in the job while running for higher office.
One of the harshest critiques came from U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, who said that decision is “an attack on democracy and a gross violation of the public trust.”
For Kemp, too, it’s a chance to rile up his conservative base.
He has accused Abrams of trying to gin up a controversy over his office’s compliance with the 2017 “exact match” law that requires voter registration information to match driver’s licenses, state ID cards or Social Security records. Potential voters can still participate if they show photo ID when they go to vote or beforehand.
And he went on Fox News to claim that his Democratic opponent wants “illegals to vote,” citing Abrams’ comments at a rally with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren where she said “the documented and undocumented” were among a range of groups that are part of the blue wave invigorating Democrats.
“It means she wants illegals to vote in Georgia. This is a shocking development in the campaign,” said Kemp, who also invoked a lawsuit filed by voting rights groups that seeks to count some provisional ballots flagged by elections officials as being cast by potential noncitizens.
“Hardworking Georgians should decide who their governor is,” he said. “Not people here illegally, like my opponent wants.”
Abrams’ supporters called this a distraction from other debates in the race for governor. And at a campaign stop in Macon, Abrams called on Kemp to “stop spreading this very, very wrong rhetoric.”
“I find it very disappointing that he would willfully mislead the public and misstate what I’ve said,” she said. “I’ve never once argued for anyone who was not legally allowed to vote in the state of Georgia to be allowed to vote. What I’ve asked for is that he allow those who are legally allowed to vote to actually cast a ballot.”
While other states also have stringent voter verification laws and policies, Georgia stands out because it has so many of them, including registration cancellations of inactive voters, exact match and photo ID, said John Powers, an attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is representing civil rights groups suing Kemp.
“Georgia is unique because it really rolls the whole suite of potential voter suppression measures into one package,” Powers said. “Many of these voters may ultimately be able to jump through these hoops, but some of these voters, particularly Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens, face barriers that might make it more difficult for them to participate in the electoral process.”
The Lawyers’ Committee lawsuit asks a federal judge to roll back Georgia’s “exact match” law, which was passed last year, and move pending voters to the state’s list of active voters.
Kemp has reiterated that all 53,000 of the state’s pending voters will be able to cast ballots once they show photo ID at the polls, which is required anyway.
Will the fight help further motivate voters already polarized by stark policy contrasts and opposing views on President Donald Trump?
Betty Tyson Keller thinks so. The retired nurse was already planning to vote for Abrams. But she showed up at an Abrams rally on a sweltering weekday morning in a Brunswick park, and she ticked through the recent spate of voting rights issues before letting out a sigh.
“It really bothers me,” said Keller, who is black. “I told people to watch — there’s something going on in Georgia. He’s going to use stupid methods to try to stop us from voting.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is putting issues out front in its coverage of this year’s election. Topics the AJC has already explored include health care, gun rights and the influence of dark money in fundraising. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state approaches Election Day on Nov. 6.