Investigators backed away Wednesday from allegations a Democratic-backed group may have organized voter registration fraud, saying they can confirm 25 forged applications of more than 85,000 submitted to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.
Chief investigator Chris Harvey, however, said the office needed more information from the New Georgia Project to confirm no more fraudulent forms existed — already, it has identified an additional 26 applications as suspicious. The state has extended a deadline for the group to get investigators such information through Sept. 26.
The state also added a 13th county — Paulding — to its inquiry, which Harvey said could take months to complete.
“It may be one person, it may be 25” who committed felonies that carry penalties of as many as 10 years in jail and a $100,000 fine, Harvey said. It is “very rare” to see voter registration fraud in Georgia, he said.
Still, Harvey said he had not seen “anything that leaves me to believe it is a goal to commit voter registration fraud” by the organization or its leaders.
Those remarks are the first by a state official to sum up with detail an inquiry announced last week. In turn, the organization’s leaders said Secretary of State Brian Kemp may be ignoring more than 51,000 unprocessed voter registration applications to instead pursue what they called “a witch hunt.”
With the state’s Oct. 6 registration deadline quickly approaching, state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, and more than a dozen civil rights and religious leaders who support the New Georgia Project called on Kemp — the state’s top elections official — to focus on ensuring ballot access to thousands of new voters they and others have signed up this election year.
Speaking at the state Capitol ahead of the special meeting called by the Georgia Election Board, the leaders stood before 13 plastic bins filled with copies of applications they said have not been processed despite being turned in, in some cases, months ago.
“You don’t have to wear a hood or be a member of the Ku Klux Klan to be engaged in voter suppression,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. “Mr. Secretary of State, stop this dog and pony show, all these accusations and fear campaigning, and do the job you were (elected) to do.”
State officials said there was no backlog in their office. Local officials process the registration forms but can be stymied by incomplete or illegible forms, they said. Counties will send a letter seeking more information if they cannot initially verify a new applicant. Under state law, that applicant must respond within 40 days or be dropped from the system.
Kemp adamantly denied any intent to discourage voters and stressed it was his duty to make sure voter rolls were accurate and that no victims caught up in the forgeries were themselves denied access to the polls. The applications being submitted by the New Georgia Project are not being treated any differently than others, Kemp said.
“We had not said anything derogatory about the New Georgia Project. … We take all the complaints we get and we look into them,” Kemp said. “We’ve been working with the New Georgia Project for many months, and the issues we had did not rise to the level it’s at now until the last few weeks.”
The answer did not satisfy the lone Democrat on the five-member board, former state party Chairman David Worley: “So we have 25 forgeries and 26 we can’t figure out and might be forgeries,” Worley said. “That’s about 50 out of 85,000 applicants. So, have you done the math on that?”
Harvey said multiple offense are involved, including making false statements, falsifying voter registration and providing fraudulent information. No one did the math at the meeting, but the number of forgeries or suspicious forms highlighted in the presentation amounts to about 0.06 percent.
The investigation formally opened May 13 stemming from complaints in Butts County, Harvey said. At the time, he said, investigators thought it may be an isolated incident, including voter registration canvassers giving inaccurate information about people being required to re-register to vote.
But by mid-August, reports began arriving from DeKalb, Gwinnett and Henry counties about suspicious voter registration applications. Local election officials confirmed some forgeries on registration applications. State officials then found additional problems.
Abrams had originally identified 24 applications involved in the investigation of the group, which she founded in November. State officials, however, had repeatedly refused to give an exact number before Wednesday’s board meeting. National experts have said that it is not unusual to have some forms questioned, and that fraud most often is the work of individuals and not part of a coordinated effort by an organization.
Among the complaints Kemp said he has received were applications with inaccurate or false information, applications completed or “forged” after phone conversations between voters and representatives of the group, and voters being told they had to re-register to vote.
Abrams said the group contacted Kemp’s office several months ago about the voter drive and has been in a “working relationship” for the past three months. She has also said the organization flagged problems with some of the forms it had collected. State law requires those forms to be turned in to local county registrars anyway and vetted by the state office.
In addition to Paulding, the counties now involved in the investigation are Bartow, Butts, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Effingham, Gwinnett, Henry, Muscogee, Tatnall, Terrell and Toombs.
A closer look at inquiry
State investigators for the first time Wednesday detailed what they found in most of the 13 counties involved in an inquiry into allegations of voter registration fraud:
- Bartow: A monthlong delay in returning completed applications; false information given to voters about being required to re-register in order to vote.
- Butts: People given inaccurate information about being required to re-register in order to vote.
- Cobb: One confirmed forgery.
- Coweta: Five suspicious applications.
- DeKalb: Three confirmed forgeries; three forged waivers allowing the New Georgia Project to store personal information; a suspicious application.
- Effingham: Five suspicious applications.
- Gwinnett: Three confirmed forgeries; four suspicious applications.
- Henry: Six confirmed forgeries; two suspicious applications.
- Muscogee: Three confirmed forgeries; three suspicious applications.
- Tattnall: Two confirmed forgeries; 1 suspicious application.
- Terrell: Three confirmed forgeries.
- Toombs: Three confirmed forgeries; three suspicious applications.
How is the forgery being done? According to investigators:
- Some voters have reported being contacted by telephone and being asked questions about registering to vote by members of the New Georgia Project.
- Some voters have no idea how applications with their names (and often inaccurate identifying or address information) have been submitted.
- Some unknown address lists are being used in the field by the New Georgia Project.
- Some members of the New Georgia Project have admitted to registering family members and forging the applications.
The story so far
Sept. 10: Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp announces an investigation into the Democratic-backed New Georgia Project after receiving "numerous complaints" about voter registration applications. State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who founded the project, said the inquiry involves fewer than 25 forms out of 85,000 that the group had turned in. State officials did not give a number.
Sept. 11: Local-level elections officials in some of the 11 counties at the center of the investigation report receiving odd paper forms, seeing similar signatures and hearing stories of phone calls and letters informing voters that they need to re-register.
Friday: Cobb County is added to the investigation, which is already looking into complaints in Bartow, Butts, Coweta, DeKalb, Effingham, Gwinnett, Henry, Muscogee, Tatnall, Terrell and Toombs counties.
Wednesday: The chief investigator in the case announces at a special meeting of the Georgia Election Board that the inquiry involves 25 forged registration forms and 26 others he calls suspicious. Paulding County is added to the investigation. Supporters of the New Georgia Project call the inquiry a witch hunt aimed at suppressing the vote. They also question why 51,000 of the voter registration applications that the group turned in have yet to be processed.
To see more on the investigation, go to MyAJC.com.
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