One evening in July 2017, computers at the Georgia Secretary of State’s office were set to a monumental task. Through the night, they would sift through a list of 6.6 million registered voters, seeking out those who didn’t belong.
By dawn, more than 500,000 people were registered no more.
This purge, according to election-law experts, may represent the largest mass disenfranchisement in U.S. history.
It also underscores how Georgia – where people once died for the right to vote – has systematically enacted some of the strictest voting laws in the nation over the past two decades. While officials say the laws are aimed at preventing election fraud, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights says no state has done more than Georgia in recent years to make voting difficult, especially for minorities.
These efforts went relatively unnoticed before this year’s campaign for governor. That has changed amid what appears to be a historically tight race and, perhaps more important, claims that Republicans are engaging in voter suppression.
The focus on who gets to vote may have been inevitable in this election. Republican candidate Brian Kemp, the secretary of state since 2010, has avidly enforced and advocated for strict voting laws. Democrat Stacey Abrams, a former state legislator, is a long-time voting-rights activist. She also could become the first African-American woman elected governor of any state.
The points of conflict are many: An “exact match” law that put 50,000 would-be voters into electoral purgatory over even slight inconsistencies in their registration applications. The closing of voting precincts in areas with substantial African-American populations. The diversion of a busload of black senior citizens headed to the polls for early voting.
Nothing, however, generated more controversy than Georgia’s massive purge, authorized by a 20-year-old law whose advocates distilled the right to vote to a pithy phrase: Use it or lose it.
Since 2012, according to federal and state data, Georgia has removed about 1.4 million people from the voting rolls. Some died. Some moved away. Some lost their voting rights after being convicted of felonies.
But most simply stopped participating in elections, an analysis of canceled registrations shows. They didn’t use their right to vote, so they lost it.
Kemp, whose job puts him in charge of the election in which he is running, and other officials say they are following the law. Both federal and state laws require voters lists to be accurate and up to date to help maintain election integrity. Officials say saboteurs could more easily assume the identities of inactive voters than of those who cast ballots in virtually every election.
But this year, the convergence of Georgia’s numerous efforts to carefully regulate voting is straining the state’s election system, said Jonathan Brater, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
“The combined effect is to put voters – especially racial minorities – at risk of disenfranchisement,” Brater wrote in a blog post last week.
The post’s title: “What’s the Matter with Georgia?”
‘Gateway to voting’
In 1965, before the Voting Rights Act took effect, 27.4 percent of eligible African-Americans and other minorities were registered to vote in Georgia. Three years later, that rate had almost doubled, to 52.6 percent.
But in a recent report, the Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan federal panel, harshly criticized Georgia’s more recent treatment of minority voters.
The commission listed five restrictions it considers particularly onerous: requiring government-issued photo identification to cast a ballot; requiring documentary proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or a passport, to register; aggressive purges of inactive voters; reductions in early voting; and moving or closing polling places.
Georgia is the only state that imposed all five restrictions, the commission found. The proof of citizenship law was never implemented, however.
The commission’s criticism came as many states were busy revising laws that regulate voter registration – “the gateway to voting,” as Dylan Lynch of the National Conference of State Legislatures put it. Twenty-three states passed voter registration laws this year, compared to six in 2014.
Many of those laws seek to make registration easier or to keep more voters eligible to cast ballots.
In California, for example, lawmakers instructed election officials to communicate with newly registered voters by text or email to let them know their applications are being processed. Delaware legislators ordered that the state find a “non-discriminatory” method for identifying registered voters who may have become ineligible by moving out of state. They said the current system, the same one that Georgia and 35 other states use, relies on a change-of-address database that contains too much erroneous information.
In many respects, the way Georgia maintains its voter list sits firmly in the mainstream. It is among 44 states that routinely flag inactive voters, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State. It is one of 38 states that restrict voting by people judged mentally incompetent.
But in canceling the registration of people who stop participating in elections, Georgia is a definite outlier.
Since 1997, it has been one of nine states that purge voters for a lack of contact with the election system. Voting-rights advocates say it is unfair to take away a citizen’s right to vote. But the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in an Ohio case, recently upheld the practice.
Regardless, said Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for Kemp’s office, “it’s not just the lack of voting” that leads to cancellation, “it’s the lack of contact.”
The night of July 28 last year, the secretary of state’s computers hunted for voters who were registered but far from engaged.
Those voters had gone into inactive status after three years in which they had no contact with the election system. They had not updated their registrations with new addresses during that time. They had ignored mailings from their county election offices. They hadn’t signed petitions seeking to get a candidate or an issue on the ballot.
And they hadn’t voted.
At the end of that three years, state officials mailed these voters notices that gave them 30 days to confirm that they still wanted to be on the voting rolls. Regardless of whether they wanted to stay registered, they then failed to vote in either of the next two general elections.
The 1997 law – passed when Democrats controlled the Legislature and the governor’s office, as Kemp’s office points out – instructed election officials to clean up voter lists every odd-numbered year, between statewide elections. The Secretary of State’s office did not carry out the required maintenance in 2015 because of a legal challenge, Broce, the spokeswoman, said. As a result, she said, the number of cancellations spiked in 2017.
The process can take as long as seven years. But for many of the people purged in 2017, the three years without contact ended in September 2014, when that year’s early voting period concluded. Then they didn’t vote in in that year’s general election two months later, or in 2016. They went from disengaged to disenfranchised in six years.
Kemp’s office has described the process as “automated.” But Broce said three officials from the office oversee the cancellations to guard against widescale errors. Kemp is not one of them.
“They all have to review and sign off on the identified list of people,” Broce said.
The July 2017 list identified 534,119 voters who were no longer eligible; 80 percent had not voted either in 2014 or 2016 and had had no other contact with the election system in years.
Throughout 2017, the state purged 665,791 people, or about 10 percent of all registered voters. The law does not require the state to notify them of the cancellations.
More than 130,000 of those purged last year had registered to vote in 2008, the year of Barrack Obama’s historic presidential candidacy. Nearly half were minorities.
Officials suspect many voted for Obama that year – and never returned to the polls or made other contact with the election system.
What no one knows is whether some might have been similarly motivated to vote for the first black nominee for governor in Georgia. If they go the polls this year, they’ll be turned away.
The right not to vote
In 2016, Common Cause and the NAACP challenged Georgia’s method of purging voters, arguing in a lawsuit that it violated a First Amendment guarantee – the right not to vote. Just like voting, the suit claimed, withholding a vote “also constitutes political speech.”
“The First Amendment protects not only the right of a qualified citizen to vote,” the suit said. “It also protects the right of a citizen not to vote.”
In a hearing in federal court, a lawyer for the state argued that “there is no established constitutional right to vote. But, she said, “any registered voter is free not to vote in any election they so desire.”
A federal judge dismissed the suit, but an appeals court reinstated it while the Supreme Court considered the Ohio case. After the high court upheld Ohio’s voter-list procedures, the suit was dropped.
So the purges stand, subject to rulings in recently filed lawsuits.
How many of the hundreds of thousands of purged voters actually want to be registered is not clear.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution tried last week to get in touch with 50 people randomly chosen from the list of 2017’s purged voters. Twenty clearly would be ineligible to vote in Georgia: 17 moved out of state, two were convicted of felonies and one had died. Most of the rest left a trail of address changes and disconnected telephone numbers.
For some, voting clearly is not a priority.
Anthony Ervin, 52, of Decatur registered in 2008 but hasn’t voted since. He showed no surprise at the news that he had been purged from the rolls.
“I don’t know nothing about it,” he said.
Jenny Arter, 55, of Kingsland registered in 2010 – and never once cast a ballot. Her reasons reflect both a deep cynicism and a distinct political viewpoint.
When Obama was running for president, she said, “I didn’t care.”
When Donald Trump ran, “I didn’t care.”
“What is the point of me voting?” Arter said, her voice rising. “They’re going to elect whoever they’re going to elect. It doesn’t matter what the people want.”
She lowered her voice before adding, “That’s just the way I feel.”