Voter registration dispute hangs over secretary of state race

In court, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp has had to justify a voting system accused of mishandling tens of thousands of voter application forms. From the campaign stump, the incumbent has also fended off charges that his office conducted a politically motivated witch hunt against a prominent voter registration group.

The two controversies represent the greatest threats to Kemp’s re-election hopes. The 50-year-old from Athens has called the former accusation a frivolous lawsuit from liberal lawyers. He also shook himself of the latter allegation, saying a voter fraud investigation into the New Georgia Project’s more than 85,000 voter registration forms — with about 50 confirmed forgeries so far — was part of his duty to investigate discrepancies in elections.

“While the overheated and racially inflammatory rhetoric of some involved is unfortunate and disappointing, it does not change the simple facts involved,” Kemp wrote in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed on Sept. 26. “My office did not ‘target’ them.”

Kemp sees the complaints as political posturing during an election year. But Democratic challenger Doreen Carter, 51, believes they show signs of a department in peril. The Lithonia accountant and business leader accuses Kemp of failing to be an advocate for small businesses while manipulating the voter registration process — also for political gains.

“When it comes to voters, we need someone who can stand up and say we need increased access to polls,” Carter said. “We need a secretary of state that is a leader and will keep Georgians first.”

While polling for most down-ticket races is scant, Kemp led Carter 48 percent to 39 percent in a poll this month by Public Policy Polling.

Lawsuit, fraud investigation

The Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights originally said applications from more than 55,000 voters in five counties were lost despite being submitted properly and by the state’s deadline, according to the nationally based group’s lawsuit. The number of affected voters is less now, since two counties have reached agreements to be dropped from the complaint.

The remaining counties — Clayton, Fulton and Muscogee — say they approved all valid applications they received. Kemp said the lawsuit needlessly targeted his department, since the local registrars are responsible for approving forms. As for the purportedly lost applications, the state’s elections chief has repeatedly said no eligible voters have been left out.

“Every single one of them that met the deadline of Oct. 6 for the general election has been processed,” Kemp said at an Atlanta Press Club debate on Oct. 19. “We have not had one single person come into our office and say, ‘I am registered and I am not on the rolls.’ ”

A decision hasn’t been reached yet in court, though Carter believes her opponent shouldn’t escape scrutiny.

“He made a point in saying that he was the chief,” Carter said. “Even though the voter registration forms are processed on the local level, ultimately the buck stops with him.”

While the flagged forms submitted by the New Georgia Project are still being investigated, Kemp said none of the registration group’s remaining 87,000 applications are being held back ahead of the Nov. 4 election. Carter says that situation was mishandled as well.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t address fraud,” Carter said. “I believe that if they had kept the lines of communication open on the front end, they could have worked it out without it being Democrats vs. Republicans.”

Technology upgrades, budget cuts

One of Kemp’s biggest initiatives was to digitize the elections process, resulting in an online voter registration app and website that have been used by more than 70,000 Georgians to date. The technology lets new voters sign up online and makes updating crucial information, such as a change to an address, much easier.

The office also automated its licensing apparatus for professionals, such as doctors and funeral directors. Kemp boasted of the move, saying it streamlined resources and made the department more efficient.

But when lawmakers passed a state immigration law in 2011 that made applicants show “secure and verifiable” identification to renew their licenses, the Secretary of State’s Office was flooded with extra paperwork and the online system was stymied.

It took until 2013 for lawmakers to fix the issue.

“You have to look and see what happened,” Kemp said. “We kept getting budget cuts and unfunded mandates for the agency.”

That year, Kemp announced layoffs to the department’s public records division, which is responsible for maintaining the state Archives.

Facing what he said was a 40 percent budget cut and a 30 percent reduction in workforce, Kemp eliminated public viewings of the records, establishing an appointment-only system to save money.

In the end, Gov. Nathan Deal intervened with a plan to move the archives under the purview of the University System of Georgia, which lawmakers approved in 2013. Kemp’s office also lost oversight of professional boards for pharmacists, nurses and accountants in recent years.

“Let’s be clear — that was something the governor had to jump in and salvage,” Carter said. “Kemp wasn’t showing leadership.”

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