Voter registration fraud alleged at Democratic-backed group

Accusations of voter registration fraud by the Secretary of State’s Office erupted Wednesday into a firestorm over Democrats’ efforts to mobilize tens of thousands of new voters in Georgia.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, announced the investigation after he said he received “numerous complaints” about voter registration applications submitted by the New Georgia Project. State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, founded the group in November.

Abrams and the group’s supporters including, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, immediately denounced the inquiry as an attempt to suppress voting in Georgia, which for decades needed federal supervision to ensure fair elections.

Abrams said the project had communicated frequently with Kemp’s office while undertaking the voter drive and had even pointed out problems with some forms that it had collected.

Kemp, however, said a preliminary inquiry revealed “significant illegal activities” including:

  • Forged voter registration applications.
  • Forged signatures on releases allowing for photocopying of applications.
  • Applications with inaccurate or false information.
  • Applications completed or “forged” after telephone conversations between voters and representatives of the New Georgia Project.
  • Voters being told they were legally required to re-register to vote.
  • Voters being told they needed to apply for a voter identification card because they could not use a driver’s license when voting.

The complaints initially came from six counties, although a Kemp spokesman said the investigation has grown to include 11: Bartow, Butts, Coweta, DeKalb, Effingham, Gwinnett, Henry, Muscogee, Tatnall, Terrell and Toombs. They may significantly impede the project’s goal of registering at least 100,000 new voters by the state’s Oct. 6 deadline. The general election is Nov. 4.

With a governor’s race and a contest for an open U.S. Senate seat this year, there’s been a greater push to draw new voters to the polls.

Political campaigns including those for Republican U.S. Senate candidate David Perdue and GOP-incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal immediately seized on the issue, which was first reported by Channel 2 Action News. “We now know how (Democratic candidate for governor Jason) Carter plans to get to those 200,000 new voters he says he needs” to win, tweeted Brian Robinson, Deal’s campaign spokesman. Deal, too, backed the inquiry.

Better Georgia, a liberal advocacy group, in turn found audio of Kemp speaking this summer at a GOP breakfast in Gwinnett County saying if Democrats were successful in their voter registration efforts, “they can win these elections in November.”

Abrams said she flagged the issue in June when she notified Kemp about the registration drive and its ongoing results. The group had registered 85,000 people, but Abrams said she knew about 11 percent of its forms had been returned incomplete.

State law requires those forms to be turned in anyway to local county registrars and vetted by the state office. Informal talks between the two sides continued until Tuesday, when Kemp’s office surprised project members with a subpoena. The group has until next Tuesday to respond.

Workers with the project underwent background checks and training, Abrams said. They were not paid on a quota system or per signature, something often referred to as a “bounty system” made infamous in 2004 by the low-income advocacy group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

The state Elections Board meets next on Oct. 7, a day after the state’s registration deadline. Issues related to the investigation could be considered for further action.

Fewer than 25 forms out of the 85,000 submitted are involved in the investigation, Abrams said: “What we are being accused of is turning in the information we are required by law to turn in.”

Michael McDonald, an elections expert at the University of Florida and director of the United States Elections Project, said it was not unusual to have some forms flagged among tens of thousands turned in. He likened it to millions of metro Atlantans driving to work at the same time on the same roads every morning: “There are going to be accidents.”

In cases involving voter registration drives, McDonald said, “if there’s fraud, typically it’s fraud against the organization that’s coordinating the drive, not the state.” It was not unusual, he said, to flag such forms given the legal requirement to turn everything in.

“The question is, will this fraud somehow translate into fraudulent votes, and the history of this is no, it does not,” McDonald said. “There are enough checks and balances in place that the vote fraud does not occur,” including a requirement in Georgia to show identification when voting.

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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.