Voting struggles put spotlight on major elections in Georgia

Voters file into the gymnasium at the Smyrna Community Center this month to cast their ballots. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Voters file into the gymnasium at the Smyrna Community Center this month to cast their ballots. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Nowhere have voting rights become a bigger issue than in Georgia, where voter registration purges, long lines and rejected ballots made it the epicenter of voter suppression allegations.

The focus on voting rights could continue to grow after Democrat Stacey Abrams made it the centerpiece of her campaign for governor last year, with some of her supporters saying voter disenfranchisement kept her from winning the election. Abrams refused to concede but lost to Republican Brian Kemp by about 55,000 votes.

Georgia is a battleground in next year’s presidential election, and Democrats see a path to victory if they can rally their supporters and expand their base to include voters who are most vulnerable to laws that limit access to the polls.

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The Democratic candidates for president haven’t talked about voting rights during their first four debates, but that could change when they meet on stage at Tyler Perry’s studios in Atlanta.

Republicans reject accusations that they've created barriers to voting, pointing to Georgia's record 7.4 million registered voters and its automatic voter registration program, which signed up more than 700,000 new voters when they got their driver's licenses over the past three years.

A federal lawsuit filed in the wake of last year’s elections lists many ways voters faced obstacles.

Voters waited in line for more than four hours in metro Atlanta precincts that lacked enough voting machines to handle the record-high turnout for a midterm election.

When they got to the front of the line, some voters were told they weren’t registered and couldn’t cast a ballot. Some of those voters’ registrations were canceled in a purge of more than 500,000 inactive voters in 2017; other voters said they always participate in elections but their registrations went missing anyway.

In addition, voters had fewer polling places after county election officials closed 214 precincts across Georgia since 2012, according to an analysis last year by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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Election officials threw out about 7,500 absentee ballots statewide out of nearly 4 million total votes cast, a rejection rate slightly below the national average. Ballots were disqualified because signatures didn’t match government records or dates were missing on ballot forms. Many of the ballot rejections, more than 1,600, occurred in Gwinnett County, where Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall defeated Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux by 419 votes.

Meanwhile, Kemp took heat for overseeing elections as secretary of state while he was also running for governor.

Kemp’s critics attacked him for the state’s “exact match” policy, which put 53,000 registration applications in pending status because of inconsistencies in government documents, such as hyphens or accents in names. Voters on the pending list were able to cast ballots if they verified their information before voting.

Last year’s election was conducted on Georgia’s electronic voting machines, which lacked a paper record that could have been used to check the accuracy of vote counts. Critics said there would have been no way to detect tampering with the old voting machines, which are being replaced before the 2020 elections.

Since last year, the state has purchased a $107 million voting system that will print ballots. The new voting equipment is scheduled to be rolled out statewide in time for the March 24 presidential primary.

The Georgia General Assembly also passed legislation this year that requires provisional ballots to be mailed to voters with mismatched signatures, provides notification before voter registrations are canceled and ends the “exact match” policy.

With more than 352,000 new voters registered in Georgia since last year’s election, the state is again positioned to be the center of attention for voting rights during an intense presidential campaign.

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