Voting-rights advocates are running out of time in Georgia, where civil-rights groups say more than 50,000 new voter registrations have gone missing since they submitted them to state and local officials earlier this year. But with Election Day less than a week away, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brian Kemp, is insisting that every voter-registration application submitted by Georgians before the registration deadline has been processed. The missing potential voters? He says there aren’t any.
On Tuesday, a county judge sided with Kemp and rejected a request by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the NAACP, and the New Georgia Project to intervene in the dispute, on which the two sides disagree on nearly every detail, including whether there is a problem at all.
“This decision guarantees that there are going to be significant numbers of people who will be disenfranchised and not be put onto the voter-registration rolls even though they are eligible to vote,” said Julie Houk, senior counsel for the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, after the judge’s ruling, which the groups will likely appeal. “What good is early voting if people’s names aren’t on the rolls to vote?”
At stake are the Georgia governor’s mansion and an open U.S. Senate seat, two neck-and-neck brawls in which Democrats have defied national expectations by keeping the races within striking distance. But Democrats in the still-red state can only win if a coalition of new residents, young voters, and minorities turns out for them, exactly the ones advocates say remain at large more than 10 days into early voting.
And at the center of the fight are two young, sometimes brash, diametrically opposed state politicians—Stacey Abrams, the African-American Georgia House minority leader who is seen by Democrats as a fast-rising star, and Kemp, the aggressive young secretary of state who is on most short lists as a future GOP governor contender.
Kemp and Abrams clashed earlier this year when Kemp made highly publicized voter-fraud allegations against the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit Abrams founded to register as many of the 800,000 unregistered black and other minorities in the state as possible. The investigation is ongoing, but Kemp has yet to make public any evidence of widespread fraud by the group. Allies of Abrams call the fraud investigation a witch hunt and say the case of the missing registrations is just the second act of the play against her.
“If Brian Kemp thought he could intimidate the New Georgia Project and get away with it, he will have a rude awakening because an attack on the New Georgia Project is an attack on the ability of organizations to register and engage citizens, and that’s an attack on all of us,” said Francys Johnson, president of the Georgia NAACP. “We will mortgage every asset we have to defend the right to the ballot. It is sacred in Georgia.”
Advocates estimate that parallel efforts by the New Georgia Project, the NAACP, and other civil-rights groups should have put between 130,000 and 150,000 new, mostly minority voters on the state’s active-voter rolls. But according to a side-by-side comparison conducted by the New Georgia Project of the secretary of state’s latest active and pending voter lists, up to 50,000 of the applicants do not show up on either.
“Still today, it’s unclear what happened to tens of thousands of those applications,” said an official with NGP.
People familiar with Georgia’s paper ballot registration process say that even when it is run with the best of intentions, the system is riddled with inefficiencies, human error, poorly trained workers, and imprecise rules about when Kemp’s office is required to finalize the voter lists. “It’s just a big, broken system,” said one Democrat. “These are very real problems. I don’t know if it’s a coordinated attempt to suppress the black vote, but there’s no sense of urgency in Kemp’s office to fix this.”
Not only is there no urgency to fix the system, but Kemp is insistent that the system doesn’t need fixing. He has touted a new online tool for voters to check their personalized voting information and stands behind his aggressive efforts to combat voter fraud, even where Democrats say essentially none exists.
Kemp got the news of the court’s decision as he was campaigning for Gov. Nathan Deal and the rest of the Republican ticket, which he’s a part of, too, as he’s up for reelection in 2014. “We hope this group will put an end to this,” he told Republican supporters in Columbus. “Our hardworking election workers don’t need to be wasting their time with this ridiculous lawsuit.”
Doug Chalmers, managing member of the Political Law Group in Georgia and an election-law expert who worked with John McCain’s presidential campaign, agrees with Kemp that the judge’s decision to stay out of the fight was the right one.
“It’s usually a good idea for judges to look very closely at the merits of lawsuits filed shortly before an election because sometimes they can be used purely as political tools to fire up political supporters,” Chalmers said. “That seems to be what has happened here.”
If 50,000 potential votes seem like a small prize in a state of nearly 10 million, consider that outgoing Sen. Saxby Chambliss was forced into a runoff in 2008 when he finished with 49.8 percent of the vote, about 8,000 votes short of the 50 percent mark required for an outright win under Georgia law.
Chambliss went on to a huge victory in a runoff against Democrat Jim Martin, but both Michelle Nunn’s and Jason Carter’s campaigns have been clear about their hopes to win outright on Election Day. For Nunn in particular, a January runoff would come a full month after all of Georgia’s state and local runoff elections in early December, a prospect that Democrats worry would favor the GOP’s massive existing infrastructure built up over its last decade of near total political domination of the state.
“The stakes are high now, the races are tight,” said the NAACP’s Francys Johnson. “In a close election like this, you don’t have any permanent friends or permanent enemies. You just have one permanent issue, and that’s holding on to power.”