Georgia’s History of Voting Controversies Makes it Focus of Election Watchers Come November
By Kristina Torres, New York Times
ATLANTA -- Georgia voters over the past four years have been served legal summonses to prove where they lived, purged from the rolls and rejected from registering to vote.
The question is whether any of that will have a chilling effect on voter participation this presidential election.
Voting rights advocacy groups have made Georgia one of the most closely watched states in the nation, citing such examples to highlight their fears that the state's top elections agency has become too partisan, has tried to hinder registrations or find ways to suppress turnout.
The concerns are being amplified by the fact that Georgia could be in play in the presidential race, with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton slightly ahead of Republican candidate Donald Trump in some state polls, including one done earlier this month for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp adamantly denies those allegations, crisscrossing the state to tout the accessibility and security of elections here. This November, he has said, will be no different, despite critics' assertions that the state has had an inordinate amount of problems leading up to the election.
"I would just say this to any person in Georgia that meets the requirements to be a registered voter or someone who is already a registered voter," Kemp said in a recent interview with Mundo Hispanico, a sister publication of the AJC. "It has never been easier in my opinion to participate in the process in Georgia than it has been right now."
'The vote is under attack'
Michelle Kanter Cohen, the election counsel for the Washington-based nonprofit Project Vote, isn't so sure.
The group sued Georgia in July over concerns it was not releasing detailed information about why voter registration applications are rejected, citing among other concerns the resignation last year of Kemp's longtime elections director, who left after it was discovered the state accidentally canceled the registration of nearly 8,000 voters before a key 2014 election.
Project Vote's suit followed back-and-forth negotiations over the past two years between the group and the state, which said it had responded in good faith to multiple data requests by the group. Kanter Cohen said the group was trying to discern whether "people were not getting on the rolls when they applied in larger numbers than usual," such as during voter registration drives. "We are trying to understand what the state is doing and help educate voters," she said.
It's the second federal lawsuit served on Kemp's agency this year over its handling of voter records.
In February, the Georgia NAACP and government watchdog group Common Cause accused it of "purging" more than 370,000 voters "due to failure to vote." They sued over the state's longtime practice of sending "confirmation of address" notices to voters who haven't cast a ballot in three years and removing them from voter rolls if they eventually do not respond.
State officials have called the suit frivolous and said what they do is allowed by federal law.
Voting rights advocates have also hissed over recent local actions that they said should have received condemnation from Kemp's office. That includes an attempt earlier this year to temporarily move a Macon-Bibb County polling location in a majority-black neighborhood into a nearby Sheriff's Office building and, separately, a legal fight last year in Hancock County over whether the majority-white county election board tried to purge African-American voters from the rolls of a local town before a federal judge stepped in.
"The vote is under attack," said Statesboro attorney Francys Johnson, who is also president of the Georgia NAACP -- an organization that has petitioned the U.S. Justice Department to consider sending federal monitors here for the election.
GOP nominee Trump has also called for his own poll monitors to prevent a "rigged" election in November, although political parties in Georgia commonly use volunteer poll watchers as part of standard Election Day operations that also include their own set of attorneys.
But is all the talk of a rigged system and voter suppression rhetoric or fact?
Dariah Holsey has never been old enough to cast a ballot until now, when on an overcast and muggy Saturday in August, the 19-year-old from Savannah strolled into Atlanta's Sweet Auburn Curb Market and came face to face with Norman Cervantes.
It was an old-fashioned exchange in today's modern world: Cervantes, a volunteer on a registration drive for the legal nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, held a clipboard with a paper voter registration form.
Holsey, in town visiting her grandmother, took hold of a pen and wrote down her information, pulling out her driver's license to make sure she had everything right.
Bernita Holsey, her grandmother, couldn't help but smile. She had also been present when her then-18-year-old daughter had registered to vote, and the memory brought to mind the encouragement they had shared about the need for "young people" to get involved.
Her granddaughter handed the clipboard back to Cervantes, then took a moment to consider what she had done and whether she expected any problem getting accepted onto Georgia's voter rolls.
"I haven't been a part of the cause, but one vote can make a difference," Dariah Holsey said. "I feel like you have to learn to trust. Everything happens in time. I'm willing to try now because you never know where it goes."
'Litigation is not the only way to resolve issues'
Critics' concerns come as the U.S. Department of Justice recently announced a significant reduction in its use of federal election observers, something it said came as a consequence of a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a key provision in the national Voting Rights Act.
The court's decision overturned a federal elections mandate known as "Section 5" that required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to seek approval from the Justice Department or federal courts before making changes to voting rules.
Georgia is still one of 11 states certified by the department for federal observers in some local jurisdictions -- 29 counties in all. But the department has said it would concentrate observers in five other states where federal court rulings have prioritized monitoring: Alabama, Alaska, California, Louisiana and New York.
"Georgia is one of the places historically where the Justice Department has deployed observers to safeguard voting rights," said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
With the likelihood of that now lessened, the group is among a number of nonpartisan organizations mobilizing independent elections monitors and throwing resources into reporting tools such as an "election protection" hotline for voters to report problems such as flagged registrations, equipment malfunctions and issues with polling locations.
The organization has had a testy relationship with the secretary of state's office and has been active in several voting-related lawsuits here. But Clarke said there are signs things may be getting better.
This spring, Kemp's agency ended its support of a so-called 90-day blackout period after registration deadlines -- a practice during which voter forms were not processed to ensure that ineligible voters did not cast a ballot in the election.
The effect wasn't immediate. Just last month, some counties -- including Fulton County, which had close to 55,000 applications pending at the end of July -- still waited to fully process some voter registration applications until after the state's primary runoff election. But it was a start.
"Litigation is not the only way to resolve issues; working cooperatively with state and local officials when we can is also key to ensure that our voting system remains open this voting cycle," Clarke said.
'Accessible as it's ever been'
Kemp was a Republican state senator when Georgia lawmakers in 2005 passed one of the nation's first voter ID laws, requiring people to show photo identification at their polling location. State officials -- who won court approval to implement the law in 2007 -- said it would stop fraud; critics said it was designed to suppress the vote, particularly in minority communities.
Instead, turnout among black and Hispanic voters increased, outpacing population growth for those groups in the law's first five years of effect, according to an analysis done by the AJC in 2012. There has also been little evidence of the type of ballot fraud the law was created to prevent, although Republican leaders in Georgia still support it.
Voter ID laws were all the rage in states run by Republican legislatures starting in the 2000s, so what the GOP General Assembly did in Georgia wasn't particularly unusual.
"The movement was we should do everything we can to protect the sanctity of the vote and having to provide a photo ID is not an onerous requirement," said Eric Johnson, who was the top Republican in the state Senate when the bill passed. "I believe those that are opposed to photo ID are using it to gin up votes as a false issue to beat up on conservatives or whoever is in power."
Kemp, who voted for the measure in 2005, said he thinks the state has tried hard to be responsible in how it oversees elections. The voter ID law -- variations of which have been overturned this year in states including North Carolina and Wisconsin -- is one example.
"The thing that makes our law a little different here and one reason that we've won all our lawsuits is that ... nobody's ever been able to find a voter in Georgia that couldn't vote because they didn't have a photo ID because we'll issue one for free if you don't have it," Kemp said. "What I think it's designed to do is to make sure we have secure elections, that only the people who are supposed to be participating are."
Kemp, who has been secretary of state since 2010, has also made a signature attempt to overhaul how voters interact with his agency.
Earlier this month, he announced a pilot program allowing residents to register to vote via text message. He has widely promoted mobile apps that can also be used to register or confirm a voter's registration status. And in 2014, he launched the state's first-ever online voter registration system, allowing people to register through the internet.
More registered voters than ever now fill Georgia's rolls. About 6 million people were registered in 2012. Now it's more than 6.4 million.
And then there are the elections themselves, which include 45 days of advanced voting by mail; 21 days of in-person early voting, including a mandatory Saturday; and Sunday voting in some jurisdictions.
"This, with some people, is a very political issue," Kemp said. "But I think if you really look at the merits of where we are in Georgia right now, registering to vote and being able to participate in elections is as accessible as it's ever been."
Mundo Hispanico staff writer Johanes Rosello contributed to this article.
To Learn More:
Federal Elections Official Sued Over Voter Registration Restrictions (by Roxana Hegeman, Associated Press)
Despite Admitting to Voting Fraud at last Two Presidential Elections, County Officials in Atlanta get off with just $180,000 in Penalties (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)
Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Fights to Delay Registration of Tens of Thousands of New Democratic Voters (by Steve Straehley and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
Georgia Accused of Creating White Cities in Majority Black Counties (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)
Georgia Government Ranked Least Ethical in U.S. (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)
FBI Zeros in on Corrupt Judges and Legislators in Georgia (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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