Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp's office placed a hold on 53,000 voter registration applications, 70 percent of them submitted by black voters.
The 53,000 voters with pending registrations can still vote on election day; and significant disagreement exists over the causes and motivations behind the pending registrations.
As the November 2018 elections grew closer, allegations of voter suppression intensified, with reports emerging from Indiana, North Dakota and Georgia -- the last of those a state in which Republican secretary of state Brian Kemp was accused of using his office to engage in voter suppression while running for governor against the Democratic candidate, former state representative Stacey Abrams.
On 9 October, the Associated Press (AP) reported that electoral records showed Kemp's office had placed on hold the registration applications of 53,000 would-be voters, almost 70 percent of whom are African-American:
Two main policies overseen by Kemp have drawn criticism and legal challenges: Georgia’s “exact match” registration verification process and the mass cancellation of inactive voter registrations.
According to records obtained from Kemp’s office through a public records request, [Marsha] Appling-Nunez’s application —like many of the 53,000 registrations on hold with Kemp’s office — was flagged because it ran afoul of the state’s “exact match” verification process.
Under the policy, information on voter applications must precisely match information on file with the Georgia Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration. Election officials can place non-matching applications on hold. An application could be held because of an entry error or a dropped hyphen in a last name, for example ...
AP also reported that Kemp's office had removed many more registered voters from the electoral roll since he took up his position as Secretary of State in 2010:
Through a process that Kemp calls voter roll maintenance and his opponents call voter roll purges, Kemp’s office has cancelled over 1.4 million voter registrations since 2012. Nearly 670,000 registrations were cancelled in 2017 alone.
Given that African-American voters in Georgia historically favor Democratic candidates, and Kemp's gubernatorial opponent Stacey Abrams is herself African-American, the existence of these pending registrations has prompted allegations that Kemp was improperly using the powers of his office to suppress likely votes for his opponent.
In a 10 October meme, the left-wing Facebook page Occupy Democrats termed Kemp a "cowardly cheater" and asserted his office was "deliberately trying to suppress the vote in his favor":
The left-wing Facebook page The Other 98% posted a similar meme on 11 October, claiming specifically that Kemp had himself created the "exact match" rule which caused the suspension of 53,000 registration applications:
In response to a series of questions from us, a spokesperson for Kemp's gubernatorial campaign confirmed that the Secretary of State's office had indeed placed 53,000 registration applications in "pending" status, and that close to 70 percent of those individuals were African-Americans.
However, Kemp's campaign blamed the pending registrations, and the disproportionate prevalence of African-American voters among them, on the New Georgia Project, an organization founded by Abrams herself in 2014, which aims to register racial and ethnic minority voters in the state of Georgia:
Stacey Abrams – through the New Georgia Project -- created this ‘problem’ by submitting tens and thousands of problematic voter registration forms -- just like she did in 2014. Now, she is using the media to generate buzz for her campaign and ultimately turn out voters on Election Day.
Kemp's campaign told us that the New Georgia Project refuses to use online voter registration, instead insisting on paper forms. According to the campaign, all 53,000 pending registrations were submitted with the assistance of the New Georgia Project, and all of them ran afoul of the "exact match" rule. (We asked the New Georgia Project and the Abrams campaign for their responses to these and other claims but we did not receive a response from either.)
Kemp's spokesperson emphasized that the 53,000 would-be voters whose registrations were pending could still show up at a polling station on election day and vote as normal:
If you are on the pending list, you literally vote exactly the same way that every other person in Georgia that's not on the pending list votes. In Georgia, you present your Photo ID at the polling precinct. It's scanned. If you are on the pending list, this action moves you from pending to active. If you are already active, it re-affirms you are active.
The American Civil Liberties Union, a strong opponent of the "exact match" rule, has corroborated this point, writing in a press release that:
Though the ACLU of Georgia strongly opposes the discriminatory exact-match law passed by Georgia politicians, we must focus on ensuring that all registered voters come out to vote. We reiterate that all voters who have pending registration applications can still cast a regular ballot by presenting photo identification.
Kemp's spokesperson also told us that the campaign does not dispute the figures presented by the Associated Press about registration cancellations, agreeing that Kemp's office had overseen 1.4 million registration cancellations since 2012, with nearly 670,000 of those coming in 2017.
However, the campaign pointed out that some of those cancellations were in fact cases in which voters had moved from one county to another within the state of Georgia, so the registrations were cancelled (and counted as cancelled) in one county, but the voters re-registered elsewhere and therefore remained registered to vote in Georgia.
Although the campaign did not provide comprehensive figures for Kemp's entire tenure as secretary of state since 2010, they did offer the example of 2016, when 276,461 out of 772,050 cancelled registrations (36 percent) involved voters moving within the state of Georgia, rather than being definitively removed from the electoral rolls.
Kemp's spokesperson also argued that the Secretary of State's office is obliged by law to perform "maintenance" on voter rolls:
As required by federal and state law, Georgia conducts regular list maintenance of the voter rolls to ensure election integrity. These laws were passed into law many years ago by Democrats, pre-cleared by the federal Department of Justice, and utilized by Democratic and Republican Secretaries of State to keep the rolls accurate.
So the "Occupy Democrats" and "Other 98%" memes accurately present the basic facts: Kemp's office has indeed put on hold 53,000 registration applications, around 70 percent of them submitted by African-American voters. However, significant disagreement exists over the causes and motivations behind the hold which has been placed on those registrations.
Abrams and others have argued that the "exact match" policy deliberately targets black and ethnic minority voters as part of a Republican effort to suppress the Democratic vote in Georgia, a particularly poignant issue in the 2018 gubernatorial race because the candidates are Kemp -- who oversees the implementation of the policy as secretary of state -- and Abrams -- who, if elected, would make history as the first black woman to become a state governor in the history of the United States.
On the other hand, Kemp's campaign argues that the secretary of state is simply implementing Georgia law by enforcing the policy, and that the racial disparity among the 53,000 pending registration applications is not the result of racial discrimination or a partisan abuse of power, but rather the product of incomplete registrations performed by an organization founded by Abrams as part of a "publicity stunt" aimed at generating outrage and increasing turnout among Democratic voters.
At the heart of this issue is something called the "exact match" rule, which has provoked lawsuits and engendered controversy in Georgia over the past eight years.
After taking office in 2010, Kemp enacted a policy under which each county's registrar (responsible for voter registrations in their county) must enter information from voter registration forms into a statewide online database, and cross-reference that information with records held by the state's Department of Drivers Service and Social Security Administration.
If an exact match is not found on the existing databases, the registration is placed in "pending" status for 26 months, and the voter in question is informed and invited to rectify the discrepancies. If the voter takes no action within 26 months, the application is cancelled and the registrant must start again. (Prior to 2017, this grace period was set at a considerably shorter 40 days.)
Under this system, "exact match" really does mean an exact match, and registrations have been put on hold due to relatively minor discrepancies between registration applications and state records, including differences related to hyphens and apostrophes. Furthermore, these discrepancies might not have been the result of mistakes by voters, but rather clerical errors introduced by county registrar staff when transferring information from paper forms to the electronic database.
In 2017, the exact match policy was (with some small changes) codified in law when the Georgia General Assembly passed H.B. 268. On 11 October 2018, several voter registration and civil rights groups, including the New Georgia Project, sued Kemp, asking the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to declare that H.B. 268 and the exact match policy were in violation of the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act, and the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Among other claims, the voter groups argued that the policy imposed an unfair burden on voters and that it had a disproportionate negative effect on black and ethnic minority voters. The lawsuit averred that between 2013 and 2015, the exact match policy caused 34,874 applications to be cancelled (meaning would-be voters took no action regarding their pending registrations), and 76.3 percent of applicants in these cases were African-American, Latino, or Asian-American.
As of 4 July 2018, some 80 percent of 51,111 pending registrations belonged to African-American, Latino, or Asian-American voters, according to the lawsuit.