Georgia Knew Its Voter Roll Practice Was Discriminatory. It Stuck With It Anyway.

An analysis found that 70 percent of people whose voter registration is in jeopardy are black residents.

A Georgia process for verifying voters’ information has left the applications of over 53,000 people in jeopardy, and 70 percent of those applications are from black people, an Associated Press analysis published Tuesday found.

The stark disparity drew scrutiny because Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R), the state’s top elections official, is running for governor. He is locked in a tight race with Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic leader in the Georgia statehouse who, if elected, would be the first black woman to serve as a governor in the United States.

The reason so many voters’ registration status is considered incomplete is because the state requires the information in a new application to exactly match the way the potential voter’s name appears in a state driver’s license database or a federal Social Security database. Any small discrepancy, like a hyphen or varied spelling, puts someone’s registration in jeopardy.

Danielle Lang, senior counsel at Campaign Legal Center, which sued Georgia over the practice in 2016, said it’s easy to get a mismatch under the process. She pointed to a 2009 audit from the Social Security Administration’s inspector general that said matching voter records with a Social Security database produced inaccurate matching.

“There are kind of endless ways for this to go wrong. Anyone who transposes a digit or a letter at any point, either at the DMV or at the clerk’s office at the registration, or the voter themselves, any tiny error is going to lead to a no match,” she said. “You can imagine that for foreign names the likelihood of a misspelling happening at some point during various data inputs is more likely.”

Voters who don’t get an exact match on their records have 26 months to correct it or else they get removed from the voter rolls, but they can cast a regular ballot at the polls if they bring identification within that period. If they don’t have identification, they can cast a provisional ballot.

Voting rights have come into sharp focus in the race for governor given Kemp’s current position and Abrams’ previous work registering voters. Georgia was one of a handful of states that were entirely covered by the 1965 Voting Rights Act and required to seek federal approval for any changes to its voting practices until 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the law.

After coming into office in 2010, Kemp implemented the new rule, often referred to as “exact match.” He initially gave new voters 40 days to clarify any discrepancies or their voter registration would be canceled. The process was approved by the Justice Department, but civil rights groups sued Kemp over the practice in 2016, saying that it disproportionately discriminated against minorities because an overwhelming number of the nearly 35,000 applications that had been suspended or canceled were from minorities. Kemp settled the case in February 2017 and agreed to essentially stop using the process.

But then in April 2017, Georgia lawmakers enacted a statute that authorized the state to continue to use the process, but it was tweaked to give residents 26 months to correct any discrepancies before they were removed from voter rolls.

Lang said that when Georgia lawmakers enacted the policy, they had clear evidence that it was racially discriminatory.

“We have explained to the Georgia legislature and to Secretary Kemp repeatedly that the process has really glaring and extreme racial disparities.... It has been known for years that that’s the case in Georgia,” she said. “That’s part of why it was so troubling that after this case settled, having alleged the disparities that we put forward, for the legislature to turn around and reinstate a policy that had kind of documented disparities like this.”

“I think it tells you that they were on notice when they passed this law that what they were doing was wrong,” said Ezra Rosenberg, an attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which also sued Kemp over the law in 2016.

“I think it tells you that they were on notice that they were on notice when they passed this law that what they were doing was wrong.”

- Ezra Rosenberg, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

Kemp’s office deflected blame for the disparities onto the New Georgia Project, a group founded by Abrams in 2014 to register voters. He told the AP the group submitted a batch of inadequate forms from black voters and did not train its canvassers to write clearly on voter registration forms. Kemp’s office also investigated the New Georgia Project for voter fraud but ultimately didn’t turn up much.

Rosenberg said Kemp’s excuse didn’t pass muster.

“They’re blaming the victim. They’re essentially blaming the people that are going out there and trying to get people registered for the errors in their system,” he said.

Kemp’s office noted to Talking Points Memo that he had increased the number of voters on the rolls in his state by nearly 1 million since taking office, but other parts of his voting record have come under scrutiny in the race. The state has closed 8 percent of its polling places since 2012, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Georgia aggressively removes people from the rolls who don’t vote and fail to respond to a mailer confirming their address; it purged about 1.5 million voters from 2012 to 2016, twice as many as it did from 2008 to 2012, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

In July, Campaign Legal Center, the Lawyers’ Committee and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta wrote to Kemp warning him of litigation because the exact match process likely violated a federal law that says the processes states use to maintain their voter rolls can’t be discriminatory.

The law, they said “was enacted without sufficient safeguards to prevent unduly burdening eligible voter registration applicants or the cancellation of complete and accurate registration applications.”

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