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Georgia fraud probe targets black voter registration group

Georgia's Republican secretary of state has launched what looks like a politically motivated fraud investigation against a group registering black voters.
Voters cast their ballots at a polling site for Georgia's primary election, May 20, 2014, in Atlanta, Ga.
Voters cast their ballots at a polling site for Georgia's primary election, May 20, 2014, in Atlanta, Ga.

Democrats have been working to register large numbers of black voters in Georgia. So it’s no surprise that Republican officials are pulling out all the stops to make it as difficult as possible—including what looks a lot like a politically motivated fraud investigation.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, sent a subpoena requesting documents to the New Georgia Project, a voter registration group founded by House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, a Democrat.

In a memo to county officials, Kemp said he’s “received numerous complaints about voter applications submitted by the New Georgia Project.”

He added: “Preliminary investigation has revealed significant illegal activities’ (sic) including forged voter registration applications, forged signatures on releases, and applications with false or inaccurate information.”

"Fraud connotes an attempt to deceive. We have been incredibly transparent."'

In an interview with msnbc, Abrams said she had been working closely and cooperatively with Kemp's office for months.  

"He keeps using the phrase fraud," Abrams said. "Fraud connotes an attempt to deceive. We have been incredibly transparent."

Abrams laid out a lengthy set of procedures that she said her organization goes through to ensure it's complying with the law.

"We notify them that we’re doing it, we turn in the forms, we put our organization’s information on the form, we have them verify that they've received it, we verify that we turned it in, we keep track of every name that we submit in accordance with state law, and we turn in every form we get," she said. "We also do background checks on all our employees and we take appropriate action if any employee is found to not be meeting our standards. And we run our own independent voluntary quality control." 

Abrams added that her group is bound by law to hand in all voter registration forms it collects—so if canvassers bring back forms with errors, it can’t throw them out.

"The challenge that I have is, I'm not sure what else we could do," she said.

It’s not hard to see why Republicans might want to hamper the New Georgia Project's activities. The state is hosting a tight Senate race this year, which could help determine control of the chamber, as well as a race for governor. Abrams says her group has already collected 85,000 new voter registration applications, with a goal of 120,000. If 200,000 likely Democrats are brought to the polls this year, they’d make deep-red Georgia competitive, according to party strategists

Abrams, who is black, was asked whether she believed the purpose of the probe was to crimp her group's work registering voters in African-American neighborhoods.

"I think that certainly could be seen as one of the goals," she said. "Certainly, for most organizations, complying with something that voluminous would have a very strong chilling effect on their efforts. However, we do not intend to let this subpoena stop us from registering voters."

Voter registration fraud is very different from voter fraud. Kemp hasn't released details on what he's alleging the New Georgia Project to have done. But if an employee of the group submitted applications with fake names like Mickey Mouse or Troy Aikman—as some ACORN employees did for that organization—he or she defrauded the organization, not the voting process. That’s because no voter is likely to show up to cast a ballot under the fake name.

But Kemp’s subpoena, like the campaign against ACORN, takes advantage of the confusion between voter fraud and voter registration fraud to create the impression that the integrity of the election process is at stake. “We’re just not gonna put up with fraud,” he told a local reporter. “We have zero tolerance for that in Georgia.”

Sure enough, several local news outlets, as well as the Washington Post, have incorrectly reported that Kemp is alleging “voter fraud,” rather than voter registration form.

Related: GOPer opposes early voting because it will boost black turnout

Kemp has long beat the drum about voter fraud, despite little evidence that it exists on a significant scale. His secretary of state website has a page entitled "Stop Voter Fraud" and a "Voter Fraud Hotline" number that Georgians can call if they see "questionable election-related activity."

Kemp is clearly aware of how his role as the state's top elections officer can be used to advantage his party. He chairs the Republican Secretaries of State Committee, a division of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which is working to elect Republicans to secretary of state positions in several key states. Democrats have similar groups.   

Kemp isn’t the only Georgia Republican official accused of trying to make it harder for blacks to vote. State Sen. Fran Millar this week set off a firestorm with a Facebook post that referred to a visit last weekend by Michelle Obama to help register black voters in Atlanta, then attacked a decision by DeKalb County to offer Sunday voting at a local mall, noting: “[T]his location is dominated by African American shoppers and it is near several large African American mega churches.”