A bitter feud between a voter registration group and Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State has seen a lawsuit, claims of voter suppression, a politically motivated effort to hype voter fraud, and fears that large numbers of minority voters could be disenfranchised.
But in the final analysis, it perhaps says just as much about less sensational but more intractable problems in the way we run elections.
"We remain concerned that there are Georgians not accounted for on any list and that even those who are properly registered are not receiving voter registration cards and notification of polling places in a timely manner."'
How the fracas gets resolved may play a key role in Georgia’s tight U.S. Senate race, which could hang on minority turnout, and might end up determining control of the chamber next year.
The latest twist in the saga came Monday evening, when a local news report cast doubt on claims made by Secretary of State Brian Kemp to justify a controversial investigation he launched last month into the New Georgia Project (NGP), a voter registration group working in minority areas.
Kemp had said last week that he opened the probe after receiving over 100 complaints of potential voter registration fraud. But records obtained by the Atlanta-based NBC News affiliate 11Alive News through an open records request showed only seven such complaints. And only one of them concerned NGP, the group’s founder, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, told the station.
A spokesman for Kemp’s office told 11Alive News that there were other complaints that were exempt from the records request because they’re part of an ongoing investigation. Asked by msnbc how many of those concerned NGP, Kemp’s office did not respond.
Already, Abrams and her allies had been charging that Kemp’s probe was politically motivated. Kemp’s office cited 25 forged voter registration forms turned in by NGP as a reason for the probe. But since it launched earlier this year, NGP has submitted over 85,000 applications in total. That means 25 forgeries offers little evidence that the group itself engaged in fraud, especially because it's legally required to turn in all the forms it collects. Abrams has said her group worked closely with Kemp’s office throughout the summer to make sure it was following the rules.
Kemp has long highlighted the threat of voter fraud, despite little evidence that it’s a major problem.
"In Georgia and elsewhere, when paper forms are collected and submitted when the voter is long since gone, it’s very difficult sometimes to follow up with them."'
Republican concerns about large numbers of black voters turning out this year have already roiled politics in the Peachtree State. One GOP state lawmaker said he opposed opening a new early voting location because it was in a heavily minority area. Georgia, which has seen big demographic shifts over the last decade, has nearly 900,000 unregistered minority voters. Mitt Romney’s 2012 margin of victory over President Obama in the state was just 305,000 votes. Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate in the U.S. Senate race, is counting on a big minority turnout to propel her to an upset victory.
The campaign of Nunn's Republican opponent, David Perdue, seized on Kemp’s probe to declare that Nunn is “tied closely to voter fraud allegations.” Kemp was appointed secretary of state in 2010 by then-Governor Sonny Perdue, a cousin of David Perdue.
The 11Alive News report came hours after Abrams and supporters held a press conference as part of continued efforts to highlight what they've said are over 40,000 newly registered voters who still have not been added to the rolls.
“The Secretary of State has abused his power, is clearly targeting seniors, students, and especially people of color, and is attempting to suppress voter registration drives," Dr. Francys Johnson, the president of the state chapter of the NAACP, said last month.
Earlier this month, NGP filed a lawsuit against Kemp and several counties, seeking to compel them to add the names.
Kemp has called the accusations “baseless.” At a press conference last week, he said the forms hadn’t been processed because they contained problems. Nearly 40,000, he said, were found to be active voters, while others were dead, convicted felons ineligible to vote, or contained out-of-state zip codes.
By law, the state or counties are required to follow up with voters who provide incomplete information. It’s not clear how many have been reached out to. But Kemp said some provided so little information that contacting them was almost impossible.
Jessica Corbitt, a spokeswoman for Fulton County, one of the counties named in the lawsuit, told msnbc Friday it had processed all the applications it has received, and has mailed more than 8,000 letters to voters.
This week, NGP has seemed to step back a bit from claims that Kemp is deliberately suppressing the vote. But in a statement released Tuesday, Julie Houk of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, which worked with NGP on the lawsuit, said the group is still upset about “systemic problems” with the state’s voter registration system.
“We remain concerned that there are Georgians not accounted for on any list and that even those who are properly registered are not receiving voter registration cards and notification of polling places in a timely manner,” Houk said.
David Becker, director of election initiatives at the PEW Charitable Trusts, said that even when election administrators have the best of intentions, grassroots registration drives can often strain their limited resources, especially when forms come in within weeks of an election.
“It really highlights the challenges that election officials have with these paper forms and the paper voter registration drives that happen,” said Becker, a leading expert on election administration. “In Georgia and elsewhere, when paper forms are collected and submitted when the voter is long since gone, it’s very difficult sometimes to follow up with them.”
Becker said it's another argument for online voter registration. But though Georgia has such a system, many low-income voters are easier to reach with paper-based drives.
The controversy also underlines how having partisan election officials chaired with impartially administering elections makes problems inevitable. Kemp chairs the Republican Secretaries of State Committee, which aims to elect Republicans to secretary of state positions in several key states. It’s not hard to see why Abrams and co. might be skeptical that Kemp is doing all he can to add minority voters to the rolls as fast as possible.