Stealing an election in Georgia: everything you need to know about voter suppression

The close-run Georgia gubernatorial race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp has become a battle over who should have the right to vote.

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In one of the closest-run races in the country, the Democrat Stacey Abrams is virtually tied with Republican Brian Kemp in Georgia’s gubernatorial election. If she wins, Abrams, a lawyer, activist, state legislator and successful romance novelist, will become America’s first black woman governor.

In 2013 she founded a non-profit, called the New Georgia Project, which encourages non-voters to register to vote. Between 2014 and 2016 it submitted 200,000 voter registrations for people of colour.

Kemp, a businessman and self-described “politically incorrect conservative” backed by Donald Trump, is the current secretary of state for Georgia, a role which means he is in charge of overseeing the state’s election. In other words, he is now overseeing his own election.

Despite this glaring conflict of interest, he has not recused himself from his election oversight role. In fact, he is continuing in his established tradition of implementing restrictive voting legislation that disproportionately affects people of colour.

According to The Associated Press, Kemp has suspended 53,000 voter registrations because of an “exact match” rule that he introduced, which compares voter registration information to social security and state driver records and suspends voting applications if the match is not exact – a missing accent or hyphen, a middle name not fully written-out or a misspelling is enough to trigger a suspension.

Black voters make up 70 per cent of suspended registrations but make up only a third of the voting population, AP reported. A large number of them were registered by the New Georgia Project.

Technically, suspended voters have 26 months to fix the problem before their application is rejected and they should be able to vote in person if they provide an ID that offers a “substantial match” to state records, but AP has reported that many suspended voters may have no idea there was a problem with their registration. The New York Times reports that fixing the problem can be difficult and confusing and that experts believe the suspension is enough to scare many people off from voting.

Why would he do that?

Ostensibly, Kemp says he is committed to clamping down on voter fraud (though voter fraud is extremely rare in the US: one study identified 31 individual possible incidents, among almost a billion ballots).

But RollingStone obtained audio of Kemp telling donors that Abrams’ voter turnout operation “continues to concern us, especially if everyone uses and exercises their right to vote”.

“We gotta have heavy turnout to offset that,” he continued.

It’s not lost on anyone that the people of colour suspended from voting under the exact match law and other voting law changes are more likely to be Abrams supporters.

What, there are other ways in which the vote is being suppressed?

Yes. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at New York University, Georgia has purged 10.7 per cent of voters over the past two years, with non-white voters over-represented among those whose names were purged.

There are of course, legitimate reasons for purging names from the polls (for example, when someone has moved away or died) but the high rate of purged names suggests that some people are being wrongfully or erroneously deleted from the polls. One trigger for being purged is not having voted in previous elections, a policy referred to as “use it or lose it”.

An investigation by the journalist Greg Palast found that 340,143 voters were wrongfully purged between 2016 and 2017. Palast filed a lawsuit against Kemp in order to access the list of purged voters and then commissioned experts to cross-reference the voting data with other databases like tax filings and phone bills. He found that a third of a million purged voters were still at their original address.

Palast describes the process as “purge by postcard”. State election officials sent a notice to people who did not vote in the last election and then removed them from the election register if they did not respond to the mail-out – even though the postcard could easily have been mistaken for junk mail.

So 53,000 voter registrations have been suspended under the exact match policy, a 340,000 people are reported to have been wrongfully purged from the polls. Surely that must be the extent of it…

Unfortunately, it’s not. A court ruling just last week declared that Georgia officials must stop rejecting absentee ballots because of alleged signature mismatches, after at least 157 absentee ballots were rejected for this reason. A study found that non-whites were much more likely to have their absentee ballots rejected than white voters.

There’s also the problem of polling station closures. Following an outcry, Georgia’s majority-black Randolph County rejected a proposal to close seven out of nine polling stations in the county. But since 2012, the state has shut down 214 polling stations, mostly in poor, rural and non-white areas where voters have fewer resources to travel to vote, research by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

Also, in 2014, Kemp accused the New Georgia Project of fraud and disrupted its election registration drive by launching an investigation into its voter registration submissions. The New Georgia Project was eventually cleared of wrongdoing.

Wait, is any of this even legal?

Until 2013, the 1965 Voter Rights Act required that nine states with a history of racial discrimination in voting, including Georgia, seek prior approval from a US federal court in Washington or the Department of Justice before enacting any changes to voting legislation. Five years ago, however, this provision was overturned by the Supreme Court. Now, these states can close polling stations, conduct voter purges and change election rules without judicial approval and are only subject to after-the-fact legislation.

Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against Kemp earlier this month over his exact match policy. They successfully sued him over a similar policy in 2016. But another lawsuit filed by civil rights groups in 2016 against Kemp’s “use it or lose it” purges was withdrawn earlier this year after the Supreme Court upheld a similar policy in Ohio as constitutional.

So this problem is not exclusive to Georgia?

No, the Brennan Center has been tracking changes to voting legislation throughout the country that make it harder to vote, and that disproportionately affect poor people and people of colour, from strict photo ID requirements to voter purges and other restrictions.

It has found that since 2010, “13 states have more restrictive voter ID laws in place (and six states have strict photo ID requirements), 11 have laws making it harder for citizens to register, seven cut back on early voting opportunities, and three made it harder to restore voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.”

What’s the impact?

As this New York Times piece notes, while majority-blue states have been trying to reduce barriers to voting, majority-red states are more likely to introduce restrictive legislation. Reducing the barriers to voting faced by traditional non-voters – young people, poor people and people of colour – would favour Democratic candidates. And so, perhaps one of the most alarming developments is that the right to vote, such a fundamental right in a functioning democracy, is becoming a party-political issue.

And in Georgia, the race is close enough that the barriers to voting erected by Kemp could rob Abrams of victory and deprive America of the chance to celebrate its first black female state governor.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.