By: Amber Stapleton
Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, with Georgia expected to be a key political battleground, the state has seen a record number of citizens registered to vote. In the last 11 months alone, more that 352,000 Georgia citizens have been registered to vote and the influx has boosted the state’s voter rolls to the record high of nearly 7.4 million. According to one Atlanta Journal-Constitution article which cited the publications own analysis of registered voters from November 6, 2018 to August 12, 2019, “[a]bout 47% of the new voters who identified their race are minorities and 45% are age 30 or younger.”
Critics note, however, while Georgia registered more new voters than most states, it also canceled more voter registrations, according to a recent federal report on elections. Election officials removed more than 797,000 voters from the rolls between 2016 and 2018, amounting “to 11% of the state’s registered voters, the eighth-highest rate in the nation” according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Political opponents and voter advocacy groups argue that these cancellations are a better representation of the state of Georgia elections and demonstrate the voter suppression and political intimidation tactics employed by former Secretary of State and now Governor Brian Kemp and his successor, Brad Raffensperger.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger counters these critics by citing the record number of registrations as a demonstration that GOP election officials have actually improved voting access. Under GOP leadership, Georgia is one of the few states that allows absentee voting for anyone who requests a mailed ballot, as well as allowing three weeks of early voting, and implementing automatic voter registration. Automatic Voting Registration (AVR) allows residents to register automatically when applying for a license at the DMV. According to a Brennan Center for Justice report, thanks to AVR, registration rates improved by 93.7% since implementation in 2016, making Georgia a national leader in both voter registration and voter accessibility.
While political commentators note that accusations of partisan power moves and conflicts of interest are just par for the course for secretaries of state no matter their political party, critics within the state argue that the actions of GOP election officials actually rise to the level systemic corruption and voter suppression. Under his tenure as Secretary of State, Governor Kemp purged more than 1.4 million voters from the rolls and launched countless voter fraud investigations surrounding the validity of opposition submitted voter applications. While supporters argue that Governor Kemp was merely acting in accordance to his role of supervisor and administer of elections, critics claim that Kemp and other officials “used [their] authority to investigate political opponents, liberal political groups and get out the vote (GOTV) organizers working in racial minority communities.”
After Brooks County elected its first majority-black school board thanks to a sudden surge in black voter registration, Kemp launched an investigation and arrested a dozen voting organizers, three of whom had won seats on the county school board. In the weeks leading up to the 2012 election, Brian Kemp placed the applications of newly naturalized citizens on hold to launch an investigation into the organization that registered them, formerly known as the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, citing not voter fraud per se, but technical issues like AALAC’s photocopying and public disclosure of voter registration applications. These investigations, just one of many over the years during his tenure, culminated in not a single conviction or plea deal after years long investigations.
During the 2018 election, Kemp placed more than 50,000 applications on hold due to due to Georgia’s “exact-match” law, which required that personal information on voter applications to match exactly with what is on state databases. Under the Georgia law, legitimate, voting-eligible Georgians, the majority of whom were minorities, were being kicked off the rolls and thus disenfranchised. Several civil rights groups, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, filed a major federal lawsuit in response.
In March, Brad Raffensperger opened an investigation into an alleged 4,700 missing absentee ballot requests in DeKalb county, coming from voters that candidate Stacy Abrams campaign targeted. GOP appointee, David Emadi, director of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission opened an investigation into Abram’s exceeding maximum contribution limits and issued subpoenas seeking banking and financial records as well as extensive communications between the campaign and a network of political groups that are run by, or are focused on, people of color.
Critics argue that these partisan state officials follow a pattern of using arbitrary methods to disenfranchise minority voters, and then use their investigation powers to stall and impede the work of organizers to fight that disenfranchisement. Even if these investigations produce no meaningful arrest or discoveries, critics argues they still become powerful tools that shut the work of organizers down as well as freeze funding due to the pending litigation.
The accusations of voter suppression reached such a fever pitch that The House Oversight and Reform Committee launched an investigation into the GOP officials. The Committee outlined concerns over voter roll purges, holds placed on voter registration applications, and even polling site changes and closings. As of right now, election official are still in negotiations with congressional investigators to turn over documents surrounding the alleged irregularities.
Whether partisan politics or official impropriety, only time and investigations/lawsuits will tell.