In two separate rulings on Friday, federal courts struck back against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s efforts invalidate thousands of voter registration applications, along with more than a third of absentee ballots. Here’s the kicker: Secretary Kemp, the state’s senior ranking election official, is also the Republican candidate for governor in Georgia, in a closely-watched race against Democrat Stacey Abrams. While the rulings do not resolve all 51,000 on-hold voting registration applications at the center of a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups against Kemp’s office, they have dealt a significant blow to the secretary’s campaign.
In the case of the voting registration applications, Kemp’s office had instituted an “exact match” verification process that put the applications on hold if the submitted information did not perfectly align with what was already on file from the Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration. The policy, the lawsuit argued, not only disproportionately affects racial minorities (approximately 70 percent of the 51,000 flagged applications belong to African Americans), but unfairly burdens people with cumbersome roadblocks at the polls, the overwhelming majority of whom have been flagged because of minor variations in hyphens, addresses, or data entry errors. The ruling, however, only pertains to the 3,100 of those applicants that have been flagged for reasons of citizenship, who, under Kemp’s system, face even greater hurdles at polling places than those required to prove their identification.
“This raises grave concerns for the Court about the differential treatment inflicted on a group of individuals who are predominantly minorities,” District Court Judge Eleanor L. Ross said in her decision.
Kemp’s office said that while it disagreed with the order it would implement it in the days leading up to the election, although some worry that the publicity surrounding the difficulties has already discouraged many potential voters. “Despite this outcome, our concern remains that it is inappropriate to change long-standing procedures this close to an election,” said Candice Broce, Kemp’s press secretary.
Leaked audio from a private event published by Rolling Stone (which put Kemp on his heels towards the end of October) featured the secretary of state complaining to supporters about the “literally tens of millions of dollars that [the Abrams campaign] are putting behind the get-out-the-vote effort to their base.”
“They have just an unprecedented number of [absentee ballots], which is something that continues to concern us,” he said, “especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote, which they absolutely can, and mail those ballots in, we gotta have heavy turnout to offset that.”
Abrams, who if elected would be the United States’ first black female governor, has accused Kemp of voter suppression tactics, and her supporters have alleged a conflict of interest in Kemp’s role as the officiator of his own election. “He is concerned that if everyone who is eligible votes then he will not win, and we intend to prove him right,” she said in an interview.
Some, the president included, argue that voter fraud in the U.S. is rampant. Trump, who has offered his strong support to Kemp, infamously claimed that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the 2016 election. The problem for this as well as for far less hyperbolic-sounding claims is simple: there isn’t a shred of evidence to support even a moderate concern about voter fraud in the U.S. More often than not, however, state laws treat the issue as an epidemic.
Justin Levitt, a professor at the Loyola Law School, has been tracking voter fraud in the United States since 2000. As of 2014, he had uncovered 31 likely cases in any federal, state, or local election. 31, that is, out of nearly one billion ballots cast in total. The non-partisan policy institute the Brennan Center for Justice did a comprehensive study of voter fraud which concluded that it is more likely for an American to “be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another vote at the polls.” The center also put together a literature review detailing the comprehensive agreement between studies, courts, and government investigations: voter fraud is extraordinarily rare.
Despite this, and the failure of voter fraud fearmongers to produce any evidence whatsoever of the significance of the issue, Kemp is hardly alone in his successful efforts to purge the registrars. The 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder defanged the Voting Rights Act by removing federal “preclearance” on voting laws in historically discriminatory states. The fallout was swift. Some two months after the decision was handed down, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed into law the now-infamous HB 589, an unabashed effort to purge African American voters from the voter rolls. The bill was successfully challenged in 2016 in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which concluded that it targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.”
Indeed, in months leading up to the bill’s passage, staffers and members of the state legislature were found to have been repeatedly emailing the North Carolina election board with questions like: “Is there any way to get a breakdown of the 2008 voter turnout, by race (white and black) and type of vote (early and Election Day)?” Unsurprisingly, part of what HB 589 did was to terminate same-day registration in the early voting period, along with out-of-district voting.
Such laws, however, are now widespread in states that were once considered too historically discriminatory to have them, thanks to the newfound leniency granted to conservative state legislatures and executive offices by the Supreme Court.
In Georgia, Abrams has made the pushback against voter ID a cornerstone of her campaign. Former president Barack Obama joined her on the campaign trail last week, as did Oprah Winfrey, stumping for Abrams and reiterating her message that, now more than ever, overwhelming the ballot box is the best way to win. “Georgia be unafraid,” Obama told the crowd at a rally on Friday. “If they try to take away your right to vote, there’s only one way to take it back: Vote.”
Polling has Kemp up by an average of about a percentage point, earning the election its “toss up” ranking from Real Clear Politics. The race between Kemp and Abrams is one of several extremely close elections for governor this November