Cam­paigns fo­cus on vot­ing rights

Ge­or­gia dis­pute is one of sev­eral in which ad­vo­cates say the GOP aims to sup­press le­git­i­mate votes.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Jaweed Kaleem jaweed.kaleem @la­times.com

In Ge­or­gia and beyond, re­stric­tions are as­sailed as Repub­li­can at­tempts to sup­press le­git­i­mate votes.

One of the most bit­terly con­tested races in the Nov. 6 elec­tion is in Ge­or­gia, where the gu­ber­na­to­rial cam­paign pits Sec­re­tary of State Brian Kemp, a white Repub­li­can, against Stacey Abrams, a Demo­crat who is vy­ing to be­come the state’s first black gover­nor.

The race be­came es­pe­cially heated this week when vot­ing rights ad­vo­cates filed a law­suit ac­cus­ing Kemp, the state’s top elec­tion of­fi­cial, with block­ing more than 50,000 voter reg­is­tra­tions — mostly of black res­i­dents — to hurt turnout and boost his cam­paign.

Kemp’s cam­paign has de­nied the ac­cu­sa­tion. The state is among sev­eral with laws that re­quire ex­act matches be­tween per­sonal in­for­ma­tion on voter reg­is­tra­tions and state data­bases.

Abrams’ cam­paign has called on Kemp to re­sign, and spokes­woman Abi­gail Col­lazo said Thurs­day that he was “ma­li­ciously wield­ing the power of his of­fice to sup­press the vote for po­lit­i­cal gain.”

The Ge­or­gia dis­pute is among sev­eral in var­i­ous states that vot­ing rights ad­vo­cates have ze­roed in on be­cause of what they de­scribe as re­stric­tive vot­ing laws, along­side changes to early vot­ing rules and polling place clo­sures. They point to stud­ies that show voter fraud is rare in the U.S.

The con­flicts are of­ten drawn along party lines, with Democrats say­ing voter sup­pres­sion is at play and Repub­li­cans say­ing changes in vot­ing pro­ce­dures pre­vent fraud.

On Tues­day, the U.S. Supreme Court de­clined to toss out a law that re­quires North Dakota vot­ers to show iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with a cur­rent res­i­den­tial ad­dress. Vot­ing rights groups said the law will hurt the state’s Na­tive Amer­i­can vot­ers, as many of them live on reser­va­tions and do not have stan­dard ad­dresses.

On Wednesday, a fed­eral judge in Ohio up­held the state’s sys­tem for purg­ing those who haven’t voted in six years from its reg­is­tra­tion rolls. Civil rights groups in the state, home to high-pro­file House, Se­nate and gover­nor races, said the rule hit hard in districts with Demo­cratic vot­ers.

On Thurs­day, an Arkansas state court up­held a law that makes vot­ers show photo iden­ti­fi­ca­tion at the polls. The law lets them use pro­vi­sional bal­lots if they have no ID. Democrats are vy­ing to gain at least one of the state’s four seats in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, all held by Repub­li­cans.

At is­sue in sev­eral states are changes to the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965. The Supreme Court struck down key parts of the act in 2013 that re­quired cer­tain states — largely ones in the South with a his­tory of dis­en­fran­chis­ing black vot­ers — to get ap­proval from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment be­fore mak­ing changes to vot­ing rules.

The de­bate in Ge­or­gia cen­ters on its “ex­act match” law, passed last year, that re­quires names and other in­for­ma­tion on voter reg­is­tra­tions to cor­re­spond pre­cisely to state data­bases. A skipped mid­dle name or hy­phen or a typo can put vot­ers on a “pend­ing” list.

Civil rights groups, in­clud­ing the lo­cal chap­ter of the Na­tional Assn. for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple, are su­ing to over­turn the rule, which they con­sider dis­crim­i­na­tory. They say it dis­pro­por­tion­ately hurts mi­nori­ties such as the state’s large black pop­u­la­tion, which tends to vote for Democrats.

If the Vot­ing Rights Act was fully in place, “Ge­or­gia would most cer­tainly be re­quired” to get gov­ern­ment clear­ance for its new ID law, said Kris­ten Clarke, pres­i­dent and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Lawyers’ Com­mit­tee for Civil Rights Un­der Law.

“There ex­ists a stark par­al­lel be­tween the voter sup­pres­sion schemes levied by states around the coun­try prior to the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 and the in­sid­i­ous tac­tics used by Sec­re­tary Kemp,” said Clarke, whose Wash­ing­ton-based group is among those su­ing the state.

Ge­or­gia, in par­tic­u­lar, has been a hot­bed of con­tro­versy over vot­ing rules. An At­lanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion re­port this sum­mer found that 214 polling place lo­ca­tions had been closed in the state since 2012. The num­bers rep­re­sent about 8% of Ge­or­gia’s polling places.

Vot­ing ad­min­is­tra­tors say the clo­sures save tax­payer money by con­sol­i­dat­ing less pop­u­lar polling sites. Vot­ing rights ad­vo­cates say they re­duce ac­cess to the polls, in par­tic­u­lar for ru­ral vot­ers who are mi­nori­ties.

In a high-pro­file case this sum­mer, na­tional civil rights groups launched a cam­paign to save seven polling sites in Ran­dolph County, a ru­ral area of north­west Ge­or­gia.

The Ran­dolph County Board of Elec­tions had pro­posed clos­ing the sites, which served around 1,700 vot­ers, most of them black, to save money and be­cause some did not com­ply with the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act. Amid protest, the elec­tions board switched course in Au­gust af­ter a one­minute meet­ing.

Pres­i­dent Trump, who has claimed with­out ev­i­dence that there were mil­lions of il­le­gal votes in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, this year dis­banded a com­mis­sion to in­ves­ti­gate voter fraud and has spo­ken out force­fully in sup­port of voter ID laws.

But changes in vot­ing rules have also drawn crit­i­cism from parts of the U.S. gov­ern­ment. The U.S. Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights, which has eight mem­bers ap­pointed by Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can pres­i­dents, re­leased a sweep­ing re­port last month doc­u­ment­ing what it said was de­clin­ing vot­ing ac­cess across the coun­try over the last five years.

It cited 23 states with “newly re­stric­tive statewide voter laws” in that time pe­riod, and 61 law­suits that were filed chal­leng­ing state vot­ing reg­u­la­tions for vi­o­lat­ing fed­eral law.

“Cit­i­zens in the United States — across many states, not lim­ited only to some parts of the coun­try — con­tinue to suf­fer sig­nif­i­cant, and pro­foundly un­equal, lim­i­ta­tions on their abil­ity to vote,” com­mis­sion Chair Cather­ine E. Lha­mon said at the time of the re­port’s re­lease.

“That stark re­al­ity den­i­grates our democ­racy and di­min­ishes our ideals,” said Lha­mon, an Obama ap­pointee. “This level of on­go­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion con­firms what was true be­fore 1965, when the Vot­ing Rights Act be­came law, and has re­mained true since 1965: Amer­i­cans need strong and ef­fec­tive fed­eral pro­tec­tions to guar­an­tee that ours is a real democ­racy.”

Joshua L. Jones Athens Ban­ner-Her­ald

GE­OR­GIA Sec­re­tary of State Brian Kemp, right, the GOP can­di­date for gover­nor, has blocked more than 50,000 voter reg­is­tra­tions.

John Amis EPA/Shutterstock

D E M O C R AT Stacey Abrams, right, whose cam­paign ac­cuses Kemp of “ma­li­ciously wield­ing the power of his of­fice to sup­press the vote.”

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