Vot­ing rights be­come a flash­point in race

The Progress-Index - - OBITUARIES - By Ben Nadler [AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO]

AT­LANTA — Mar­sha Ap­pling-Nunez was show­ing the col­lege stu­dents she teaches how to check on­line if they’re reg­is­tered to vote when she made a trou­bling dis­cov­ery. De­spite be­ing an ac­tive Ge­or­gia voter who had cast bal­lots in re­cent elec­tions, she was no longer reg­is­tered.

“I was kind of shocked,” said Ap­pling-Nunez, who moved from one At­lanta sub­urb to an­other in May and be­lieved she had suc­cess­fully changed her ad­dress on the voter rolls.

“I’ve al­ways voted. I try to not miss any elec­tions, in­clud­ing lo­cal ones,” Ap­pling-Nunez said.

She tried re-reg­is­ter­ing, but with about one month left be­fore a Novem­ber elec­tion that will de­cide a gover­nor’s race and some com­pet­i­tive U.S. House races, Ap­pling-Nunez’s ap­pli­ca­tion is one of over 53,000 sit­ting on hold with Ge­or­gia Sec­re­tary of State Brian Kemp’s of­fice. And un­like Ap­pling-Nunez, many peo­ple on that list — which is pre­dom­i­nantly black, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis by The As­so­ci­ated Press — may not even know their voter regis­tra­tion has been held up.

Tues­day is Ge­or­gia’s dead­line to reg­is­ter and be el­i­gi­ble to vote in the Novem­ber Gen­eral Elec­tion.

Kemp, who’s also the Repub­li­can can­di­date for gover­nor, is in charge of elec­tions and voter regis­tra­tion in Ge­or­gia.

His Demo­cratic op­po­nent, for­mer state Rep. Stacey Abrams, and vot­ing rights ad­vo­cacy groups charge that Kemp is sys­tem­at­i­cally us­ing his of­fice to sup­press votes and tilt the elec­tion, and that his poli­cies dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect black and mi­nor­ity vot­ers.

Kemp de­nies it ve­he­mently.

But through a process that Kemp calls voter roll main­te­nance and his op­po­nents call voter roll purges, Kemp’s of­fice has can­celled over 1.4 mil­lion voter reg­is­tra­tions since 2012. Nearly 670,000 reg­is­tra­tions were can­celled in 2017 alone.

In a re­cent tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ance on Com­edy Cen­tral’s “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” Abrams called Kemp “a re­mark­able ar­chi­tect of voter sup­pres­sion.” That’s be­come a rallying cry for Democrats in the gover­nor’s race, which re­cent pub­lic polling shows in a sta­tis­ti­cal dead heat.

Kemp, mean­while, says Abrams and al­lied lib­eral ac­tivists are twist­ing his record of guard­ing Ge­or­gia elec­tions against voter fraud.

His cam­paign spokesman Ryan Ma­honey said in a state­ment that be­cause of Kemp, “it has never been eas­ier to vote in our state” and pointed to a new on­line voter regis­tra­tion sys­tem and a stu­dent en­gage­ment pro­gram im­ple­mented un­der his ten­ure.

“Kemp is fight­ing to pro­tect the in­tegrity of our elec­tions and en­sure that only le­gal cit­i­zens cast a bal­lot,” Ma­honey said.

Two main poli­cies over­seen by Kemp have drawn crit­i­cism and le­gal chal­lenges: Ge­or­gia’s “ex­act match” regis­tra­tion ver­i­fi­ca­tion process and the mass can­cel­la­tion of in­ac­tive voter reg­is­tra­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to records ob­tained from Kemp’s of­fice through a pub­lic records re­quest, Ap­pling-Nunez’s ap­pli­ca­tion —like many of the 53,000 reg­is­tra­tions on hold with Kemp’s of­fice — was flagged be­cause it ran afoul of the state’s “ex­act match” ver­i­fi­ca­tion process.

Un­der the pol­icy, in­for­ma­tion on voter ap­pli­ca­tions must pre­cisely match in­for­ma­tion on file with the Ge­or­gia Depart­ment of Driver Ser­vices or the So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Elec­tion of­fi­cials can place non-match­ing ap­pli­ca­tions on hold.

An ap­pli­ca­tion could be held be­cause of an en­try er­ror or a dropped hy­phen in a last name, for ex­am­ple.

Ap­pling-Nunez says she never saw any no­tice from Kemp’s of­fice in­di­cat­ing a prob­lem with her ap­pli­ca­tion.

An anal­y­sis of the records ob­tained by The As­so­ci­ated Press re­veals racial dis­par­ity in the process. Ge­or­gia’s pop­u­la­tion is ap­prox­i­mately 32 per­cent black, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus, but the list of voter reg­is­tra­tions on hold with Kemp’s of­fice is nearly 70 per­cent black.

Kemp’s of­fice blamed that dis­par­ity on the New Ge­or­gia Project, a voter regis­tra­tion group founded by Abrams in 2013.

Kemp ac­cuses the or­ga­ni­za­tion of be­ing sloppy in reg­is­ter­ing vot­ers, and says they sub­mit­ted in­ad­e­quate forms for a batch of ap­pli­cants that was pre­dom­i­nantly black. His of­fice has said the New Ge­or­gia Project used pri­mar­ily pa­per forms and “did not ad­e­quately train can­vassers to en­sure leg­i­ble, com­plete forms .... ”

His of­fice says “the law ap­plies equally across all de­mo­graph­ics,” but th­ese num­bers be­came skewed by “the higher us­age of one method of regis­tra­tion among one par­tic­u­lar de­mo­graphic group.”

Vot­ers whose ap­pli­ca­tions are frozen in “pend­ing” sta­tus have 26 months to fix any is­sues be­fore their ap­pli­ca­tion is can­celed, and can still cast a pro­vi­sional bal­lot.

But crit­ics say the sys­tem has a high er­ror rate and de­cry the racial dis­par­ity that it pro­duces.

“We’ve shown that this process dis­pro­por­tion­ately pre­vents mi­nor­ity ap­pli­cants from get­ting on the voter regis­tra­tion rolls,” Julie Houk, spe­cial coun­sel for the Wash­ing­ton based Lawyers’ Com­mit­tee for Civil Rights Un­der Law, said in an in­ter­view. With that in mind, she called it “kind of as­tound­ing” that Ge­or­gia leg­is­la­tors wrote it into state law in 2017.

Houk’s group wrote to Kemp in July threat­en­ing le­gal ac­tion if “ex­act match” wasn’t ended.

Kemp’s ag­gres­sive main­te­nance of the voter list has also gar­nered the threat of le­gal ac­tion.

His of­fice says that they sim­ply “con­duct reg­u­lar list main­te­nance of the voter rolls to en­sure elec­tion in­tegrity” as re­quired by fed­eral and state law. “All of the af­fected records were in­ac­tive as a re­sult of re­turned mail, Na­tional Change of Ad­dress, and ‘no con­tact’ list main­te­nance pro­ce­dures,” it said.

Kemp dis­missed and de­rided the le­gal threat tar­get­ing the “ex­act match” pol­icy, is­su­ing a state­ment say­ing that with Elec­tion Day com­ing up, “it’s high time for an­other friv­o­lous law­suit from lib­eral ac­tivist groups.”

His of­fice said that since Jan­uary 2014, elec­tions of­fi­cials have pro­cessed over 6.4 mil­lion voter reg­is­tra­tions and less than 1 per­cent re­main in pend­ing sta­tus.

State Rep. Barry Flem­ing, who au­thored the state law en­abling “ex­act match,” said in a state­ment that it’s au­tho­rized un­der fed­eral law, and courts have up­held a sim­i­lar law in Florida.

But Ap­pling-Nunez said it’s im­por­tant for ev­ery Geor­gian’s vote, in­clud­ing hers, to be counted in Novem­ber.

“If you don’t like what’s hap­pen­ing you ei­ther have to vote to change it or get out there and change it your­self,” she said. “A life of pol­i­tics is not for me so I have to sup­port those who are fight­ing the good fight.”

In this Aug. 3 photo, Ge­or­gia gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Stacey Abrams an­swers her phone be­fore speak­ing at the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Black Jour­nal­ists in Detroit.

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