Why the Georgia Governor’s Race May Become One of 2018’s Most Contentious
Editor’s note: This report is an updated excerpt from “Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election,” by Steven Rosenfeld, Hot Books.
If past is prologue—and in the world of elections it often is—the race for the next governor of Georgia may be one of the dirtiest of 2018.
That’s because the winner of this week’s runoff for Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, is among a handful of high-ranking state officials who have notorious records tilting the fine print of the voting process to create barriers aimed at the opposition’s presumed base. His Democratic opponent is Stacey Abrams, a black tax lawyer, author and voter registration activist who served in the state legislature for a decade, rising to be House Minority Leader—who has clashed with Kemp before.
Republicans in Georgia are not shy about aggressively preserving their power. This year, they came close to passing a bill that would have closed polling places in Atlanta an hour earlier and curtailed voting on the Sunday before Election Day.
They showcased similar bad behavior in 2016—just as they did in the 2014–2015 cycle, underscoring the state would be politically purple were it not for GOP efforts to preempt voters and stymie voting to keep its rule red.
This pattern can be seen locally and at the highest reaches of state government, where they have been led by Kemp. One eyebrow-raising local example came in 2015, when white Republicans in rural Hancock County, who are a majority on its county board of elections, sent sheriff deputies knocking on the front doors of more than 180 black voters in the town of Sparta. They weren’t concerned about real crime; they were questioning voter registrations. Their goal in dogging one-fifth of the town’s voters was to help a white mayoral candidate, a lawsuit that followed said. The county attorney, a Republican state legislator, defended the police action by alleging sloppy voter rolls. This was outright intimidation by whites to keep blacks from voting.
While Sparta was a local drama, a fight with statewide consequences involving registrations broke out that same year between Kemp and Abrams. Seen from afar, it looked like Kemp was modernizing the process by instituting online voter registration that year. But Abrams was leading an effort called the New Georgia Project that was running traditional voter drives, where canvassers went door-to-door and registrants filled out paper forms. In October 2014, it emerged that more than 41,000 of the 87,000 forms led by the Project were not going to be processed by Election Day.
This disclosure was not accompanied by the usual gripe from local officials about voter drives—that activists dump mountains of paper on their desks at the last minute. Instead, Kemp announced he was launching a major voter fraud investigation as one of his state’s biggest drives in years was cresting. That accusation and the bureaucratic stonewalling that ensued was completely disingenuous. His investigation, completed months after Election Day, found problems with 25 of the 87,000 voter forms submitted—0.03 percent. But there’s far more that Kemp did to block voters in the 2015–2016 cycle.
Voter registration may seem like a straightforward process; fill out some fields in a registration form, swear you are a citizen and eligible voter—under penalty of perjury—and do so before state filing deadlines. Those data fields are one’s name, address, birth date, and driver’s license or Social Security number. Kemp deliberately politicized a process that is similar to what is used in many states. When people do not register online, local election offices end up typing the information from paper forms into computers and the statewide voter file. Beyond illegible handwriting and typos that occur—and cause some people to not be registered—local officials also do electronic checks to verify the information. States validate a would-be voter’s identity by pinging their driver’s license database and the federal Social Security database using the last four digits of an applicant’s Social Security number. Some also ping prison records to screen for felons. Under Kemp, any unconfirmed match rejected the registrants.
Where this becomes insidious is every one of those databases has had known accuracy problems or shortcomings that disqualify eligible voters. In 2009, the Social Security Administration (SSA) Inspector General’s office assessed how reliable its voter verification was. Compared to “other [Social Security number-based verification] programs used by the states and employers… (the voter registration) no-match rate was two-to-five times higher,” rejecting an additional 16 percent of registrants, it found. Why? That bigger gap was because other SSA programs used the full nine-digit Social Security number, while the voter program only used the last four digits. Less precise matching yields more errors.
In 2005, Congress’s Government Accountability Office issued a report finding state driver’s license databases confuse names, including full names, names with or without middle initials, aliases, etc. “Even a 1 percent error rate on a match validating names, driver license numbers, etc., could generate tens of thousands of bad matches,” the nonpartisan congressional analysts reported.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted how this process unfolded in their state in late 2014. “If everything goes right, a match comes back and the voter’s name is sent to the Secretary of State’s Office. But it sometimes does not go right,” they wrote. They cited the problems with Social Security and driver’s license data, and noted why state prison records also were unreliable. “County officials must also ping the state Department of Corrections database, which may lag by up to several months in its information,” the paper wrote. “The Social Security Administration database only comes back as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ match, giving county officials no help in determining what further information may need to be provided by the applicant. A hyphenated last name can cause hiccups with the state’s identification database, as can unintentional data entry errors by county clerks, said former North Carolina [state] election director Gary Bartlett, who submitted an affidavit on behalf of the voter groups [who sued over the botched processing of registrations].”
In other words, Kemp did not just masquerade behind the badge of fighting nonexistent voter fraud to thwart a registration drive led by a powerful elected Democrat. He also was winnowing voter rolls to impact the finish line—who can vote on Election Day. And there’s more. Between October 2012 and November 2014, he purged more than 370,000 inactive voters, which exceeded the number of newly registered voters.
But at the starting line—voter registration—he was knowingly using a shoddy verification process to disqualify or hold registrants in limbo. Using porous data and imprecise analytics produces a politically expedient result: false positives. A lawsuit over Kemp’s matching that was settled in early 2017 found that of the nearly 35,000 registrants whose registrations he canceled between July 2013 and July 15, 2016, 64 percent were black, 8 percent were Latino, 5 percent were Asian, and 14 percent were white. Meanwhile, of those 41,000 registrants that Kemp kept from voting in 2014, 18,000 were approved after the election in which they registered to vote. This is how nuanced and targeted voter suppression works.
Kemp’s tactics, especially using error-prone data mining, are not unique. One of its top proponents is Kris Kobach, who, as Kansas secretary of state, oversees the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program. That project was created in 2005 by state election directors with the goal of identifying voters registered in more than one state and instances of illegal double voting. It does so by matching first and last names, birth dates, and state turnout data. It was used by 28 states in 2016. You would be correct if you concluded that it surfaces hardly any illegal activity—single-digit instances from states each with tens of millions of voters. But its imprecise methodology generates hundreds of thousands of false positives. (A July 2018 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School said eight of those states have since left the program and another eight have stopped using its data for voter registration purposes.)
Yet in 2015, Crosscheck helped Kemp identify some 540,000 Georgia voters who were in danger of being purged before the 2016 election. That’s one-eighth of the Georgians who voted in the presidential election that fall. This points to another fight in the lead-up to the election—mass purges by GOP secretaries of state of tens of thousands of infrequent but legally registered voters in Democratic strongholds. In early 2017, Georgia and more than a dozen red states filed a brief at the Supreme Court urging it to hear a case in its fall term over Ohio’s purge of 144,000 infrequent voters in blue epicenters before the 2016 election. These red states sided with Ohio’s partisan mass purge. The Court this June upheld Ohio’s removal procedure, based on Ohio exploiting ambiguity in the wording of federal voting laws.
Meanwhile, the battle between Kemp and Abrams is far from over. Both are running for governor in 2018 (as is Kobach in Kansas). But the tactic that Kemp and Kobach engaged in—targeting and freezing out new voters, and partisan purges of infrequent voters—is all about cynically exploiting what should be a simple bookkeeping process for political gain.
Meanwhile, investigative journalists have found that some of these same voter suppression barriers targeting Georgia’s blue voters remain. As Reuters noted in a report this spring, the state’s blacks are being disproportionately disqualified for registration form errors:
“The tiniest discrepancy on a registration form places them on a ‘pending’ voter list. A Reuters analysis of Georgia’s pending voter list, obtained through a public records request, found that black voters landed on the list at a far higher rate than white voters even though a majority of Georgia’s voters are white.
“Both voting rights activists and Georgia’s state government say the reason for this is that blacks more frequently fill out paper forms than whites, who are more likely to do them online. Paper forms are more prone to human error, both sides agree. But they disagree on whether the errors are made by those filling out the forms or officials processing the forms.
“Republicans say the aim of the ‘exact match’ law is to prevent voter fraud. Voting rights groups, however, object to the tiniest, inadvertent error creating an obstacle to a person’s fundamental right to vote.”
And who is the Georgia official who is overseeing the state’s election of its next governor? It’s Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the GOP nominee for the job.
This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.