The Georgia gubernatorial race is practically dead-even with 25 days to go before the 2018 midterm elections. Democrat Stacey Abrams is the former minority leader of the state’s house of representatives, as well as the first African American woman to be nominated for governor by a major political party. Republican Brian Kemp is a devout Trump acolyte and the state’s current secretary of state. It’s in this role that Kemp oversees Georgia’s elections, and, on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that over 53,000 voter applications have been put on hold under the controversial “exact match” verification policy. Over two-thirds of those affected are African American.
On Thursday, civil rights groups including the Georgia NAACP filed a joint lawsuit against Kemp alleging the policy, which was signed into law last year, has been “shown to disproportionately and negatively impact the ability of voting-eligible African-American, Latino and Asian-American applicants to register to vote.”
The “exact match” policy holds that a resident’s voter application must replicate the information on file with the Social Security Administration and the state’s Department of Driver Services. If an application contains so much as a misplaced dot or dash, it is flagged and put on hold. The AP story breaking the news of the purge highlights an educator whose application was suspended without her knowledge, and there are likely tens of thousands of additional Georgia residents who are not aware that they are no longer registered. Georgians whose applications have been flagged may still vote in the election, although they will be forced to bring identification to their polling place. Voter registration in Georgia closed on Tuesday, and the lawsuit filed on Thursday seeks to reopen registration so the affected residents can square away their registrations.
The Abrams campaign has been outraged. “As he has done for years, Brian Kemp is maliciously wielding the power of his office to suppress the vote for political gain and silence the voices of thousands of eligible voters — the majority of them people of color,” spokesperson Abigail Collazo said in a statement. On Thursday night, Collazo called for Kemp to resign his role overseeing the state’s elections “so that Georgia voters can have confidence that their Secretary of State competently and impartially oversee this election.” As Jamil Smith wrote Wednesday in Rolling Stone, Abrams “is competing against a rival who is also the referee.”
The NAACP also cited Kemp’s conflicting roles in addressing the purge. “It’s a strain on our system of democracy when less than a month before an election, which could produce the first African American female governor in our nation’s history, we are seeing this type of voter suppression scheme attempted by a state official, whose candidacy for the governorship produces an irremediable conflict of interest,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement.
After the news broke on Tuesday, Abrams pointed out Kemp’s history of voter suppression while assuring Georgians that her campaign “will work to process” those affected. Though over two-thirds of Georgians whose applications were put on hold are African American, the demographic makes up only 32 percent of the state’s population.
Kemp has denied any wrongdoing. On Thursday night, he accused Abrams of manufacturing a crisis in order to raise money from “left wing radicals.” Though his campaign has been eager to point out that Kemp did not personally step in and purge 53,000 voter applications, he is responsible for the “exact match” policy.
On Wednesday, Kemp wrote that Abrams “and her radical friends” are “incredibly dishonest,” and that her “dark money voter registration group submitted sloppy forms.” The same day, his campaign touted the nearly seven million Georgians who are currently registered to vote, a record for the state. “While outside agitators disparage this office and falsely attack us, we have kept our head down and remained focused on ensuring secure, accessible, and fair elections for all voters,” his office said in a statement.
Activists have argued otherwise, highlighting the myriad ways Kemp has worked to suppress the minority vote. Since becoming secretary of state in 2010, the Republican has closed hundreds of polling places, mostly in rural, minority-rich counties, and purged well over a million “inactive” voters. Many feel the “exact match” policy has no practical purpose other than complicating the process for minorities. “Nearly every other state treats failure to match a database differently than Georgia,” the Campaign Legal Center, one of the groups filing the lawsuit against Kemp, wrote in a statement. “In the case of a mismatch, the voter is still fully registered. First-time voters are required to show a form of identification at the polls when they vote for the first time. This process provides the same amount of election security and imposes less barriers to voters.”
According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll released Thursday, Kemp currently leads Abrams by a margin of 47.7 percent to 46.3 percent. The difference of 1.4. percent is well within the poll’s margin of error of 2.8 percent. If neither candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote in November, a runoff will be held in December to determine the state’s next governor.