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How Voting Became a Central Issue in the Georgia Governor’s Race

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© Audra Melton for The New York Times

By RICHARD FAUSSET, The New York Times
ATLANTA

Yotam Oren registered to vote last December, moments after the ceremony in which he became a United States citizen. He included a copy of his new naturalization certificate with his Georgia voter registration form.

But soon afterward, Mr. Oren received a letter from his county elections office telling him that he was on “pending” voter status because his citizenship had not been verified, and that he would have to show proof of citizenship when he went to vote.

Mr. Oren, according to court records, was eventually allowed to cast an early vote in Georgia’s closely contested, and closely watched, governor’s race — but not after going through what a federal judge would call “a burdensome process” that required two trips to the polls.

His case was a key element of a federal lawsuit that challenges a Georgia law known as “exact match,” on the grounds that the law has threatened the voting rights of more than 50,000 voters whose registration forms did not precisely match personal information on government databases. On Friday, a federal judge called Mr. Oren’s experience “beyond the merely inconvenient’’ and forced the state to smooth out administrative hurdles to eligible voters who had been erroneously flagged as noncitizens by the exact-match system.

Mr. Oren’s story was just one example of a Georgia voting system that critics say was designed to make it difficult for voters, particularly minorities and new citizens, to exercise the franchise. Liberals, including Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor, lay much of the blame on her Republican rival, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who critics say has a history of voter suppression.

Mr. Kemp called those charges a “farce”: he noted that he has made it easier to vote by helping to bring about an online voter registration system. He also said that Georgia, with 6.7 million registered voters, has added about a million voters to the rolls since the 2010 primary, the first election he oversaw as secretary of state.

The issue is fraught with racial and historical resonance. Ms. Abrams is seeking to become the first African-American woman governor in American history, and she is striving to do so in a Southern state with a history of racist voter suppression and a minority population that is growing rapidly.

Mr. Kemp, who is white, is an ardent supporter of President Trump, who is planning to hold a rally for him in Macon on Sunday afternoon.

The following is a guide to the most discussed and debated voting-rights issues in Georgia ahead of Tuesday’s election:

‘Exact match’ throws thousands into limbo

Mr. Oren’s ordeal was the result of what is known as Georgia’s “exact match” law. It was passed last year, at Mr. Kemp’s urging, by the Republican-dominated state legislature.

Under the law, the information on new voter registration forms is entered by county elections officials into a system that checks it against information entered in either the Social Security Administration database or a database maintained by the state Department of Driver Services.

Supporters of the law say the goal is to prevent voter fraud. Critics say that registrations can be held up if the tiniest details do not match. Applications can be rejected over a missing hyphen.

Residents with unmatched applications are put on a “pending” list, which allows them to vote in the current election. However, if they do not clear up the issue within 26 months, their application is then rejected.

The system also creates problems for new citizens like Mr. Oren, one of roughly 3,100 people who were flagged over their citizenship status. According to legal filings in a lawsuit challenging the system, it automatically put people like Mr. Oren on the pending list — regardless of whether they attach their naturalization paperwork — if they do not also update their citizenship status with the Department of Driver Services. And nothing requires new citizens to make this change.

The exact-match law took center stage last month, when The Associated Press obtained documents from Mr. Kemp’s office in a public records request and found 53,000 voter registrations were stuck in this “pending” status for failing to meet the exact-match standards. Nearly 70 percent of the registrants were African-American, the news agency found.

A number of the applicants were signed up by the New Georgia Project, a voter-drive group that Ms. Abrams founded to boost minority participation in the electoral process. Mr. Kemp has blamed the group for turning in sloppy paper applications.

Some observers said they are worried that the “pending” status of these voters will lead to confusion when they go to the polls. In Friday’s ruling, U.S. District Judge Eleanor L. Ross said that Mr. Oren, after learning he was on the pending list, went through “a burdensome process requiring two trips to the polls, his own research and his hunting down a name and telephone number to give to election officials so that his citizenship status could be verified, all after he had already submitted proof of citizenship with his voter application.’’

Mr. Oren’s ability to vote was held up by Fulton County poll workers who struggled to reach someone who could change his status from pending to active when he showed up with his proof of citizenship. The judge’s order on Friday broadened the list of poll workers authorized to verify citizenship documents, and directed Mr. Kemp’s office to issue a news release and update its website to clarify how such residents may vote.

Purging inactive voters

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, Georgia, under Mr. Kemp, purged 1.5 million voters from its rolls between 2012 and 2016. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that another 665,000 Georgia voters were purged last year.

The state is one of a handful that removes voters from the rolls after they are deemed “inactive.” Such removals were upheld in June by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision that considered a similar program in Ohio.

Supporters of the purges say their intent, much like the “exact match” law, is to prevent fraud. But the policies remain highly controversial.

In Georgia, residents who have not voted or otherwise been in contact with elections officials for three years are sent a notice via mail asking them to confirm, within 30 days, that the address is still valid.

If elections officials do not hear from them, they are moved to an “inactive” list, and their registration is canceled if they do not vote or make contact with officials over the next two general elections.

Critics say this process could have a disproportionate effect on minority voters, and is fundamentally flawed in other ways.

“These postcards voters get, they think it’s more junk they don’t have to review,” said Julie M. Houck, senior special counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Careful how you sign

A separate controversy erupted this election season over a Georgia law that mandates that the signatures on absentee ballots — and absentee ballot applications — visually match the signatures kept on file with county elections officials.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued Mr. Kemp over the law on the grounds that people were essentially being denied the right to vote because of poor penmanship. Sean J. Young, the legal director for the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that roughly 700 absentee ballot applications, and 189 absentee ballots, had been rejected by county officials because of mismatched signatures.

A judge issued a temporary restraining order on Oct. 24 that barred county officials from rejecting the ballots or applications based on perceived signature mismatches.

Mr. Kemp has declined to step aside

A number of critics of Mr. Kemp have called for him to step down as secretary of state to eliminate any suspicion that he has his thumb on the scales of the election. Most prominent among the critics is former President Jimmy Carter, a Georgia native, who wrote Mr. Kemp and told him that stepping aside would “ensure the confidence of our citizens in the outcome.”

Mr. Kemp has refused to step down, arguing that the most important arbiters of election results are county elections officials, and that his critics are just taking political shots.

Other concerns have emerged. The N.A.A.C.P. state conference filed a complaint with the board of elections over reports of irregularities in touch-screen machines in four counties. In some cases, after voters tried to choose Ms. Abrams, “the machines instead chose Secretary of State Brian Kemp,” the N.A.A.C.P. said in a news release.

And many Democrats still suspect that Mr. Kemp’s office was somehow behind a recent proposal to close seven of nine polling places in majority-black Randolph County. Mr. Kemp has insisted he had nothing to do with the proposal, which was rejected by the county elections board after a national outcry in August.

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Politics - U.S. Daily News: How Voting Became a Central Issue in the Georgia Governor’s Race
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