Georgia group can prove illegal voter purge by Kemp, leader says

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images (2)

The leader of a group formed by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams says it can prove that voters were illegally removed from state rolls over the past few years by the office of former Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who defeated Abrams in a close race for governor.

“We now have individuals who we have worked with and identified who were erroneously caught up in this,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight Action. Abrams established the organization after losing to Kemp by 55,000 votes out of 3.9 million cast.

“We’re going to be able to prove for the first time I think that [Kemp’s] purges were actually illegal,” Groh-Wargo said in an interview for the Yahoo News podcast “The Long Game.”

“We did not believe they were being done legally, but we didn’t have enough to prove it. And I believe we do now have enough to show and prove in court that he was purging at a scale that was illegal,” said Groh-Wargo, who was Abrams’s campaign manager.

The lawsuit in U.S. district court brought last week by Fair Fight and another group, Care in Action, says that the election in Georgia was “plagued with irregularities that disproportionately affected voters of color.”

Abrams has said she recognizes that Kemp is governor under the law, but has pointedly refused to refer to him as “legitimate.” She has not gone so far as to say, as Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown did, that it was a “stolen election.” But Abrams did say that Kemp engaged in a “deliberate and intentional” program of “systemic disenfranchisement” of voters, primarily African-Americans.

Kemp served as secretary of state from 2010 until just after the election, and his refusal to resign his post and to instead oversee the very election he was a candidate in struck many as a conflict of interest.

Secretaries of state are required by law to keep voter rolls up to date by removing voters who move out of state, die and — in some states — when they are convicted of felonies. But Georgia was more aggressive in removing voters from the rolls than most other states, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at New York University’s School of Law.

The Brennan Center said Kemp removed 1.5 million Georgians from the rolls between 2012 and 2016.

Kemp’s office maintained that the Brennan Center’s statistics were incorrect and that the correct number of voters purged was 717,912. But another 668,000 voters were removed in 2017.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June upheld the legality of removing voters from the rolls because they have failed to vote in an election cycle or two. Only six states, Georgia included, do this.

But the Fair Fight Action lawsuit lists at least nine ways in which Kemp created “an obstacle course for voters” that primarily affected counties with large numbers of poor and black citizens.

A man presents his voter identification before voting at the Rothschild Elementary School library in Columbus, Ga., on Nov. 6. (Photo: Melina Mara/Washington Post via Getty Images)

The obstacles include:

  • The “exact match” system that placed voters in a “pending” status based on minor discrepancies between their registration forms and state records.
  • Long lines at polling places due to lack of sufficient voting machines, or because machines malfunctioned.
  • Reports of voters being told incorrectly that they were not registered, or that they were registered in other counties.
  • No paper receipts for votes tallied by electronic machines, making it impossible to check the results. (Georgia is one of 14 states without a paper trail.)
  • The closure or relocation of over 300 polling locations since 2012, often in majority-black counties.
  • Shoddy training by the state for local officials, who gave some voters inaccurate information about whether they could vote.
  • Insufficient numbers of provisional ballots, leaving some voters without any recourse.
  • Absentee ballots mailed to voters too late for them to use them.
  • Absentee ballots thrown out over minor typographical errors in Gwinnet County, which is 60 percent minority, at a higher rate than the rest of the state.

Kemp “facilitated and permitted different elections systems in different counties in Georgia,” the suit says. Fair Fight Action has roughly 10,000 individual stories that it has documented, and “hundreds” of signed affidavits from voters who say they encountered one of the many obstacles to voting that Fair Fight has catalogued.

The lawsuit says that Kemp violated the Constitution’s First, 14th and 15th amendments, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

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The suit’s fate in court is uncertain. But it will serve as a cornerstone of the public case that Abrams and her allies will make as they continue to push for changes to Georgia’s system.

“I do think … that under existing law, many of the claims that Abrams is making face an uphill battle,” legal scholar Richard Hasen told National Public Radio. “It is not clear to me that this is going to be a legal winner of a lawsuit, but it could be a political winner, even if it’s not a legal winner, because it reminds voters what is at stake.”

Groh-Wargo said the group will be “relentless” in pushing for changes to the system. And Abrams has already said she plans to run for office again in the near future. Her next chance at statewide office would be to challenge Republican Sen. David Perdue in 2020.

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