A coalition of advocacy groups has launched a lawsuit to block Georgia from enforcing a practice critics say endangers the votes of more than 50,000 people in November and potentially larger numbers headed into the 2020 presidential election cycle.
The Campaign Legal Center and Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law argued in the suit, which was filed in a federal district court on Thursday, that the state's "exact match" requirement violates the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act and the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
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The office of Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is now running for governor in a hotly contested race with Democratic former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, used the system from 2013 to 2016 but stopped in 2017 as part of a settlement stemming from separate litigation. But the Republican-held state legislature soon stepped in and passed the protocol into law. A recent Associated Press report found around 53,000 people -- nearly 70% of them African-Americans -- had their registrations placed in limbo because of some kind of mismatch with drivers license or social security information. Kemp, in a tweet, said, "The 53,000 Georgians on our 'pending' list can vote in the Nov. 6th election."
As the AP report stoked a national firestorm, the Abrams campaign called for Kemp to resign as the state's top elections official in order for Georgia voters to "have confidence that their Secretary of State (will) competently and impartially oversee this election."
In the lawsuit, which was formally threatened back in July and has no connection to the campaign, the plaintiffs argue that the controversial "exact match" checks had been shown "to disproportionately and negatively impact the ability of voting-eligible African-American, Latino and Asian-American applicants" even before the process was signed into law by the current governor, Republican Nathan Deal, in 2017.
Danielle Lang, senior legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said Friday that the groups were not alleging that Kemp had violated the letter of the law, but suggested he had taken steps to enforce it as restrictively as possible.
"As secretary of state, you have discretion about the policy you put forward to enforce that law," Lang said, "and I have seen no evidence of any policy put in place by Secretary Kemp that would minimize who would get (unduly) caught in this net."
Kemp has said that those currently on the "pending" list will be able to vote in the coming election provided they can show approved identification at their polling places, which is already required by the state. Provisional ballots will also be made available in case related disputes cannot be sorted on the spot.
The Campaign Legal Center, however, is concerned that voters who cast ballots by mail will not have that opportunity, and if their ballots are rejected under the "exact match" rule -- and they do not successfully navigate the bureaucracy within a 26-month window -- they could see their names purged from the voter rolls. The current law allows the state to remove "inactive voters" who miss three cycles. This, Lang said, could speed up those removals.
Candice Broce, the press secretary and a staff attorney with Kemp's office, called the lawsuit a "publicity stunt" full of "bogus" claims.
"It is a complete waste of our time and taxpayer dollars," she said in a statement, arguing that the law "mirrors" another in Florida that survived a recent court challenge. "The 53,000 Georgians cited in their complaint can vote in the November 6th election. Any claims to the contrary are politically motivated and utterly false."
In a press release from August, after the threat of litigation had been made public, Kemp argued that "despite any claim to the contrary, it has never been easier to register to vote in Georgia and actively engage in the electoral process."
"The numbers do not lie," he said. "I defeated the Lawyers' Committee and their clients in 2014, and I look forward to successfully defending Georgia's common-sense verification law if they move forward with this litigation."
In tweets this week, Kemp touted what is expected to be a record 7 million or more registered voters going into next month's midterms while alleging that Abrams had "manufactured a 'crisis' to fire up her supporters and raise funds from left wing radicals throughout the country."
He has, throughout the campaign, attacked the former state House minority leader, who had a reputation for crafting bipartisan compromises during her time in the legislature, as a "radical" too closely aligned with progressive national Democrats and "outside agitators."
The escalating fights, both in the courtroom and on the campaign trail, mark a reprisal of past battles between Kemp and Abrams and, separately, nonpartisan groups like those bringing the new litigation against his office.
"If there is one person in Georgia who knows that the 'Exact Match' scheme has a discriminatory impact on minority voters, it's Brian Kemp," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, "because we successfully sued him over a mirror policy in 2016."
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday, accusing the Justice Department of taking an "intentionally lax approach to enforcement of voting rights laws" throughout the country.
The CBC singled out the Georgia controversy, and accused Kemp of intentionally suppressing the African-American vote in the upcoming election, according to the letter obtained by CNN.
In the letter, the CBC called out what it described as the DOJ's "complete abdication" of voting rights oversight responsibilities.