ATLANTA, GEORGIA—A court could decide any day now whether tens of thousands of Georgia voters can cast a ballot this November, a choice that could sway the outcome of the state’s neck-and-neck races for Governor and Senator.
Earlier this year, organizers fanned out across nearly every one of Georgia’s 159 counties and registered nearly 90 thousand people who have never voted in their lives, most of them people of color, many of them under 25 years old. But when the groups checked back in late August, comparing their registration database to the state’s public one, they noticed about 50,000 of the registrations had vanished, nearly all of them belonging to people of color in the Democratic-leaning regions around Atlanta, Savannah and Columbus.
Georgia’s state minority leader Stacy Abrams (D), whose group The New Georgia Project led the massive registration drive in March and April, told ThinkProgress what happened next was “deeply disturbing.”
“We asked the Secretary of State to meet with us. We wanted to understand if we were doing something wrong, or if there was another database we didn’t have access to. But he refused to meet with us,” she said.
Joined by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Georgia NAACP, the organizers asked twice more for a meeting about the missing registrations. When early voting began across the state and they still had not heard from the Secretary of State, the New Georgia Project took them to court. In arguments on Friday, Francys Johnson, president of the Georgia NAACP, asked Fulton County Superior Court Judge Christopher Brasher to compel the state to process every valid registration.
“In 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, we were only able to know there were problems when it was too late, when people started showing up to the polls and they were not on the voter rolls, and folks were already disenfranchised,” Johnson explained to ThinkProgress over the phone. “We must catch that disenfranchisement before it takes place.”
Lawyers for Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp and three counties who are also the target of the suit countered that state law sets no deadlines for processing voter registrations, and emphasized that any voter unsure of their registration status can always cast a provisional ballot. Those who do so must return within three days to present additional documentation or otherwise cure any problem with the system. But the NAACP and New Georgia Project called this remedy “unacceptable.”
“I cannot tell you what little return we actually see in terms of provisional ballots,” Johnson said. “The election is decided the night of the election. It’s not really a ballot at all.”
Even if every one of the registrations in limbo does get processed and added to the voter rolls by Election Day, Johnson says the uncertainty has still been “problematic.” Because the 40,000-odd voters have not yet received their registration cards in the mail that tells them which precinct they’re assigned to, “this ambiguity may discourage people from going to out to vote, and those who do go won’t know where to go, and they’ll be shuffled around from polling place to polling place.”
Amidst this chaos, the Secretary of State publicly accused the New Georgia Project in September of submitting fraudulent registration forms. A subsequent investigation found just 25 confirmed forgeries out of more than 85,000 forms—a fraud rate of about 3/100ths of 1 percent.
Abrams explained to ThinkProgress that all other third party registration groups must submit every form they get no matter if it’s incomplete or forged. She characterized the subpoena and accusations as an attempt to intimidate and discredit her efforts.
“If you accuse people of fraud, the public will believe there is fraud, just like if you yell ‘fire,’ people run,” she said. “The problem is, if there is no fire, you’re causing damage, and if there is no fraud, you’ve damaged reputations.”
Dr. Francys Johnson agreed, but ThinkProgress the accusations have not worked as the state may have intended.
“If they thought it would have a chilling effect on voter registration efforts, they were mistaken. It has emboldened our efforts. It has awakened the consciousness of people that the right to vote is still precariously endangered.”
The legal battle comes at a pivotal time for the state of Georgia. The state’s African-American, Latino, Asian and Native American populations have grown extensively, as has their share of the electorate. The growth is dramatic enough that many political analysts predict the state’s political identity could swing from red to blue over the next few years.
At the same time these changes were taking place, the state enacted measures courts have found to disproportionately impact voters of color. In 2006, Georgia enacted a “strict” voter ID law. Five years later the state cut the number of days of early voting. In 2012, the Secretary of State purged thousands of voters from the rolls a few months before the presidential election. Just last month, the same Secretary of State lamented before an audience of Republican activists that the registration of more voters of color would mean a win for Democrats.
Abrams told ThinkProgress she launched the registration effort to make sure the officials in local, state and national office actually represented the people of the state.
“We are facing a new Georgia: demographically, politically, economically, and socially,” she said. “We should all be engaged in a process to bring them into the civic conversation. It is dangerous, no matter your party, to have large swaths of your population disengaged and disaffected.”
A ruling from Judge Brasher could come at any time, and based on his remarks during Friday’s hearing, Abrams says she is not optimistic for a ruling in her favor. The New Georgia Project can appeal, but with the election less than two weeks away, the window is getting narrow for forcing the state to process the registrations.
Even as she vowed to continue reaching out over the coming years to the hundreds of thousands of remaining unregistered voters in Georgia, Abrams said her “deepest fear” is that many of the newly registered young voters will by turned off voting for life if they can’t cast a regular ballot this November.
“Fast-forward ten years, and you’ll have a majority-minority population that has even less power than it has right now, because they’ll have become so disengaged, ” she warned. “And the people with power will solidify that power and put up barriers to any possible change.”
One concrete way this could happen is the next time the state revises its voting maps, in 2020. The governor elected in 2018 will have the final say on those maps, which could be gerrymandered to benefit one political party for many years to come.
Alice Ollstein is a Political Reporter at ThinkProgress. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered and Telesur. Alice is originally from Santa Monica, California.