More Georgia voter suppression? Atlanta-area county now under fire

Voting authorities have discarded an unusually large number of absentee ballots in Georgia’s most diverse county as voters prepare to decide whether to elect the first black female governor ever.

The rejections are fueling a furor over Georgia’s impediments to voting in one of the tightest gubernatorial races in the country where the state’s top elections official is also the GOP nominee for governor.

Part of the problem stems from the confusing instructions on Gwinnett County’s absentee envelopes, which are printed in both English and Spanish. Gwinnett is the only one of Georgia’s 159 counties required by the federal Voting Rights Act to produce dual-language ballots because of a rising Hispanic voter base.

Voting experts and election watchdogs, including a group that sued Secretary of State Brian Kemp and the Gwinnett County Board of Registrations and Elections Monday, pointed to the county’s own reports showing that ballots are being denied because voters are misunderstanding the instructions.

The suit said Gwinnett County, where 30 percent of voters are black, had rejected nearly one out of 10 absentee ballots through late last week, far more than any other county. Fulton County, the state’s most populous, has rejected 60 absentee ballots out of more than 4,355 as of Tuesday afternoon, Elections Director Rick Barron said. Many other Georgia counties, such as Chattahoochee, where Fort Benning’s soldiers rely heavily on absentee ballots, have not reported rejecting any such ballots.

Separately, the Washington-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, sent a demand letter to the Republican-dominated Gwinnett elections board and the county attorney demanding that ballots be counted when it appears voters who were confused by the ballot instructions.

“Gwinnett County is rejecting absentee ballots at an astounding rate, accounting for virtually 40 percent of all rejected absentee ballots statewide,” said Kristen Clarke, the committee’s president and executive director. “Our analysis shows the impact is particularly stark on communities of color, with ballots cast by African Americans at more than three times the rate of ballots cast by white voters.

“We are continuing to see voter suppression rear its ugly head in Georgia at both the state and local levels.“

The focus on absentee ballots comes after other allegations that have beset Kemp, who is locked in the nationally watched governor’s race between him and Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams, who is bidding to become the nation’s first black female governor.

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More than 50,000 voter registrations had been put on hold under a new state law requiring the applicant’s name to exactly match that on other government records. That followed the legislature’s adoption of the nation’s toughest voter identification law. Kemp also has been under fire because of an electronic security breach in Georgia’s voter registration database, which is controlled by his office. Further, the state’s electronic voting machines record votes without producing a verifiable paper trail.

A spokesman for Gwinnett County, Joe Sorenson, said he didn’t know why its rejection rate has been so high, but that county authorities are following the law. He said some of the surge in absentee ballot rejections can be attributed to voters’ failure to properly fill out the ballots, many of which contained inaccurate addresses or signatures that did not match official records.

Marilyn Marks, head of the Coalition for Good Governance that brought the suit on behalf of five Georgia voters, said the state law is unconstitutional because it fails to require counties to promptly give voters a chance to fix any issues.

“Georgia law is that one strike and you’re out,” she said. ”We have got different practices going on county to county. There’s nothing in the law that says issue them a new ballot, or under these circumstances a new ballot application. We want a fair law that gives people the legal right to come back and get a new ballot.”

The suit asks a federal judge to bar election officials statewide from rejecting a voter’s signature on a ballot without “agreement of a bi-partisan signature review team.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and its Georgia branch then filed a second federal suit demanding that Kemp and all Georgia county registrars provide due process for all voters whose absentee ballots were disqualified because their signature on the ballot did not match the one in state records. The group noted that election officials have no handwriting-analysis expertise.

Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for Kemp, said eligibility for absentee ballots is determined solely by local officials, but that his office opened an investigation on behalf of the state elections board Tuesday to ensure all counties are abiding by the law in handling those ballots.

She added that Kemp “will not be bullied by out-of-state organizations or political operatives who want to generate headlines and advance a baseless narrative.”

Michael McDonald, a University of Florida associate political science professor, said the controversy underscores that watchdog groups have neglected examining absentee ballots — another “election administration procedure that can lead to people’s votes not being counted.”

In 2014, he said, more than 400,000 mailed ballots were rejected nationally by those election jurisdictions that provided data to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Records that Gwinnett County sent to Kemp’s office indicate that some voters did receive a second ballot, thus remedying deficiencies.

But, a nonprofit investigative website that first reported on Gwinnett’s high rate of stricken absentee ballots, said some voters had not been informed “promptly,” as state law vaguely requires, that their absentee ballots had been rejected. That would diminish their opportunity to obtain another ballot or vote in person.

Some Gwinnett County voters notified that their absentee ballots were stricken said they were baffled.

“It came back to me and said the signature doesn’t match,” said Krista N. Ford, a professional weightlifter in Decatur, in Dekalb County, also part of the Atlanta metropolitan area. “I don’t know what they have on file, but it’s my signature (on the ballot).”

Sorenson said the comparison of an absentee voter’s signature with one on file through county or state records is “the only subjective piece of this whole thing.” He said striking an absentee ballot for a mismatched signature “is not something that’s being delegated to lower level of staff” and usually involved a decision by the county elections manager.

Ford said she decided not to ask for another absentee ballot.

“I was just thinking I would go down to the polls,” Ford said. “I’ll just go down to vote like a normal person.”

Sorenson said, “If you get an absentee ballot from any other county in Georgia … it’s going to be a lot less text on it.”.

Gwinnett County, comprising Greater Atlanta’s northeast suburban areas, has a growing minority population.

Interest among African-Americans in Georgia in voting this year is soaring. McDonald, who heads the school’s United States Elections Project, said blacks are voting early at a rate 2.7 times higher than in 2014.

Of the 129,458 mail-in and in-person early ballots cast thus far 70,127, or 54.2 percent were cast by white voters, according to the latest calculations on the election project’s website.

African-Americans cast 44,832, or 34.6 percent, of the mail-in and in-person early votes. The United States Elections Project gets its figures from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.

McDonald said there was a significant uptick in mail-in votes among African-Americans, who tend to prefer to vote early in person rather than by mail.

“One factor is heightened interest in the election,” McDonald said. “Another factor is the Stacey Abrams campaign has been encouraging and mobilizing her supporters to vote early, particularly by absentee ballot, and that is driving interest.”

McDonald surmises that the spike in African American mail-in ballots are from new or infrequent voters.

“Although we’re sort of early in the process at least, up to this point, the Democrats are doing what they need to do to win some of these elections, which is turn out these infrequent voters, or at least infrequent voters in midterm elections,” McDonald said. “But, again, there’s a long way between now and Election Day.”

This story has been updated to correct the 10th paragraph: More than 50,000 voter registrations had been put on hold, rather than rejected; the electronic security breach was in the state’s voter registration database and the electronic voting system was considered weak because it had no verifiable paper trail.

Ben Wieder contributed to this report.

Greg Gordon, 202 383-6152, @greggordon2

Tim Johnson, 202 383-6028, @timjohnson4
William Douglas, 202 549-4584, @williamgdouglas
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