Tensions escalated in the already bitter race to be Georgia’s next governor on Thursday after reports that the state had placed tens of thousands of voters’ registrations on a “pending” list, fueling charges of voter suppression and election rigging.
The office of Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state and the Republican nominee for governor in November’s election, has stalled more than 53,000 voter applications, according to a recent report from The Associated Press. The list includes a disproportionately high number of black voters, the report said, which is stirring concern among nonpartisan voting rights advocates and supporters of Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate, who is vying to be the first black woman in the country to be elected governor.
“Georgia has been a cause for concern for a number of policies, ranging from polling place closures to technical blocking of registration and purges, and Georgians deserve fair and accessible elections,” said Myrna Pérez, the deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan voting and civil rights advocacy group.
Mr. Kemp’s office uses a controversial method called “exact match” to verify voter applications, which in some cases means individuals can be purged from voting rolls if their submitted information has even trivial differences from their government identification, such as an entry error or a dropped hyphen. On Thursday, several advocacy groups filed a lawsuit seeking to end the practice and force Georgia to reinstate affected voters.
Filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Campaign Legal Center, the lawsuit alleges that the policy violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, and the First and Fourteenth Amendments. A spokesman for Mr. Kemp did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suit.
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Ms. Abrams expressed her concern in a tweet on Wednesday — calling the news “déjà vu” from Republicans. Her campaign, which says it fears the new information could cause confusion among voters and discourage new participants from getting involved, released an additional statement Wednesday evening condemning Mr. Kemp’s actions.
“As he has done for years, Brian Kemp is maliciously wielding the power of his office to suppress the vote for political gain and silence the voices of thousands of eligible voters — the majority of them people of color,” said Abigail Collazo, a spokeswoman for Ms. Abrams’s campaign. “This isn’t incompetence; it’s malpractice.”
Mr. Kemp’s secretary of state office has denied the accusations of intentional voter suppression, and said the reason for the backlog was shoddy voter registration work by liberal groups.
In a fund-raising email late Wednesday night, Mr. Kemp said to supporters that all 53,000 Georgians now on the pending voting lists will still be able to vote on Election Day, if they meet all the state’s other identification requirements. He tried to frame the backlash to The Associated Press report as partisan bickering.
“Clearly, Stacey Abrams is afraid to run on her record,” Mr. Kemp said in the email. “Instead, Abrams manufactures outrage off a ‘problem’ she created. Abrams uses fear to fund-raise and liberal billionaires continue to bankroll her corrupt enterprise.”
But Democrats say that even if the voters on the list turn out to be eligible to vote, the “pending” status could lead to longer lines and confusion at polling places and might discourage some voters from casting their ballots.
This is not the first time questions of election fairness and voter suppression have come up in the race and about Mr. Kemp’s administration of voting in Georgia. Because Mr. Kemp has refused to resign from his position as secretary of state while he runs for governor, Democrats have worried he would use his position to exert undue influence on the election.
In July, amid complaints about the pending-voter system, Mr. Kemp defended the practice.
“Not a single voter whose status is pending for failure to verify will get rejected this election cycle,” he said in a statement in July. “Despite any claim to the contrary, it has never been easier to register to vote in Georgia and actively engage in the electoral process.”
In August, a plan to close the majority of polling stations in a majority-black Georgia county received enormous backlash, which led to a reversal.
Ms. Pérez, the voting rights expert, said voter suppression efforts often hit poor and minority communities most closely because “those are the folks who don’t have flexibility or margins to overcome those barriers.”
The N.A.A.C.P. released a statement Thursday afternoon saying it is monitoring Mr. Kemp’s activities for possible voter suppression, noting Georgia’s long history of disenfranchising black voters.
“It’s a stain on our system of democracy,” said the N.A.A.C.P.’s president and chief executive, Derrick Johnson. “Less than a month before an election which could produce the first African-American female governor in our nation’s history, we are seeing this type of voter suppression scheme attempted by a state official whose candidacy for the governorship produces an irremediable conflict of interest.”
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