Controversy over 40,000 ‘missing voters’ in Georgia is raising racial tensions in U.S. Senate race

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
House Minority Leader Rep. Stacey Abrams, speaks in favor of House Bill 326 before a vote on the House floor Tuesday, March 1, 2011 in Atlanta. A bill that would dramatically overhaul the cash-strapped HOPE went before the Georgia House on Tuesday. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

ATLANTA — It was a stray comment at the end of a conversation, but it said volumes about how a controversy over voter registration in Georgia might prompt African-American voters to head to the polls Tuesday.

I was walking out of the Rev. Raphael Warnock’s third floor office at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood east of downtown.

As we neared the door, Warnock was speaking about allegations that Georgia’s secretary of state, Brian Kemp, has lost some 40,000 new voter registrations sent in from majority black counties. Kemp has called the complaint “frivolous.” But a coalition of groups, including Warnock’s church and the state and national NAACP, are pressing the issue.

“We hate what (Kemp’s) doing,” Warnock said, “but at the end of the day, he may have done us a favor.” Warnock predicted “historic African-American turnout” on Nov. 4.

“And we have him and his shenanigans to thank," said Warnock.

Warnock’s executive assistant, Esther Harris — who had been listening — looked up from her computer. “Amen,” she said. “Because I wasn’t going to vote.”

Warnock looked surprised that a staffer at what was once Martin Luther King Jr.’s home church hadn’t planned to vote, and the two of them began a conversation as I walked down the hall to an elevator. There I could hear, through the closed door, Harris’ voice rising as she again explained her newfound determination to cast a ballot: “Because of this, I’m going to vote!”

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Georgia is in the midst of one of the tightest U.S. Senate elections in the country, and could be headed for a runoff between Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn, with control of the Senate in the balance. And as in so much of the South, African-American voters could make the difference between a Democratic win and a loss.

That’s where the New Georgia Project, founded by Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, comes in. A Democrat, she worked with the group to set a goal earlier this year of registering 800,000 minorities in the state over the next six years. This effort is at the forefront of a push by Democrats to shift the balance of power in the Peach State by reaching out to its fast-growing minority population, which votes overwhelmingly for Democrats. If enough African-American voters turn out that they can make up at least 30 percent of the electorate — up from 28 percent during the midterm election in 2010 — Democrats believe the state’s races for governor and U.S. Senate will be highly competitive. New Georgia says it’s signed up about 87,000 people so far this year.

But not all of those registrations have been added to the confirmed voter rolls or to the list of pending registrations, according to the group. New Georgia says they’ve disappeared. So on Oct. 10, New Georgia filed suit in Fulton County Superior Court against the secretary of state, claiming Kemp was ignoring the plight of these “missing” voters. This past Tuesday, a state judge formally dismissed the New Georgia Project’s complaint, saying there was no evidence that Kemp had failed to do his job.

Republicans say the whole “missing voters” controversy is just a way for Democrats to manufacture outrage and get African-American voters to turn out in a close election in which Democratic enthusiasm has consistently lagged Republican intensity.

Charlie Harper, a conservative and founder of one of the state’s most influential political websites, the Peach Pundit, dismissed the “missing voter” complaint out of hand.

The five counties named in the lawsuit by the New Georgia Project are all majority Democrat and majority black, he pointed out. “You’re telling me Clayton County and DeKalb County are suppressing black votes? No. I call BS on their lawsuit,” Harper told me. “I don’t know how anybody could say that with a straight face.”

The whole effort by Abrams, Harper said, is “clearly designed to make voters think that other votes like theirs are being stolen.”

For his part, Kemp launched an ongoing investigation in September into the New Georgia Project after receiving complaints that a handful of its applications were fraudulent. Kemp’s office claims to have found about 50 “fraudulent” applications, and another 49 that were “suspicious,” out of the more than 87,000 filed.

As to the claims of registrations gone missing, Kemp has said that it is the counties, not his office, that are responsible for processing voter registration forms.

“The Office of the Secretary of State does not process any voter registration applications. Applications are processed at the county level,” Kemp said in a statement issued Sept. 18, before the suit was filed but at the time when complaints were starting to surface. Kemp later called the suit filed by Abrams’ group “frivolous” and said it was wasting his agency’s time and resources.

As late as this past Saturday, Kemp was pushing back on the “missing voters” story at a campaign stop with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who is running for re-election. “I've gone all around the state looking for missed ballots. And I haven't found a damn one of them,” Kemp told a crowded rally in Dunwoody.

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I had breakfast with Abrams last week at Thumbs Up Diner in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. A 40-year old Yale-educated lawyer who grew up on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast as the second-oldest of six children, she is a reflection of the emerging Georgia she also represents. Since the turn of the century, the state has seen an influx of well-educated African-Americans from around the country. Today, Abrams is the House Democratic leader in the state Legislature, where Republicans control the House and Senate. Abrams referred to herself as a “policy person” who came to the registration cause only after trying to help rural Georgians sign up for Medicaid, and witnessing firsthand what she described as a widespread “lack of civic understanding.”

Abrams spent an hour arguing over omelets and grits that Kemp’s office was responsible for two things: the overall process, which she criticized as extraordinarily inefficient, overly bureaucratic, and prone to mistakes and foul-ups, and a lack of urgency to fix these problems so that obstacles to registering new voters could be removed.

When a person registers to vote, they are either placed on a “pending list, which says, ‘Here’s why you haven’t been fully registered; here’s the information we need,’” Abrams said, “or you get a precinct card which says you’ve been duly registered.”

It’s very easy for a person to be sent to the pending list. That’s one of Abrams’ core complaints. If the registration form doesn’t match information on file at the DMV or in the federal Social Security system — even if it’s a first initial instead of a full name, or a missing hyphen in a name — that is enough to put a person’s registration on hold.

But the roughly 40,000 “missing” names are neither on the pending list nor the voter rolls, Abrams said. She also said that there are different estimates for how many names are missing — some are higher than 40,000 — thanks to there being more than one analysis of the data.

Abrams’ group used a systematic approach to signing up new voters, she said. It trained paid staff to follow the same set of procedures, obtained permission to turn in registration forms, and then kept a database of all the names submitted into the registration process. The group has since “used a very sophisticated algorithm run by two different companies to try to match our names to the names on the voter rolls,” Abrams said. And no matter which way it runs the data, tens of thousands of new registrations that her group has logged and submitted up through the counties are missing from the state’s lists. “When we are tracking to see which of our voters have actually been placed on the rolls, we cannot definitively identify more than 40,000 of them,” she said.

“The secretary of state is saying, ‘Oh don’t worry about it. We found them,’” Abrams said.

Kemp announced in mid-October that his office had located all the names submitted by Abrams and the New Georgia Project and confirmed they are either on the voter rolls or on the pending list.

But Kemp’s office, which responded to multiple requests for comment from Yahoo News with a lone email, to which was attached a court ruling dismissing the New Georgia Project’s complaint, will not show Abrams how it located these names, she said, and Abrams’ group says it still cannot find most of the registrants in the rolls. Kemp has declined to meet with Abrams until after the election is over.

“We’re saying, ‘Well then, show it to us,’ because we have actually spoken to a number of applicants who have not received communication, who if they did receive communication attempted to resolve the issue but unsatisfactorily,” Abrams said.

“We could be wrong, but we don’t know because they won’t tell us,” she said.

As an example of how convoluted the process can be, New Georgia points to the case of Emma Patillo, 18. A resident of Gwinnett County, she sought to register as a voter on Sept. 29 when renewing her driver’s license online. Two weeks later, she checked the “My Voter Page” on the secretary of state’s website to see if her name had been added the rolls. It had not. She called the state Department of Driver Services, which confirmed she had checked the box on her license renewal to register to vote.

When she called the county, she was told it had not received her registration. When she called Driver Services again to see if there was a record verifying they had sent her registration to the county, she was told it would take 30 days to find out. She called the county back, and was told she could be sent an application to reregister. She sent that back-dated application back to the county on Oct. 22.

New Georgia Project spokeswoman Kristal Swim said that it was only after Patillo filed an affidavit to be added to the lawsuit filed against the secretary of state that she was placed on the voter rolls. “It should not be this hard for voters to determine they are allowed to vote,” said Abrams.

“If this is happening to someone who is a college student, imagine if you are a single mother of five who doesn’t have the sophistication or the resources to try to track down whether you’ve become a voter,” she said.

Kemp, she said, sets “the tenor” of how “voters are treated” and has shown much more interest in prosecuting potential voter fraud than ensuring that every person who wants to vote is able to.

The political conversation in the press is focused on claims of voter suppression and voter fraud, but Abrams said that her biggest concern is simply the Byzantine process of voter verification that makes it easier for Georgians to get stuck in a bureaucratic system of cross-checks between multiple databases that sometimes — like the prison system’s — lag months behind each other.

“I’m disturbed by what I have learned of our voter registration process in Georgia,” Abrams said. “I’m angry that it’s this hard for Georgia citizens to exercise a constitutional right, and I’m disappointed that we aren’t working together to resolve this."

Her charges are likely to get a fresh national airing if the Senate election goes to a runoff. And if Perdue wins outright on Tuesday, but by less than 50,000 votes, Abrams may well find herself — and her “missing voters” — at the center of a national maelstrom.