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Georgia’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp is sued over claims of suppressing thousands of minority voters

Voting rights groups are suing Georgia's top election official, Brian Kemp, for pausing 50,000 voter registration applications ahead of his governors race. (Video: Reuters)

Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state and Republican gubernatorial candidate, has been hit with a lawsuit claiming his office is jeopardizing the voting rights of tens of thousands of minority Georgians, a controversy that has led his Democratic opponent’s campaign to call for his resignation.

A coalition of civil rights groups sued Kemp in his official capacity Thursday over a 2017 voting law that has hampered the registrations of more than 50,000 people — of whom approximately 80 percent are black, Latino or Asian American, according to the lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Atlanta. 

The “exact match” law requires election officials to flag and pause any voter registration application if the identifying information doesn’t precisely match the voter’s information in existing records, even because of something as small as a missing hyphen or a transposed number. Although voters are not barred from casting a ballot, they must take extra steps to verify their identities.

Kemp, who is locked in a tight race against Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams, is tasked with carrying out the voting law in his role as secretary of state, which has led Democrats to accuse him of attempts to suppress the minority vote to gain an edge in the election.

On Thursday, Abrams’s campaign called on Kemp to resign as secretary of state “so that Georgia voters can have confidence that their Secretary of State competently and impartially oversee this election,” spokeswoman Abigail Collazo said in a statement to CNN. Abrams, a former state representative and founder of a voting rights advocacy group, would become the first female black governor in the nation’s history if she wins.

Kemp has denied the allegations of any impropriety or voting rights violations, characterizing the accusations from Abrams and Democrats on Twitter as misleading and a manufactured problem. He emphasized that Georgia has “shattered” its all-time voter registration record this year, with more than 6.8 million voters.

Candice Broce, spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, said in a statement to The Washington Post that the claims in the lawsuit are “bogus” and amount to a political stunt. She said the affected voters have been notified about how to contact local officials to fix their pending registration applications.

“The so-called ‘exact match’ law was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. [Nathan] Deal. It mirrors a Florida law recently upheld in federal court,” Broce said. “The 53,000 Georgians cited in the complaint can vote in the Nov. 6 election. Any claims to the contrary are politically motivated and utterly false.”

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, New Georgia Project, Asian-Americans Advancing Justice — Atlanta and others, comes on the heels of an Associated Press report Tuesday that revealed 53,000 voter applications were on hold in Georgia because of the “exact match” law. While only 32 percent of Georgia’s population is black, the voters whose registrations were on hold were 70 percent black, according to the AP’s report.

Republicans may be about to steal an election in Georgia

Under the law, if voters are flagged for typos or errors in their applications, they have 26 months to correct the information with local officials, otherwise their registration application may be canceled. If Election Day falls in that 26-month time period and their application is still in limbo, these voters can still go to the polls and cast a provisional ballot.

Still, voting rights advocates argue that the Georgia law serves no legitimate purpose to the state and is contrary to federal voting laws. All the law accomplishes, the attorneys argue, is placing an extra burden on overwhelmingly minority voters.

“It’s a strain on our system of democracy when 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,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement.

The lawsuit makes Georgia the latest battleground over voting rights at a time when Republicans are backing strict voter ID laws nationwide, saying they are necessary to protect the integrity of elections.

Just this week, a North Dakota law requiring residents to provide proof of a residential street address to vote — even though many Native Americans do not have such addresses — was upheld when the Supreme Court refused to intervene. On Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld a law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls or else cast a provisional ballot.

In both cases, challengers argued the laws would have a disproportionate impact on minority voters, as attorneys argued in the Georgia lawsuit.

On Twitter and in a statement to the Associated Press, Kemp has fired back at such allegations in part by turning the blame on Abrams. He accused the voting rights advocacy group she founded, New Georgia Project, of submitting “sloppy” voter registration forms for a predominantly black group, landing many voters in the registration limbo under the exact match law. (Abrams is no longer involved with the group.) Kemp charged that New Georgia Project, which is among the plaintiffs, is “faking outrage for political gain.”

“My opponent manufactured a ‘crisis’ to fire up her supporters and fundraise from left wing radicals throughout the country,” he said Thursday on Twitter, linking to a photo of an apparent campaign message from Abrams accusing Kemp of suppressing the black vote.

This is not the first time Kemp has been sued over the “exact match” practices. Before it was a law, Kemp’s office enforced an administrative exact match policy that canceled people’s voter registration applications if errors or typos in their applications weren’t corrected within 40 days. Nearly 35,000 people’s applications were canceled between 2013 and 2015 alone, and 76 percent of those people were minorities, according to the lawsuit.

Kemp reached a settlement with civil rights groups in 2016 that abandoned the 40-day deadline. The following year, legislators wrote Kemp’s policy into law, adding the 26-month deadline.

The latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll showed Kemp leading Abrams by less than two percentage points.