The Georgia governor’s race has suddenly become a proxy battle over voting rights in America, and that could have big implications for the larger fight that Republicans have been winning for years.
Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brian Kemp, continues to do his day job as he faces a surprisingly competitive campaign from Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is trying to be the first black female governor in America. In the process, Kemp is executing a controversial voting law that is holding up voting applications from more black voters than any other voting bloc.
That scenario is ripe for the interpretation that Kemp is trying to undercut Abrams’s path to victory, which relies heavily on black voters. Abrams and her supporters accuse him of trying to “steal” the election. Kemp says he’s just carrying out the law, which is one of the strictest in the nation.
If Abrams can pull out a win against the man who has become 2018′s symbol for Republicans' success in tightening voter access, it could be a powerful counterpunch. But opponents to voting-rights restrictions still have a long way to go to get to parity.
Let’s review the facts of the debate in Georgia to better understand how this could play out in 2018 and beyond.
Why we’re suddenly talking about voting laws in Georgia: A day before the voter registration deadline in Georgia last week, the Associated Press reported that 53,000 voter applications were on hold because their names on record didn’t exactly match their voter application. Seventy percent of those potential voters were black; a recent lawsuit against this law alleges 80 percent of all those potential voters are minority.
In addition, voting advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union sued a majority-minority county in Georgia for throwing out hundreds of absentee ballots because the signatures didn’t match up precisely with their voter registration file. They won that case Thursday when a federal judge ordered Kemp to to stop trashing absentee ballots without first giving the voter a chance to explain the discrepancy.
More about the law at issue: In 2017, Georgia’s solidly Republican state legislature passed the law requiring voters to have their name on the voter application be an exact match with the one on their ID card. And by exact, Georgia means exact.
The Fix’s Eugene Scott explains the practical implications of the law well: “The ‘exact match’ system would put someone named Beyoncé Knowles-Carter on the ‘pending’ registration list if her voting application said Beyoncé Knowles Carter."
It doesn’t matter if it was an error on your end or a clerical error on someone else’s part. If your name on the voting application doesn’t match what the government has for your name, you can still vote only if you have a valid photo ID that “substantially matches” what it says on the voting roll. (Georgia’s photo ID law is one of the strictest in the nation.) If you can’t meet that requirement — and it’s up for debate how polling places would accurately measure that — you are allowed to cast a provisional ballot that is put on hold, and you have a few days to confirm you are who you say you are.
After that, you risk losing your voter registration. In Georgia, it's up to you to correct the discrepancy, and you have 26 months to do it or your application is denied.
That’s one of the strictest exact-match laws on record. The other comparable state, Florida, puts the burden of proof on election officials to correct exact-match discrepancies, reports PolitiFact Georgia.
Why this is an issue if those 50,000 voters can still cast a ballot: The perception that voting is difficult sometimes matters more than how difficult it is, say voting rights advocates. Anecdotally, reporters fanning out in minority communities in Georgia this past week have found potential voters who say they weren’t notified their application was on hold and confusion among others about whether they are indeed registered to vote.
“We wouldn’t have known had someone not come over here,” Kimberly Edwards told the New York Times when she found out her husband wasn’t registered because he didn’t vote in the 2016 election.
(In addition to pausing 50,000 “exact match” applications, the AP also calculated that Kemp’s office canceled half a million voter registrations last year in part because people didn’t vote in the 2016 election.)
One also needs to look at this in the context of the South’s centuries-long battle over allowing minorities, particularly black voters, to vote.
Laws that could be interpreted as disenfranchising black voters were so rampant in decades past that Congress passed a law requiring federal judges to essentially babysit some states with troubled voting-rights pasts, like Georgia, to make sure they weren’t passing laws targeted at making it harder for minority voters to vote. In 2013, the Supreme Court stripped away that oversight power, with conservative justices arguing it was no longer necessary. Voter ID and other voter-registration laws have proliferated across the country ever since.
How this could influence the national debate about voting rights: In one way, it’s a debate that appears to be over, especially when you look at the most common form of voting restriction laws: voter ID laws. Thirty-four states require or request some form of ID to vote, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. The 2016 presidential election was the first where voters in two-thirds of states had to present some form of ID.
National polls suggest voters are okay with this.
Voting rights laws have been challenged in court to mixed results, including this “exact-match” law in Georgia, which actually got paused in 2016 before the state legislature codified it in 2017. But as Republicans maintain their control of state governments and Congress pushes the federal courts to the right, it’s possible that these court challenges to conservative voting rights laws will become less and less successful.
An Abrams victory over Kemp wouldn’t immediately change that tide: But the symbolism would be powerful. Abrams is a black woman running a competitive governor’s race where voting rights for black voters has become a major issue. She’s also been fighting for years to get more black voters in Georgia registered to vote (though in years past, the group has come under scrutiny even among Democrats for how well it was doing its job.)
If Abrams were to win a competitive governor’s race in the Deep South against a Republican executing one of the nation’s most controversial voting rights laws as he himself runs for election, it could signal that all isn’t lost among advocates for less strict voting restrictions. Because as Georgia’s voter laws underscore, people who want more laws restricting voter access are currently winning.
This post has been updated with the latest news.