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Judge rules against Brian Kemp over Georgia voting restrictions days before gubernatorial election

The Georgia governor's race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp is drawing voters to the polls early and in record numbers. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Georgia must change its procedures to make it easier for some people flagged under the state’s restrictive “exact match” law to vote, a federal judge ruled Friday, dealing a blow to Republican gubernatorial candidate and Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

The “exact match” law flags voter registrations that are found to have discrepancies, such as a dropped hyphen, with other official identifications. Potential voters are allowed to settle the discrepancy by providing proof of identity.

But the state’s procedures under Kemp, whose office oversees elections, stipulated that those who had been flagged as potential noncitizens be cleared first by a deputy registrar when seeking to vote. In October, a coalition of civil rights groups sued him.

U.S. District Judge Eleanor L. Ross ruled Friday that the procedures were likely to result in the violation of voting rights for a large group of people and needed to be halted immediately. She said Kemp’s restrictions raised “grave concerns for the Court about the differential treatment inflicted on a group of individuals who are predominantly minorities."

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The preliminary injunction she issued required the state to change its procedures immediately to allow those flagged, some 3,100 individuals, to prove their citizenship more easily, with a U.S. passport or similar documentation, and only to a poll manager. It also signaled that the coalition of civil rights groups that brought the case against Kemp would probably succeed should the lawsuit continue.

“With respect to Tuesday’s election, we deem this a total victory in our fight against Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s exact match scheme,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Our goal in filing this lawsuit was to ensure that no eligible voter was unfairly denied the right to vote because of this discriminatory voter suppression effort."

Kemp was also ordered to issue a news release explaining how those flagged for potential citizenship issues could still vote by proving their citizenship, as well as offering a phone number for them to call with any questions.

The race between Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams has drawn national attention.

Kemp’s actions as secretary of state have been scrutinized in the wake of a report from the Associated Press that he had stalled more than 50,000 voter registrations by disproportionately black voters under the state’s exact-match requirements.

The action raised fears of voter suppression, accusations that were made more incendiary by the implications in a state that, like many others in the South, bears a painful legacy of anti-voting tactics aimed at the black population.

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Kemp’s involvement in election procedures while a candidate has also drawn criticism. During a debate with Abrams, Kemp said that he would not recuse himself in other election-related issues either, such as if the race were close enough to trigger a recount.

In a statement sent to The Washington Post, Kemp spokeswoman Candice L. Broce called Ross’s ruling “a minor change to the current system.”

The American Civil Liberties Union announced Friday that another court had sided against Kemp in a different voting rights case. It said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit had denied his request to block a court order that required him to exercise due process before rejecting ballots for handwriting issues.

The state attorney general’s office did not say whether it planned to appeal the ruling, with spokeswoman Katie Byrd declining to comment.

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