“Racially motivated patterns of voter suppression are responsible for Stacey Abrams not being governor of Georgia right now.”

— South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D), in remarks in Bow, N.H., Oct. 25, 2019

It has become an article of faith among Democrats, especially those running for president, that Stacey Abrams was narrowly denied the governorship of Georgia because of voter suppression. It is equally an article of faith by Republicans that this is a false claim based on no evidence.

Buttigieg’s remark caught our attention because he specifically said that the voter suppression was racially motivated and that it tipped the balance toward Republican Brian Kemp — who was directly responsible for overseeing the voting because he retained his post of secretary of state while he sought the governorship.

But it turns out this is a difficult situation to fact-check, and not quite as easy as the case when we gave Four Pinocchios to Hillary Clinton for claiming she lost Wisconsin in 2016 because of voter suppression or Four Pinocchios to Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) for claiming Russian efforts to suppress African American votes led to Clinton’s loss of Michigan.

The Facts

Kemp beat Abrams, who had been the Democratic leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, by 1.4 percent, or about 55,000 votes. The question is whether racially motivated efforts to suppress votes could have made the difference.

The weeks leading up to the election were dominated by questions of voter suppression, in part because of the unusual circumstance that Kemp refused to recuse himself from overseeing the election, so his every move was viewed with suspicion by the Abrams camp. In the closing days of the race, Kemp without evidence accused the Democrats of cybercrimes, apparently to distract from his office’s own voter-registration problems.

Kemp, in urging his side to sign up voters, in 2014 even framed the battle with Democrats in racial terms. “You know the Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines, if they can do that, they can win these elections in November,” he was recorded as saying.

His remarks illustrate how it is sometimes difficult to separate out race from efforts to win partisan advantage. In a state where virtually all blacks are Democrats — and many Democrats are black — can one reasonably separate efforts to reduce votes by Democrats from an effort to reduce votes by African Americans? In other words, what is politically motivated vs. racially motivated?

“Race and party overlap tremendously in the South, so in some ways, discriminating against Democrats is discrimination against African Americans in Georgia,” said Richard L. Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine. “But it is difficult to attribute racial motives in this complex context.”

Here are elements of possible voter suppression cited by the Buttigieg campaign and others who support his assertion. The House Oversight and Reform Committee has launched an investigation into the state’s voting and registration practices.

  • Kemp oversaw an aggressive effort to purge voters before the election, with nearly 700,000, or 10 percent, removed from the rolls in the year before the election. “For an estimated 107,000 of those people, their removal from the voter rolls was triggered not because they moved or died or went to prison, but rather because they had decided not to vote in prior elections,” according to a report by American Public Media.
  • Kemp placed 53,000 voter registrations in electoral limbo in October, with the Associated Press estimating that 70 percent were black voters. The move was the result of an “exact match” policy in which even a single digit or a misplaced hyphen could derail the registration. No one knows how many of those voters turned up to vote.
  • More than 200 polling places across the state were closed, primarily in poor and minority neighborhoods. Voters reported long lines, malfunctioning voting machines and other problems that delayed or thwarted voting in those areas. “Research shows that for every tenth of a mile that a polling station is removed from the black community (up to 4 miles), that black voter turnout declines by .5%,” said Carol Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory University who has written extensively on voter suppression. “Long lines cause people, whose paychecks are getting nibbled away waiting in the queue, to leave and not vote.” (The Atlanta Journal Constitution found that precinct closures and longer distances likely prevented an estimated 54,000 to 85,000 voters from casting ballots on Election Day.)
  • A still-unexplained 4.2 percent undervote in the lieutenant governor’s race, especially prevalent in minority precincts, could indicate serious problems with paperless, touch-screen voting machines in those areas. (The undervote rate in the race was just 1 percent on mail-in or absentee paper ballots.) A federal judge in August ordered the state to have new voting machines in place by the 2020 primary election in March or have plans to provide voters with paper ballots, but advocacy groups have not been able to determine whether the machines properly recorded the governor’s race.

But there’s also a compelling counterargument.

  • Even if every provisional ballot not counted and every rejected absentee ballot had been awarded to Abrams, it would not have necessitated a runoff, much less overcome Abrams’s vote deficit.
  • The 2018 turnout was far greater than any previous midterm, according to FiveThirtyEight, and more African Americans voted in 2018 than in 2016.
  • Even if 54,000 to 84,000 had not voted because precinct closings, “Abrams would have had to have won between 82% and 100% of those additional votes to close the gap,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said.
  • Georgia purges lots of voters because of death, moving or not voting in recent elections, but it also makes it very easy to register because of automatic voter registration (AVR) when people obtain driver’s licenses. Registration has grown 94 percent in Georgia because of automatic voter registration, according to the Brennan Center.

“Abrams was very effective in mobilizing her supporters, but in the end — perhaps due to a narrowing of the enthusiasm gap following the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearings — lots of Republicans also turned out,” said Charles S. Bullock III, political science professor at the University of Georgia. “The claim is not based on fact but will continue to be articulated by Abrams since it helps mobilize her supporters.”

Anderson, the Emory professor, views the results from a different prism.

“The turnout was so high not because of Kemp, but despite Kemp’s efforts,” she said. “So Georgia/Kemp don’t get credit for AVR when he had the legislature put in place the Exact Match program that a judge had already ruled was racially discriminatory because it privileged anglicized names. Kemp doesn’t get credit for the high turnout when his office recommended a consultant who went around to poor and minority counties recommending numerous poll closures.”

Hasen, the UC Irvine expert, said the practices used under Kemp raise serious questions even if one cannot prove they affected the election outcome.

“There is no question that Georgia in general and Brian Kemp in particular took steps to make it harder for people to register and vote, and that those people tended to skew Democratic,” Hasen said. “I have seen no good social science evidence that efforts to make it harder to register and vote were responsible for Kemp’s victory over Abrams in the Georgia gubernatorial race. That seems to me to be beside the point: The question is whether Georgia had a good reason to put these suppressive measures in place, and for the most part, the state did not have good reasons.”

The Pinocchio Test

This is the political version of a Rorschach test — where you land depends on how you view the wide range of pertinent evidence. Buttigieg suggested his statement was a factual claim, not in dispute, though it’s really more of an opinion. As we noted, there’s a fine line, especially in Southern states, between efforts to thwart votes by Democrats vs. suppressing minorities, making it especially difficult to untangle.

Abrams fell short by 55,000 votes out of nearly 4 million cast, in a case filled with election mischief and fierce disputes. Buttigieg should not be so definitive in his assertion that Abrams would have won if not for racially motivated measures. But at this point, we think it prudent to leave this without a Pinocchio rating, though we may revisit this fact check if more definitive evidence emerges in the future.

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