The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP claims of voter fraud threat fuel worries about ballot access in November

Voters casting ballots during early voting in Atlanta in November 2016. (David Goldman/AP)

Nine months after President Trump was forced to dissolve a panel charged with investigating voter fraud, GOP officials across the country are cracking down on what they describe as threats to voting integrity — moves that critics see as attempts to keep some Americans from casting ballots in November’s elections.

In Georgia, election officials have suspended more than 50,000 applications to register to vote, most of them for black voters, under a rigorous Republican-backed law that requires personal information to exactly match driver’s license or Social Security records.

In Texas, the state attorney general has prosecuted nearly three dozen individuals on charges of voter fraud this year, more than the previous five years combined.

And in North Carolina, a U.S. attorney and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued subpoenas last month demanding that virtually all voting records in 44 counties be turned over to immigration authorities within weeks — a move that was delayed after objections from state election officials.

Voting rights advocates said Republicans are seizing on sporadic voting problems in an effort to disenfranchise voters of color.

In Georgia, several of these groups filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to block the “exact match” registration law passed last year.

“The myth of voter fraud is used by those who wish to curtail the right to vote of specific populations, usually minority voters,” said Ezra Rosenberg, an attorney for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a participant in the suit.

President Trump claims that widespread voter fraud occurred in the 2016 election. Does the “integrity of the ballot box” depend on voter ID laws? (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

“Instead of thinking up schemes to stop people from voting, we should be doing everything in our power to make it easier for people to vote,” he added.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who enforces state election laws and is also the GOP gubernatorial nominee, said the focus on the suspended voter registrations is a crisis manufactured by his Democratic opponent.

“While outside agitators disparage this office and falsely attack us, we have kept our heads down and remained focused on ensuring secure, accessible, and fair elections for all voters,” he said in a statement last week in which he touted Georgia’s record number of registered voters.

Numerous studies have found no evidence of large-scale voter fraud in the United States. But the specter of fraud was raised repeatedly by Trump after the 2016 election, when he claimed without evidence that millions of undocumented immigrants voted illegally for his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Soon after entering office, Trump created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, chaired by Vice President Pence, which was charged with examining claims of voter fraud, improper registration and voter suppression.

The commission was disbanded in January after states refused to turn over requested data and filed lawsuits to block its demands, citing voter privacy. Trump blamed states for refusing to cooperate and promised to continue the effort within his administration.

In a tweet at the time, Trump said the commission “fought hard” to investigate allegations of voter abuses “because they know that many people are voting illegally. System is rigged, must go to Voter I.D.”

Matt Dunlap, the Democratic secretary of state of Maine who served on Trump’s commission, said in an interview that he now views the effort as a sham. He accused Republicans of trying to gin up anti-immigration sentiment by falsely claiming that voting by undocumented immigrants is rampant.

‘The most bizarre thing I’ve ever been a part of’: Trump panel found no widespread voter fraud, ex-member says

“It’s a dog whistle, no question about it,” Dunlap said. “Whenever we talk about illegal immigration, voter fraud, others taking something away from us — of course it’s a dog whistle.”

In Georgia, the issue is inflaming an already-hard-fought governor’s race, where Kemp is battling against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who would be the first female black governor.

The Associated Press reported last week that 53,000 voter registrations in the state are on hold under the “exact match” verification process, which requires voter application information to precisely mirror a resident’s state or federal data on file. Even a hyphen out of place could prompt an application to be flagged by local elections officials and suspended.

Nearly 70 percent of the registrations that have been frozen are those of African Americans, according to the AP.

Kemp’s office said the reason so many black voters have had their registrations held up is because they were signed up to vote by the New Georgia Project, a voter registration campaign founded by Abrams that Kemp accused of filing sloppy, handwritten forms.

Abrams is no longer involved with the group. In a statement, her campaign spokeswoman, Abigail Collazo, said Kemp “is trying to deflect responsibility and deny accountability for the continued use of the exact match program, which is well known to disproportionately impact minority voters. It is clearer than ever that Brian Kemp cannot be trusted to oversee this election.”

Kemp’s office said that all voters whose applications were suspended have received notices about how to contact local officials to rectify their status. All are permitted to vote this November if they bring proper identification that substantially matches their registration.

“This is a publicity stunt that the media falls for year after year,” said Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state, noting that a similar exact match law was recently upheld in Florida by a federal appeals court.

“The 53,000 Georgians cited in their complaint can vote in the November 6th election,” she said. “Any claims to the contrary are politically motivated and utterly false.”

The controversy in North Carolina elicited a more bipartisan uproar, with Republicans and Democrats alike decrying the efforts of Robert Higdon Jr., the U.S. attorney for Eastern District of North Carolina and a Trump appointee, to secure millions of voting records from 44 counties in the eastern half of the state.

The demand for documents came just days after Higdon’s office, in concert with ICE, issued indictments charging 19 foreign nationals of voting illegally in the 2016 elections.

State elections officials argued that responding to the subpoenas would require compiling more than 20 million documents and would burden tiny electoral offices while they were already printing ballots and making other preparations for the November elections.

A spokesman for the State Board of Elections said the U.S. attorney agreed to wait until January for the documents.

Higdon’s office declined to answer questions about the subpoenas, citing an active grand-jury investigation. ICE officials also declined to comment.

The demand could cast a chilling effect among voters worried about the privacy of their voting records, state officials said, and frighten naturalized immigrants into wondering about their right to vote.

“The scope is immense. It’s incredible. The amount of information they’re seeking — I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” said Andy Penry, chairman of the state electoral board.

“It would be nice if the proponents would give us some information to justify the breadth and scope of the subpoenas,” said Penry, a Democrat. “In the absence of that, there are going to be a lot of people who are going to think that this is an effort to buttress false narratives of voter fraud.”

Elections officials say they support efforts to investigate and stop improper voting — and in fact, Higdon’s indictments resulted from an audit that the State Board of Elections conducted after the 2016 election, which showed that more than 400 people cast ballots improperly because of felony convictions, while an additional 41 documented noncitizens cast ballots.

But many believe that such investigations should remain the province of state and local officials — not the federal government.

Stacy Eggers IV, a Republican appointee to the electoral board who doesn’t often vote with his Democratic colleagues, joined the unanimous vote to file a court motion to quash the subpoenas. He said he was alarmed by the demand for absentee ballots, which include a number that can be traced back to a voter — and to how he or she voted. Close to half the electorate in the state voted absentee in 2016, he said.

“If there is election fraud, we want to have it investigated, because it lessens the power of legitimate voters,” Eggers said. “But what does a federal investigative body need with the votes of 50 percent of the electorate in eastern North Carolina? That’s my biggest concern.”

Ill-fated plan to close polling places in Georgia county recalled lingering prejudice

Voter fraud prosecutions are also on the rise in Texas, where Attorney General Ken Paxton has expanded the number of investigators in his office focused on the issue and ramped up prosecutions.

Paxton, who declined a request for an interview, last month touted a one-year jail sentence and deportation his office secured of a noncitizen charged with voter impersonation and voter fraud.

“Election integrity is a top priority for my office,” Paxton said in a statement at the time. “Anyone attempting to deprive the people of Texas of their voice in either state or federal elections will be brought to justice and penalized by the full extent of the law.”

Fueling the debate are recent problems with state programs in Pennsylvania and California aimed at increasing voter registration that have produced tens of thousands of registration errors.

In California, mistakes in the state’s new “Motor Voter” program — which began automatically registering eligible voters through the Department of Motor Vehicles in April — led to as many as 100,000 registration errors, including some voters being registered twice and some with their party affiliation improperly switched. In addition, 1,500 ineligible people were registered, including some noncitizens, Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a news conference Tuesday.

State Republicans and Democrats, including Padilla, agree that the state’s new motor voter program may need to be suspended.

Jim Patterson, a Republican state assemblyman from Fresno who led the effort to uncover and fix the problems, said that because of errors, “many, many Californians are now beginning to call into question the sanctity of the voter rolls and the accuracy of their own voter registration.”

Patterson said he is confident that voters and local registrars have time to correct the problems before Election Day.

In Pennsylvania, officials realized in 2017 that a poorly designed touch-screen system for applying for driver’s licenses had prompted thousands of noncitizens to register to vote.

Scott Wagner, the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania governor, criticized his opponent, Gov. Tom Wolfe (D), for poor management of election records and promised a thorough scrub of them if elected.

“I will make it a priority to make sure all noncitizens are removed from the voter rolls and Pennsylvanians can have confidence in their election system once again,” Wagner said in March.

A conservative group called the Public Interest Law Firm (PILF) sued Pennsylvania in February seeking its election records, claiming that as many as 100,000 noncitizens may be registered to vote.

Such rhetoric alarms voting rights advocates, who believe that groups such as PILF are pushing to create political support for purging immigrant voters from election rolls without certainty that they are ineligible to vote.

PILF spokesman Logan Churchwell said his group wants to bring the same due diligence to the data that state elections officials claim they do. He also disputed the idea that his group’s lawsuits, or stricter voting requirements such as voter ID laws, have a chilling effect on turnout.

“Why would it have a chilling effect on a U.S. citizen?” he asked. “It’s a public service to them.”

State officials said they have fixed the touch-screen system and said there is no evidence that 100,000 noncitizens are registered to vote. Officials are still assessing how many improper voters were registered.

The state found more than 11,000 instances in which a driver who obtained their license as a noncitizen also has registered to vote, but nearly 2,ooo did so after becoming naturalized citizens, according to Wanda Murren, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of State.