The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Georgia, governor’s race evokes old tensions over voting and race

Voters cast ballots during the early voting period at C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center on Thursday in Atlanta.
Voters cast ballots during the early voting period at C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center on Thursday in Atlanta. (Jessica Mcgowan/Getty Images)

ATLANTA — After news broke that 53,000 voter registration applications had been suspended across Georgia, the Rev. Ezekiel Holley headed straight to his local election office in rural Terrell County for the names of affected voters.

He’s been plowing through the list ever since, helping them qualify to vote. “If Stacey Abrams loses this election, it’s because they will steal it from her,” said Holley, who is president of his county’s NAACP — and wary of registration problems because of the state’s long history of voter suppression.

In the final weeks of the campaign, the closely contested race for Georgia governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp has curdled into an emotional battle over voting rights, with thousands of Georgians seeking help with their ballots and hours-long lines forming at early voting locations as anxiety mounts about whether every vote will count.

The fight not only touches on old tensions in the South over race and the ballot box, but it is also personal for the two candidates. She is a former state lawmaker and longtime voting-rights activist who is seeking to become the nation’s first black female governor. He is a white secretary of state in charge of Georgia’s elections and a conservative champion of strict voting laws.

In a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in 20 years and that elected President Trump by five points in 2016, this contest, rated a toss-up by the poll aggregator RealClearPolitics, had been poised to test how far this year’s anti-Trump wave might reach. Now, the campaign’s focus on voting rights has turned it into a different sort of test — centering on race, identity politics and the deep divide on those subjects within the U.S. electorate.

Two controversies have inflamed an already acrimonious election: the suspension of thousands of voter registration applications, most of them for people of color or immigrants, under a new state law requiring an exact match between the application and driver or Social Security records; and the rejection of hundreds of absentee ballots in a minority-heavy county in suburban Georgia.

“We have an opponent in this race who’s tried to steal the right to vote from 53,000 Georgians,” Abrams exclaimed to a cheering crowd of about 200 this week in a community center gymnasium in Grovetown, a small town west of Augusta.

“Abrams wants illegal immigrants to choose our next governor,” Kemp countered in a tweet. “She voted against citizenship check laws, filed a lawsuit to allow ‘non citizens’ to cast a ballot, and even admitted to supporters that her ‘Blue Wave’ includes the ‘undocumented’ in our state.”

There are nearly 7 million registered voters in Georgia — a record for the state.

The drama has captured the attention of those voters, who are mailing in absentee ballots and lining up to vote early in droves — and who are as divided over what to make of the voting controversies as they are over whom to support. As of Thursday, in-person early voting as well as mail-in balloting were on track to exceed that of the presidential election of 2016 in at least two large counties near Atlanta — Cobb and Gwinnett.

Some voters said they don’t buy Abrams’s accusations of voter suppression, and they welcome laws that prevent voter fraud.

“Look at that line,” said Chet Austin, 90, a white retired poultry processor standing in the parking lot of the Cobb County early voting site and pointing to a crowd of waiting voters, many of whom were African Americans. “I don’t see how she could say that. They have the same right to vote that I do.”

On the other side of the divide: “He should resign,” said Kelly Napper, 34, a black retail store manager also from Cobb County, echoing other critics of Kemp who have said he cannot be trusted to run a fair election. “The fact that Kemp does have access to the ballots — it doesn’t seem right.”

Much misinformation is flying. Kemp championed the stringent new “exact match” policy that led to many of the suspended registration applications. But it is local election officials, not the secretary of state, who accept or reject ballots and registration applications — and their interpretations of the law have varied across the state.

While Abrams has accused Kemp of blocking 53,000 Georgians from voting, Kemp has said anyone with a suspended registration can vote at the polls on Nov. 6, so long as they bring the proper identification. However, some worry the “exact match” law will be interpreted to mean only a voting official with the rank of deputy registrar or higher will have the authority to clear a suspended voter to cast a ballot. How that will play out on Election Day remains to be seen.

Kemp, for his part, is seizing on the controversy to accuse Abrams of encouraging noncitizens to vote. He has called attention to remarks Abrams made on Oct. 9 during an appearance in Atlanta with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), when Abrams said this year’s “blue wave” will include a diverse group, including women, gay people and “documented and undocumented” people. Abrams later clarified that she has never encouraged anyone to vote illegally.

“I don’t know what’s worse: Actively working to undermine the rule of law by letting illegal immigrants vote or lying to hard-working Georgians about it,” Kemp tweeted. “Either way, Stacey Abrams is too extreme for Georgia.”

Kemp also blamed the New Georgia Project, a group founded by Abrams to register more African Americans to vote, for most of the suspended applications. He said many of the applications submitted by the group were “sloppy.” Kemp launched an investigation of the effort back in 2014, but no wrongdoing was found.

Kemp’s assertion that Abrams filed a suit to allow noncitizens to vote was not right, either. New Georgia Project was a party to a lawsuit over election issues last week but Abrams is no longer affiliated with the organization, and the suit does not call for noncitizens to vote.

There is no evidence of wide-scale voter fraud in Georgia or elsewhere in the country.

Both sides are spreading the alarm over election issues to voters. Republicans are holding phone banks and knocking on doors across the state almost daily, and the state Democratic Party is running a voter hotline that fielded more than 2,000 calls just in the past week. Voting-rights activists are deploying even to the tiniest rural counties to help voters correct their registrations or deal with a rejected mail-in ballot.

The concerns over voter suppression have been particularly heated in a few places.

In Gwinnett County — a suburban Atlanta area where roughly half of the population is African American, Hispanic or Asian American — hundreds of absentee ballots were thrown out because of mistakes filling out the envelope.

Rachel Tiven, a lawyer from New York who is volunteering at the Democratic Party hotline, compared the legalese-covered envelope to the Jim Crow-era literacy tests that allowed local elections officials to bar African Americans from voting if they could not pass a written test.

“If I write the wrong date and you throw out the ballot — that’s a literacy test,” she said.

In Jefferson County, county officials blocked a voter advocacy group from taking a group of elderly voters from a county-run senior center to the polls for early voting Monday. In a statement, the officials said political activity is not allowed on county property during business hours.

But LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, which is nonpartisan, called the action a “subtle” form of voter suppression. “Anytime you stand in the way of a person’s choice to vote, to me that’s voter suppression,” she said.

The concerns have spawned at least four lawsuits from civil rights organizations. One accuses Kemp of illegally purging hundreds of thousands of voters from the state rolls. Others challenge the “exact match” law and the strict interpretation of the ballot envelope language in Gwinnett County.

Another lawsuit centers on protecting naturalized citizens, some of whom are being erroneously flagged as ineligible to vote.

Democrats also criticized Kemp this week for a video that his office produced in which child actors are used to educate voters about early voting. In it, a white boy shows his identification and is permitted to cast a ballot, while an African American girl is required to cast a provisional ballot because she does not have her identification with her.

The video was taken down this week. Kemp’s spokeswoman, Candice Broce, said the diversity of the actors was intended to encourage participation, not the opposite. She said the video was removed not because of the criticism but because it is no longer accurate about the availability of Spanish-language ballots. Since the video was first produced in 2016, Gwinnett County has been required by the federal government to offer ballots in Spanish as well as English.

As the election approaches, the campaigns are working furiously, one voter at a time, to get their supporters to the polls. At the voter hotline in Atlanta, Cyndy Whitney, an epidemiologist volunteering to take calls on Thursday, got straight to the point with a caller who wanted to know how to vote now that her mail-in ballot had been tossed: “We would recommend that you go to the polls and do early voting,” Whitney said.

Requesting another ballot and filling out another form, she added, would create too much risk of another error — and another rejection — with less than three weeks to go until the election.

Ross Blackstone, 39, who is white, said he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about after voting a straight Republican ticket in Cobb County on Thursday.

“It’s the easiest thing in the world,” Blackstone said. “I moved last week. I didn’t know what to do. They took care of it in, like, two minutes.”

Yet Blackstone, too, struggled with the ballot — despite, he noted, the fact that he holds a literature degree. “I made a mistake, and had to fix it and do it again.”

Gardner and Williams reported from Atlanta, Augusta, Ga., and Grovetown, Ga. Williams also reported from Terrell County, Ga.