The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawsuit by Abrams PAC continues debate over voter suppression in bitter Georgia governor’s race

Stacey Abrams  and Brian Kemp.
Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp. (John Amis/Associated Press)
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Malfunctioning voting machines, inaccurate registration rolls and ill-trained poll workers resulted in thousands of Georgians being unable to cast ballots in the Nov. 6 election, according to a lawsuit filed this week by two groups, including one started by Stacey Abrams, who lost a close race for governor this month.

The suit by Fair Fight Action, a new political action committee formed by Abrams, and another group accuses state elections officials of violating residents’ constitutional and civil rights. It asks a federal court to force Georgia to fix what it says are numerous deficiencies in how it runs elections.

Although the suit names Georgia’s current secretary of state, the allegations that the general election was “grossly mismanaged” and marred by “voter suppression tactics” are aimed at the previous occupant of that office, Gov.-elect Brian Kemp. The Republican, who declined to step down from his position overseeing statewide elections while running for governor, was declared the winner 10 days after the polls closed, with 50.2 percent of the vote.

The 66-page complaint, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, is a continuation of the long-running battle between Abrams, a former Democratic leader of the Georgia state House, and Kemp, who served for eight years as secretary of state. The two have clashed over voting rights in a traditionally red state where demographic changes have given Democrats hope of gaining an edge.

Stacey Abrams urges a massive turnout to fight what she says is voter suppression in Georgia

Asked whether Kemp had any comment on the lawsuit or allegations of problems in the state’s election system, spokesman Ryan Mahoney said Kemp is focused on other issues.

“This week, Governor-elect Brian Kemp is meeting with public safety and economic development leaders. He is focused on building a safe and prosperous future for Georgia families,” Mahoney responded via email.

Candice Broce, a spokes­woman for interim secretary of state Robyn A. Crittenden, referred questions about the lawsuit to the Georgia attorney general, whose office declined to comment. In an email, Broce defended the state’s election system.

“It has never been easier to register to vote or make your voice heard at the ballot box in our state,” she said. “Along with thousands of local elections and registration officials across our state, we remain committed to secure, accessible and fair elections for all voters.”

Abrams, who would have been the nation’s first black woman to serve as governor, has long worked to register and mobilize hundreds of thousands of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and young people to vote. Exit polls of the governor’s race showed that she dominated Kemp among those groups.

Kemp, whom President Trump supported, pursued strict voter registration and identification policies throughout his tenure as secretary of state. He has argued that the measures are necessary to safeguard against voter fraud, even though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the United States.

Critics and voting rights advocates said those policies disproportionately affected people of color, who make up about 40 percent of Georgia’s population. Kemp was forced to revise or abandon some of those policies after courts found that they would violate voters’ rights. In the days leading up to and just after the election, federal courts ruled in favor of plaintiffs in at least four lawsuits challenging voter registration policies and how some types of ballots were counted.

The new lawsuit, which was filed along with Care in Action, the political arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, is a signal that Abrams will remain visible and vocal in Georgia politics.

In a recent interview, Abrams did not rule out a future run for office. She said the aim of the lawsuit and her new PAC is to “ensure that anyone who runs for office faces a fair fight,” including Republicans.

Lauren Groh-Wargo, who was Abrams’s campaign manager and is now head of Fair Fight Action, was more blunt. She said the lawsuit “will look broadly at all of the ways our secretary of suppression, Brian Kemp, suppressed the vote.”

Abrams and Kemp have been fighting over voting rights since 2014, when she founded the New Georgia Project. She has said that the group signed up more than 200,000 potential new voters, but that most of them never made it onto the rolls. Kemp accused the group of voter fraud and opened an investigation that found no wrongdoing. The group, which Abrams left before starting her gubernatorial campaign, has been party to several suits against the secretary of state.

The new suit centers in part on Kemp’s move to strike tens of thousands of people from the rolls because they were infrequent voters. It alleges that the removals were particularly aggressive in the run-up to the gubernatorial campaign.

“In 2017, when he was running for governor in the upcoming 2018 Election, then-Secretary Kemp purged over 665,000 people under the “use it or lose it” policy,” the suit says. “In a single night in July 2017, he struck over 500,000 people from the voter rolls — approximately eight percent of Georgia’s registered voters.”

Kemp also drew scrutiny when the Associated Press reported a month before the election that his office had placed 53,000 voter registrations in “pending” status because the spellings of potential voters’ names were not an “exact match” to other state records. Applications were flagged for such discrepancies as hyphens. The AP reported that 70 of the affected registrants were African American.

During the campaign, Kemp often deflected responsibility when asked about voting problems, referring questions to local officials who are in charge of running aspects of elections.

The lawsuit points a finger back at the secretary of state’s office, saying, “While Georgia counties have responsibility for some aspects of Georgia elections, the Secretary of State and the State Election Board have broad authority to oversee, manage, and train the counties on implementation of their duties.”

The suit expressly blames the secretary of state’s office for pursuing policies that it described as voter suppression. Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Georgia was one of several states that, because of its history of voter suppression, was required to get approval from the Justice Department for changes to its voting laws and procedures. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down that provision. The lawsuit states that with the removal of the “preclearance requirement for voting changes, Georgia began again to erect discriminatory voting barriers reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.”

Problems with long lines, broken or inadequate numbers of voting machines and poorly trained staff members occurred in areas where a majority of the voters were people of color. The suit alleges that the secretary of state’s office violated the 15th Amendment, which prohibits denying citizens the right to vote based on race.

“Defendants’ misconduct irreparably harmed voters of color in Georgia by imposing severe burdens on their right to vote, sometimes resulting in complete disenfranchisement,” the suit states. Without being forced to address the problems, the suit states, voters of color will continue to be disenfranchised.

Kemp and his supporters have dismissed allegations of voter suppression, noting the historic turnout in the election — more than 3.9 million ballots were cast, 1.3 million more than in the 2014 gubernatorial election and just over 200,000 more than in the 2016 presidential election.

Ralph Reed, who heads the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, said in an interview that Abrams’s strong support — her 1.9 million votes were more than any Democratic candidate in a Georgia statewide race — showed that “if Brian Kemp was suppressing the vote, he’s the most incompetent vote suppressor in the history of western civilization.”

But Groh-Wargo argued that Abrams was competitive despite Kemp’s efforts.

“From the beginning of the campaign, we knew voters would likely face massive irregularities due to the Secretary of State’s office,” she said via email. “We prepared accordingly by establishing a robust voter protection team, creating a voter protection hotline, and assembling a top-notch legal team. As voters faced problems at the polls, we helped them fight for their right to have their vote counted.”

Abrams, in the interview, said that despite the challenges, she is proud of “what we were able to do in this campaign.”

She said that her organization will work to register voters and educate them about their voting rights with the goal of making the case to national Democrats that “we are a swing state, and they need to see Georgia as a place worthy of investment.”