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What’s the Matter with Georgia?

With early voting starting Monday, a range of efforts to restrict voting in the Peach State could cause big problems at the polls. We explain what’s going on.

October 12, 2018

Reports that Geor­gia is keep­ing 53,000 voter regis­tra­tions on hold because of minor discrep­an­cies have received wide­spread atten­tion since Monday. But in fact, the state has recently adop­ted a range of contro­ver­sial voting prac­tices. The combined effect is to put voters — espe­cially racial minor­it­ies — at risk of disen­fran­chise­ment as the state’s hotly contested governor’s race approaches. Early voting begins Monday.

Below is a summary of the four major voting issues that have contrib­uted to prob­lems in the Peach State.  

“Exact Match” Policy: In 2017, Geor­gia passed legis­la­tion requir­ing that inform­a­tion on voter regis­tra­tion forms match exactly with exist­ing state records. Even a single digit or a misplaced hyphen could be enough to prevent regis­tra­tion and instead put the applic­a­tion on “pending” status. Geor­gia previ­ously had a differ­ent version of this exact match process but agreed in 2017 to discon­tinue the prac­tice after civil rights groups brought suit — only to rein­state a differ­ent version of exact match later that year.  

Reports indic­ate that approx­im­ately 53,000 people are now on pending status — and a vastly dispro­por­tion­ate number of them are African-Amer­ican: seventy percent of the pending list, compared to 32 percent of the popu­la­tion. Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against the policy Thursday.

What does being on pending status mean for voters? If they do not provide the addi­tional inform­a­tion needed to resolve the discrep­an­cies within 26 months, their pending regis­tra­tions will be canceled. Import­antly, voters who show up on Elec­tion Day should be allowed to vote a regu­lar ballot by provid­ing ID at the polls and thus should not give up on voting just because their status is pending; however, the require­ment could cause confu­sion on Elec­tion Day if voters are wrongly given provi­sional ballots or given other misin­form­a­tion. The ID require­ment could also cause prob­lems for voters trying to vote by absentee ballot. For those voters who do not cast ballots in 2018, they are at risk of removal prior to 2020 if they do not get off pending status within 26 months of regis­ter­ing. 

Aggress­ive Voter Purges: A recent Bren­nan Center report on purges nation­wide found Geor­gia to be one of the most aggress­ive purgers. Between the 2012 and 2016 elec­tions, it purged 1.5 million voters — twice as many as in the 2008 and 2012 cycles. All but three of the state’s 159 counties saw purge rates increase. And we recently released new data show­ing that the trend has contin­ued over the past two years, during which the state has purged 10.6 percent of its voters. 

Purge rates do not prove voters are being removed erro­neously. But we also found that provi­sional ballots went up as the purge rate increased in Geor­gia, as well as in other juris­dic­tions that used to get extra scru­tiny under the Voting Rights Act. This suggests more voters are show­ing up to the polls after having been purged because voters in those situ­ations often get provi­sional ballots. 

Voter Regis­tra­tion Drives Restric­ted: The governor’s race — which pits Secret­ary of State Brian Kemp against former state legis­lator Stacey Abrams — also recalls a contro­ver­sial epis­ode involving the secret­ary of state’s office and the New Geor­gia Project (NGP), a civic group foun­ded by Abrams in 2013. Prior to the 2014 elec­tion, Kemp’s office launched an invest­ig­a­tion into voter regis­tra­tion forms submit­ted by NGP. After invest­ig­at­ing approx­im­ately 87,000 forms, NGP was even­tu­ally cleared of wrong­do­ing — but not until after the group’s voter regis­tra­tion drive was disrup­ted. The group filed a lawsuit against Kemp for fail­ing to process approx­im­ately 40,000 voter regis­tra­tion forms submit­ted by the group. The lawsuit was dismissed in part because Kemp prom­ised to ensure regis­tra­tion applic­a­tions would be sent to counties. 

Kemp, a Repub­lican, was also criti­cized for polit­ical state­ments about voter regis­tra­tion drives. “[Y]ou 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,” he said at the time. “If they can do that, they can win these elec­tions in Novem­ber.”

Polling Place Clos­ures: Major­ity-black Randolph County, Geor­gia was sued for attempt­ing to close seven of its nine polling sites. The county claimed a consult­ant had recom­men­ded the clos­ures because of disab­il­ity compli­ance issues. After a lawsuit, the county reversed course and kept the sites open. 

The proposed polling place clos­ures in a minor­ity county were partic­u­larly concern­ing because in the past, similar tactics have been used to suppress minor­ity votes. Prior to 2013, polling place changes in Geor­gia (and other areas with a history of discrim­in­a­tion) had to be precleared by the Depart­ment of Justice or a federal court to make sure they did not result in a roll­back of minor­ity voting rights. But after the Supreme Courts’ 2013 Shelby County decision, that protec­tion no longer exists. 

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The compet­it­ive governor’s race will strain Geor­gi­a’s elec­tion system. Elec­tion offi­cials should be trans­par­ent about what voters need to do to ensure their votes are coun­ted – partic­u­larly those voters who are on pending status. If voters encounter prob­lems, they can call 866-OUR-VOTE or go to 866OUR­VOTE.ORG to get help from Elec­tion Protec­tion, a nonpar­tisan voter hotline. 

(Image: Jessica McGowan/Getty)