Voter fraud investigation sparks outrage from minority leaders, voting rights activists
Questions remain about why 51,000 voter registration applications haven’t been processed
- Joeff Davis
- House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams tells reporters inside the Georgia State Capitol that more than 51,000 voter applications submitted by the New Georgia Project have not been processed.
Georgia’s statewide elections are shaping up to be among the most competitive in more than a decade. The gubernatorial and U.S. Senate campaigns have grabbed local and national headlines. But it’s the outcome of another battle between state officials and activists over access to the polls that could determine which party holds statewide office.
In early September, the voting rights feud commenced when DeKalb County officials unexpectedly announced that, for the first time in Georgia’s history, voters would be able to cast ballots on a Sunday. The polling place would be located at the Gallery at South DeKalb, a shopping center frequented by African-American residents in a heavily Democratic district. Some Georgia Republicans viewed it as a partisan move that would benefit Democratic candidates. Fulton and Lowndes counties quickly followed suit, but not before Gov. Nathan Deal and state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, pledged to change state law to ensure Sunday voting wouldn’t happen again.
One day later, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp subpoenaed documents from one of the state’s largest voter registration groups. For the past four months, Kemp staffers say they have looked into voter outreach efforts by the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit focused on registering minority voters throughout the state.
“Preliminary investigation has revealed significant illegal activities’ including forged voter registration applications, forged signatures on releases, and applications with false or inaccurate information,” Kemp wrote in a Sept. 9 email to county election officials about NGP.
Kemp staffers, acting on complaints from election officials in more than a dozen counties, allege that a small fraction of the forms collected by the group might have contained forged or inaccurate information. Of the approximately 85,000 voter registration applications NGP has submitted to county election offices across the state, they claim around 0.06 percent were suspicious enough to justify subpoenas for all of the organization’s documents. Not 6 percent. 0.06 percent.
- Joeff Davis
- Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp listens to a presentation about 25 forged voter registration applications allegedly tied to the New Georgia Project.
New Georgia Project, which was originally supposed to hand over its massive trove of documents by Sept. 16, received a 10-day extension due to an emergency board meeting held Wednesday to discuss the investigation.
But that pressure hasn’t resonated well with activists who have cried foul of voter suppression. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who chairs the New Georgia Project, claimed the group wasn’t informed about the emergency meeting.
In response, the group has filed Open Records Requests to better understand the reasons why Kemp launched a voter fraud investigation, which they claim is a “witch hunt.” Abrams questioned the need for an investigation over such a small percentage of problematic applications, especially when the state had failed to process an estimated 51,400 voter registration applications submitted by the New Georgia Project — some of which were sent as early as last spring.
“If fraud is the intent to deceive, then what we have done is the exact opposite,” Abrams told reporters. “We’ve been open. We’ve been transparent. We’ve been aggressive in our attempt to be open and transparent. ... I don’t know what else we can do except not register people to vote.”
- Joeff Davis
- Secretary of State Chief Investigator Chris Harvey.
During the emergency meeting, Chris Harvey, the Secretary of State’s chief investigator, said Kemp’s office had “confirmed” 25 forged applications out of approximately 85,000 total applications submitted by NGP since mid-May. Another 26 applications were deemed “suspicious” and would require more information to determine if they were forged. He added that the 25 applications — some of which had fake social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and signatures — had come from more than a dozen different counties including DeKalb, Henry, and Gwinnett.
When pressed for an answer, however, Harvey clarified that there was no evidence of orchestrated efforts by NGP to illegally fill out voter applications. The number of forgeries was more than he had seen from a single group in his seven-year career with the state, he noted. Kemp said it was his office’s duty to look into the complaints and insisted the investigation was not an attack against Abrams, who he said he’s worked with frequently on other issues, or her organization. The secretary of state also dismissed “speculative” media reports about his office’s motives to stall voter registration.
“I don’t think anything we’re doing is keeping people from registering to vote,” Kemp said.
At the press conference, Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, who also helps lead NGP, and Francys Johnson of the NAACP’s Georgia chapter joined Abrams to blast Kemp’s voter fraud allegations. Johnson said that Kemp’s latest probe was “par for the course” given his past efforts to stop potential minority voters. In particular, he criticized the secretary of state for launching an unsuccessful voter registration fraud investigation in 2010; forcing the NAACP to file a federal lawsuit to ensure compliance with the National Voter Registration Act in 2011; and purging thousands of residents from the voter rolls in an “error-ridden” 2012 election.
Warnock, who said the voter fraud investigation was an attempt to distract voters, accused Kemp of preventing thousands of minority men and women from registering — and casting ballots in the statewide primary that occurred on May 20. He urged Georgia residents to not be intimidated by Kemp’s efforts to obstruct further outreach efforts. The chance to vote on Sundays, he added, shouldn’t be a partisan debate.
“You don’t have to wear a hood, you don’t have to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan, to be engaged in voter suppression,” said Warnock, who also called out Deal and Millar in his remarks. “We know voter suppression when we see it. ... Sometimes it’s a governor, sometimes it’s a legislator, sometimes it’s a secretary of state who stands in the way. But we will not tolerate voter intimidation.”
- Joeff Davis
- Lorraine Fontana (center), Greg Ames (right) and Rev. Jeffrey Benoit (left) were one of approxmately 10 protesters who stood throughout the hearing with the word “vote” taped over their mouths.
Moral Monday Georgia also took the opportunity to disrupt the emergency meeting. As Harvey presented his findings, 10 people stood up in silence, turned their backs to the election board, and had their mouths covered with a piece of tape that had the word “vote” written on it. Georgia State Capitol troopers did not remove any of the peaceful demonstrators. That came much to the surprise of organizer Tim Franzen, who told CL that several more waves of protesters were ready take their place if arrests were made.
“We felt like we needed to have a visual representation of what we believe is happening,” Franzen says. “This is about the suppression of voters, specifically working families and communities of color. That’s what the uproar about Sunday voting is about, that’s what this dog-and-pony show slapping about the New Georgia Project is about. The Secretary of State’s office is trying to have an impact on the election and have a chilling effect on voters.”
Harvey estimated that a full investigation of the roughly 50 forged and suspicious voter applications could take months to finish, but was ultimately necessary in order to prevent problems in future elections. He said local county registrars were still processing the remaining 51,000 applications. Abrams this morning continued to demand answers about the fate of the remaining voter applications.
“We have raised questions today, and we will keep asking them until these voters are on the rolls,” Abrams said in a statement. “Georgians deserve answers to why their voter registrations have been ignored.”
- Joeff Davis
- State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, addresses the media following the emergency hearing.
According to Harvey, the investigation could potentially stop absentee and early voter ballots from being rejected. When grilled by Board Member David Worley, an Atlanta-based attorney and former Democratic Party of Georgia chairman, he emphasized the voter fraud complaints were “significant” enough to continue the probe.
After the meeting, state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta raised concerns that Kemp was in “search of a problem when there is none” to stall tens of thousands of potential Democratic voters from reaching the polls. That, he warned, could easily be the difference between whether Republicans or Democrats hold two important statewide positions.
“It’s a turnout tactic,” Fort tells CL. “This is the biggest voter suppression effort in Georgia in 40 years. Twenty-five bad registrations is not a good thing. But 51,000 voters may go to vote and get turned away.”
We’ve reached out Secretary of State’s office for comment. If we hear back, we’ll post an update.
<img src=”https://media2.fdncms.com/atlanta/imager/moral-monday-georgia-protester-neil-sardan/u/original/12256366/1411060012-dsc_4365.jpg” alt=”Moral Monday Georgia protester Neil Sardana positioned himself in front of Secretary of State Chief Investigator Chris Harvey and stood throughout the voter “fraud” meeting.” title=”Moral Monday Georgia protester Neil Sardana positioned himself in front of Secretary of State Chief Investigator Chris Harvey and stood throughout the voter “fraud” meeting.” width=”600” height=”398” />
- Joeff Davis
- Moral Monday Georgia protester Neil Sardana positioned himself in front of Secretary of State Chief Investigator Chris Harvey and stood throughout the voter “fraud” meeting.