Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s effort to halt the registrations of 53,000 voters — drawing criticism of voter suppression against minority voters ahead of Tuesday’s election — echoed an initiative from his his predecessor, U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, in 2008 that was blocked by the Justice Department.
Kemp, who has been secretary of state since 2010 and is now the Republican nominee for governor, has come under fire for his office’s decision to place thousands of voter registration applications — many submitted by African-Americans — on hold while they go through an “exact match” verification process.
Last month, a federal judge barred election officials from implementing the policy, a near repeat of 2008, when Handel, then the secretary of state, was thwarted by the courts from throwing people off the rolls.
The issue has taken a central place in Kemp’s gubernatorial run, with his Democratic opponent, former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who would become Georgia’s first black governor.
The exact-match process requires the information in a voter application to mirror the corresponding information held by the state’s Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration. Under the system, voters’ registrations are put on hold for even minor discrepancies in records – such as a dropped hyphen in a last name.
According to an analysis by The Associated Press, black voters were disproportionately dropped from the rolls under the exact-match system. Nearly 70 percent of the voter registrations placed on hold with Kemp’s office were those of black applicants, despite Georgia’s population only being about 30 percent black.
In many cases, those whose registrations were placed on hold were never notified of discrepancies that could prevent them from voting.
On Oct. 24, U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin filed an injunction barring election officials from rejecting absentee ballots on the basis of an alleged signature mismatch without first providing the opportunity for voters to rectify the problem.
In 2008, Handel tried to employ the same policy to disenfranchise potential voters weeks ahead of the election. Handel implemented the same “exact match” policy as Kemp, which led to her office ruling more than 50,000 potential voters ineligible without further proof of citizenship.
Another 4,500 voter registrations were deemed ineligible based on Handel’s requirement that applications be checked against the state’s Department of Driver Services database for citizenship verification. To verify matching information, the Secretary of State’s office depended on records held by the Department of Driver Services, despite documented flaws in its database.
Days before the 2008 election, a federal court issued an injunction against the new rules based on Handel’s failure to receive pre-clearance from the Department of Justice, as required under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
The court ordered Handel to obtain the necessary approval to implement the “exact match” policy, and over 55,000 Georgians flagged by Handel’s office were permitted to vote in the election.
In May 2009, the Department of Justice officially denied Handel’s attempted voter registration checks, ruling that the efforts were discriminatory.
Handel criticized the decision and later celebrated the Supreme Court ruling that diminished Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. In August 2009, Handel filed an appeal against the Justice Department’s ruling, which was rebuffed by a federal court that October.
In June 2017, Handel, a Republican, won a special election for a congressional seat representing the Atlanta suburbs. She is now in a closely watched battle for re-election against Democrat Lucy McBath, who became an advocate for gun safety after her son was shot and killed in 2012 by a man complaining his car stereo was too loud.