Georgia partisans feud over voter registration
By BILL BARROW
ATLANTA — Amid a scramble for political supremacy in rapidly changing Georgia, Democrats and Republicans are pointing fingers over the handling of as many as 50,000 voter registration forms as the Nov. 4 election looms.
The dispute pits one of the state's highest ranking Democrats and the minister of the church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was once the pastor against the Republican secretary of state, with the two sides headed to court this week.
Leaders of the New Georgia Project say the group gathered about 86,000 voter registration forms, focusing on minority, younger and otherwise disengaged citizens. Those would-be voters are likely to lean Democratic, though the organization is technically nonpartisan.
But now the group's leaders say they cannot find about 40,000 of those names on official voter lists maintained by Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, with 10,000 more names listed as "pending."
With help from national civil rights lawyers, the organization has sued Kemp and several Georgia counties in state court.
"We want them to process forms as the law requires, and then document a reason for any applicant being denied registration, with that person being informed in writing as to why they aren't eligible," said state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, an Atlanta Democrat who leads the group.
A hearing is scheduled for Friday morning in Atlanta.
The lawsuit comes after Kemp publicly launched an investigation of Abrams' group, alleging it submitted forged applications. State officials later said they confirmed 25 forgeries, about 0.03 percent of those Abrams and her allies say they collected.
Abrams' efforts are at the heart of Democrats' strategy to capitalize on demographic shifts — the state has become more urban, younger and less white — and make GOP-run Georgia a Southern presidential battleground alongside North Carolina and Virginia.
The test runs ahead of 2016 are pending Senate matchups between Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue, along with the governor's race between Republican incumbent Nathan Deal and Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, former President Jimmy Carter's grandson.
Kemp calls the lawsuit "frivolous." He maintains that all applications have been processed and that all eligible voters will have access to ballots for the Nov. 4 election.
"It is time for the New Georgia Project and others to stop throwing out random numbers and baseless accusations and let the counties continue to do their jobs," Kemp said last week.
But Kemp has not said how many of the 86,000 would-be voters will actually be on the Nov. 4 voter list. Kemp said after reviewing the list of supposedly missing names, officials found 513 names that match deceased voters; 1,637 that match ineligible felons; and 4,300 whose forms were incomplete or had invalid addresses.
The Democratic lawmaker said she does not question Kemp's motives and wants only to ensure that no one who is eligible is denied a ballot.
But one of Abrams' fellow organizers, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, has said Kemp's effort smacks of voter suppression. Kemp denied that charge, noting he has launched online voter registration that drew 70,000 new applicants for this election cycle.
"It has truly never been easier to register to vote in Georgia," Kemp said.
ATLANTA — Georgia's electorate is changing fast, state officials said Tuesday, underscoring a shift that Democrats see as critical to making gains in a state dominated by Republicans.
The total number of people registered to vote in Georgia has dropped by nearly 40,000 since the last election. But of the 183,000 voters added to the rolls since last March, only a third identified themselves as white, a key statistic in the race for an open Senate seat and the national battle for control of the chamber in the final two years of President Barack Obama's time in office.
The final voter registration totals were released Tuesday, two weeks before the Nov. 4 election. Democrats see candidate Michelle Nunn as one of their best chances nationally to pick up a seat and millions have been spent by both sides on voter registration efforts in Georgia with an eye toward the 2016 presidential race. Challenging her is Republican businessman David Perdue in a state with a political environment that favors the GOP.
But Democrats see opportunity in the new numbers. The party has long argued there are an estimated 800,000 unregistered blacks, Latinos and Asians in Georgia and thus a rich trove of potential support. The New Georgia Project, along with other groups, collected nearly 120,000 voter registration forms since March.
"The voters we need to register are doing so," said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Senate Democrats' campaign arm. "The voters Republicans need aren't."
Republicans took offense.
"It's a troubling assumption that the Republican Party or any party is one group of people or another," said Georgia GOP spokesman Ryan Mahoney. "The Georgia Republican Party has spent considerable time, resources and volunteers looking to identify like-minded voters and turn them out."
Democrats argue the registration trends continue to make the Georgia electorate less white, a net advantage for the party. The number of registered voters who are white has dropped from nearly 63 percent of the state's total in 2008 to 58 percent as of Oct. 1. Meanwhile, the percentage of voters who identify as black has remained a fairly steady 30 percent, while other non-white classifications — including Hispanics, Asians, "other" and "unknown" — are climbing as a total share of the voter rolls.
But black voters don't always vote at robust levels.
In 2010, when Republicans claimed every statewide office and large majorities in the General Assembly, 441,000 fewer black voters cast ballots than two years earlier when Obama was elected. That number rebounded in 2012, and both Democrats and Republicans are targeting all voters who tend to sit out elections in non-presidential years.
More than a year ago, Georgia Republicans launched what's been called an unprecedented state effort to identify such voters, connect with them, learn what issues they care about and follow up with calls, visits or mailers to persuade them to vote. Mahoney said Republicans have been reaching out to people across race, gender and economic lines and were also encouraged by the increase in registered voters.
Jared Thomas, spokesman for Secretary of State Brian Kemp, said the drop-off was the result of deaths, people moving out of state and those taken off the rolls after being inactive for the last two federal election cycles. There was a similar drop between 2008 and 2010 and then a wave of voters added in 2012. Of the state's nearly 10 million residents, just over 6 million are currently registered.
The fight over new voters has erupted in several testy exchanges in recent weeks and a legal dispute between a voter registration group known as the New Georgia Project and the Secretary of State's Office over how forms have been handled. The head of that group, Democratic state Rep. Stacey Abrams of Atlanta, said she was concerned about the overall drop in voters while the state population continues to grow.
"What we should all be asking is what happened to the voters we have lost and how do we get them back?" Abrams said in a statement.