What to Know
- A majority of the pending applications are black, according to an analysis by the Associated Press
- Ga. Secretary of State Brian Kemp says he's fighting voter fraud; his Democratic opponent says he's suppressing voters
- Kemp's ubernatorial opponent, Stacey Abrams, is the first black woman to be nominated for governor by a major party
As the deadline to register to vote in Georgia came and went on Tuesday, more than 53,000 voters registrations remained on hold, leaving the mostly black applicants in a state of limbo less than one month ahead of the midterm election.
Thousands of forms are being held in a "pending" status by Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp's office, and nearly 70 percent of them are black, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.
Kemp's campaign spokesperson Ryan Mahoney confirmed to NBC that 53,000 applications are pending due to Georgia's "exact match" registration verification process, which requires information on voter applications to precisely match information on file with the Georgia Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration.
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Kemp, also the Republican candidate for governor in the upcoming election, is in charge of elections and voter registration in Georgia ahead of a November election that will decide the governor's race and some competitive U.S. House races.
His Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Stacey Abrams, is the first black woman to be nominated for governor by a major party. She and voting rights advocacy groups charge that Kemp is systematically using his office to suppress votes and tilt the election, and that his policies disproportionately affect black and minority voters.
Kemp denies it vehemently.
But through a process that Kemp calls voter roll maintenance and his opponents call voter roll purges, Kemp's office has cancelled over 1.4 million voter registrations since 2012. Nearly 670,000 registrations were cancelled in 2017 alone.
In a recent television appearance on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah" Abrams called Kemp "a remarkable architect of voter suppression." That's become a rallying cry for Democrats in the governor's race, which recent public polling shows in a statistical dead heat.
Kemp, meanwhile, says Abrams and allied liberal activists are twisting his record of guarding Georgia elections against voter fraud.
Mahoney called the claims of voter suppression a "campaign tactic" and said in a statement that because of Kemp, "it has never been easier to vote in our state." He pointed to a new online voter registration system and a student engagement program implemented under his tenure.
"Kemp is fighting to protect the integrity of our elections and ensure that only legal citizens cast a ballot," Mahoney said.
Two main policies overseen by Kemp have drawn criticism and legal challenges: Georgia's "exact match" registration verification process and the mass cancellation of inactive voter registrations.
According to records obtained from Kemp's office through a public records request, many of the 53,000 registrations on hold with Kemp's office were flagged because it ran afoul of the state's "exact match" verification process. Election officials can place non-matching applications on hold.
An application could be held because of an entry error or a dropped hyphen in a last name, for example.
Despite being an active Georgia voter who had cast ballots in recent elections, Marsha Appling-Nunez recently discovered that she was no longer registered.
"I was kind of shocked," said Appling-Nunez, who moved from one Atlanta suburb to another in May and believed she had successfully changed her address on the voter rolls.
"I've always voted. I try to not miss any elections, including local ones," Appling-Nunez said.
Appling-Nunez says she never saw any notice from Kemp's office indicating a problem with her application.
An analysis of the records obtained by The Associated Press reveals racial disparity in the process. Georgia's population is approximately 32 percent black, according to the U.S. Census, but the list of voter registrations on hold with Kemp's office is nearly 70 percent black.
Kemp's office blamed that disparity on the New Georgia Project, a voter registration group founded by Abrams in 2013. Mahoney said the thousands of pending applications were "by and large" collected by the group.
Kemp accuses the organization of being sloppy in registering voters, and says they submitted inadequate forms for a batch of applicants that was predominantly black. His office has said the New Georgia Project used primarily paper forms and "did not adequately train canvassers to ensure legible, complete forms ...." Kemp's team said the online system provides a more reliable way to register voters.
New Georgia Project pushed back on those claims, telling NBC that its canvassers use paper forms to keep a history of voter applications they collect. If a problem arises with the registration, the group can refer back to the paper forms, whereas an online system provides no physical proof that a person applied to vote at all, the group claimed.
New Georgia Project said it is in the process of requesting the records of the 53,000 pending applications so it can cross-reference them with the people registered through the project.
Kemp's office says "the law applies equally across all demographics," but these numbers became skewed by "the higher usage of one method of registration among one particular demographic group."
Mahoney claimed the New Georgia Project has a history of knowingly submitting fraudulent applications, saying that "several" of the applications collected by the group in 2014 included false names, names of deceased people or names of people who did not submit applications themselves.
New Georgia Project rejected this, saying it is required by law to submit every form it collects. While it attempts to flag incomplete applications or ones believed to be inaccurate, it does not have the discretion to withhold collected applications.
Voters whose applications are frozen in "pending" status have 26 months to fix any issues before their application is canceled, and can still cast a provisional ballot.
Mahoney says that Kemp's office is responding to inquiries from residents with pending applications that they can still vote in the election. He said pending applicants can correct their information before the election or present IDs at their polling places to vote.
New Georgia Project worries it won't be that easy for voters and questioned whether poll workers will have voter lists that include pending applicants or will be trained to handle this specific situation.
Other critics add that the registration system has a high error rate and decry the racial disparity that it produces.
"We've shown that this process disproportionately prevents minority applicants from getting on the voter registration rolls," Julie Houk, special counsel for the Washington based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in an interview. With that in mind, she called it "kind of astounding" that Georgia legislators wrote it into state law in 2017.
The Committee wrote to Kemp in July threatening legal action if "exact match" wasn't ended. Spokesperson Derrick Robinson told NBC the group was set to file a lawsuit Thursday. Details on the suit were not immediately available.
The Lawyer's Committee challenged Kemp's policies in 2016 as well. At the time, if an application did not match database information, and the applicant did not correct the discrepancy within 40 days, the registration was canceled, according to the Committee, which argued the policy "denied eligible Georgians their fundamental right to vote."
After the group filed a federal lawsuit, tens of thousands of voters whose registrations were previously canceled or at risk of being canceled were allowed to vote by absentee ballot, during early voting or on Election Day by showing a valid form of ID.
Kemp's office says that they simply "conduct regular list maintenance of the voter rolls to ensure election integrity" as required by federal and state law. "All of the affected records were inactive as a result of returned mail, National Change of Address, and 'no contact' list maintenance procedures," it said.
Kemp dismissed and derided the legal threat targeting the "exact match" policy, issuing a statement saying that with Election Day coming up, "it's high time for another frivolous lawsuit from liberal activist groups."
His office said that since January 2014, elections officials have processed over 6.4 million voter registrations and less than 1 percent remain in pending status. And on Wednesday, Kemp's office announced that the state had a record 6.9 million active and inactive voters on the rolls. Mahoney said that number includes the pending applicants.
Mahoney said many of those 6.9 million voters registered through its online system, challenging that the numbers show there is no voter suppression in play.
State Rep. Barry Fleming, who authored the state law enabling "exact match," said in a statement that it's authorized under federal law, and courts have upheld a similar law in Florida.
But Appling-Nunez said it's important for every Georgian's vote, including hers, to be counted in November.
"If you don't like what's happening you either have to vote to change it or get out there and change it yourself," she said. "A life of politics is not for me so I have to support those who are fighting the good fight."
Georgia also faced criticism earlier this year over its managing of polling places. Civil rights groups and black lawmakers condemned a proposed plan to close seven of nine voting locations in a rural, majority black county, arguing that black voters would be disenfranchised if the voting locations were shuttered. Election officials voted in August to scrap the plan.
NBC's Liz Lane contributed to this report by The Associated Press' Ben Nadler.