How Georgia’s registration laws put a thumb on the scales for Republican candidates

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Georgia’s voter-registration deadline came and went this week, locking in the electorate for next month’s midterm elections. There are a slew of non-federal races on the ballot in the state, of course, none more closely watched than the contest for governor. That race is shaping up to be a microcosm of the broader political rift nationally, with a Democrat who would become the first black woman to govern a state facing a white man who embraced President Trump during the Republican Party primary. Woman of color versus Trump acolyte is 2018 in a nutshell.

That deadline to register to vote didn’t pass without controversy. On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that some 53,000 registration applications were being held by the Georgia secretary of state because they were flagged by the state’s “exact match” system. That system, introduced by the state’s legislature last year, mandates a stricter process for validating registrations as part of an effort to curtail illegal voting. Illegal or fraudulent voting, it’s important to reiterate, is not by any measure a significant problem in the United States.

How strict are the new rules? If someone with the hyphenated last name of Jones-Smith were to register to vote but excluded the hyphen, they might be shunted to that “pending” registration list. It’s a process that has been shown to have an outsized effect on black, Hispanic and Asian voters in the state. And, sure enough, 70 percent of those 53,000 applications being held by the secretary of state are for black voters.

The secretary of state, by the way, is Brian Kemp — the white Republican facing off against Stacey Abrams, the woman who would be the country’s first black female governor.

How significant are those withheld applications? The most recent voter registration data from the state shows that there are a bit under 6.4 million active voters in Georgia. Without the 53,000 registrations in effect, black voters make up about 30 percent of the total. If those 53,000 votes are added to the pool, the density of black voters goes to 30.5 percent — meaning an additional black registered voter out of every 200 registrations.

Kemp’s office isn’t only enacting the “exact match” policy. It’s also in charge of determining which registrations are active and which aren’t. Since last October, registration numbers have increased across the board among ethnic and racial groups. But the rate of increase has varied by race and gender.

Monthly data from the secretary of state’s office shows that the increase in registered Hispanic voters has been sharper than among black or white voters. There’s an important caveat: About 10 percent of all registrations are for people of unknown race or ethnicity. But, relative to October 2017, here’s how registration totals have changed.

Notice that blue box, marking the change from July to August 2018 among black men. The registration data provided by the state for July 1 indicated that 782,840 black men were active voters. By Aug. 1, that number dropped to 780,059. Despite the increases there may have been from new voters registering, the state had shifted enough registrations to the inactive category that there were fewer identified black men registered at the end of the month than the beginning.

It’s the only group shown on the graph above in which the totals dropped between July and August.

July was also the month that Kemp won the Republican gubernatorial primary. (His win was obvious about halfway through the month after Trump’s endorsement shifted the electorate in his favor.) You’ll notice in that first graph, though, that there were similar culls in the late summer of 2017 as well, with the number of registered voters from various groups dropping.

These overlaps between Kemp’s official role with the state and the disadvantages faced by an electorate expected to prefer his opponent have been noted by his critics. Georgia Public Broadcasting had an interesting interview with a former Georgia secretary of state noting that having an elected official manage elections would necessarily raise questions about objectivity. The stakes of this contest and the divisiveness of political moment have only heightened that tension.

There’s no evidence that Kemp is intentionally putting his thumb on the scale to his own benefit. There is plenty of evidence, though, that the system he manages itself puts its thumb on the scale in a way that benefits Republican candidates like himself. The “exact match” system tends to disproportionately effect voters who vote more heavily Democratic. The process for moving voters to inactive status similarly affects poorer and black voters at a higher rate.

Kemp doesn’t shy away from embracing that system.

“This ruling affirms that common-sense measures like Georgia’s voter-list maintenance statutes, which prevent fraud at the ballot box, are appropriate and necessary to ensure secure, accessible, and fair elections,” he said after the Supreme Court approved Ohio’s similar voter culling process.

Again: There’s no evidence of significant or widespread fraud in American elections. That voter ID laws and measures like “exact match” help Republicans by reducing the number of Democratic voters is an obvious reason that many Republicans support those laws.

As of writing, Kemp has a narrow lead over Abrams in the gubernatorial race of about 1.4 points, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. In a race that close, those 37,000 stalled registrations by black voters could make the difference.



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