Georgia’s 'exact match' law and the Abrams-Kemp governor's election, explained
The state of Georgia’s actions placing the registrations of 53,000 voters on hold, largely of African-Americans, has drawn scrutiny from advocates who want to expand voting rights and those concerned about voter fraud.
The battle is playing out amid a close race for the governor’s office between an African-American woman, former State House leader Stacey Abrams, and a white man, Brian Kemp, the top official overseeing elections in the state.
Georgia’s contest and others across the nation have been cast as a referendum on President Donald Trump. Voters find in Kemp an ardent Trump supporter, and in Abrams, a candidate seeking to "bring the blue wave" to Georgia. If Abrams wins, she would become the nation’s first black female governor.
Voting rights advocates accuse Kemp of discriminatory voting practices tied to the state’s so-called "exact match" law. Kemp denies the allegations.
What exactly is happening in Georgia? Can the "pending" applicants still have a voice in the state’s 2018 election? Here’s what we know.
Under a 2017 Georgia law, a voter registration application is complete if information on that form exactly matches records kept by Georgia’s Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration.
If there’s no match, it’s placed on a pending status and the applicant is notified in the form of a letter from the county board of registrars about the need to provide additional documentation. It’s then up to the applicant to provide sufficient evidence to verify his or her identify.
Would-be voters have 26 months from the date of the original application to clear up any issues with their application. If they don’t, the application is rejected. A new application would need to be submitted to successfully register to vote.
About 53,000 voter registration applications are pending in Georgia — and the vast majority are from African-Americans, according to an Associated Press analysis.
Pending applicants can still vote, provided they can produce proper photo identification at their polling place.
An Oct. 11 lawsuit filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and its partners on behalf of Georgia organizations contends that the "exact match" practice is discriminatory, unlawful and a "voter suppression scheme." They argue that Georgia’s law holds applicants to a strict "exact match" standard even though election officials’ protocol for matching is "not a model of strict accuracy and is prone to erroneous, inconsistent results that are often not the fault of the applicant."
Reasons for no matches, the lawsuit said, include: the transposition of a letter or number, deletion or addition of a hyphen or apostrophe, the accidental entry of an extra character or space, and the use of a familiar name like "Tom" instead of "Thomas."
The 2017 law doesn’t require country registrars to conduct quality reviews to make sure there weren’t entry errors on their part, the lawsuit said.
The court filing also highlighted problems with the Social Security Administration’s verification process. A June 2009 report from the Office of the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration said limitations in the administration’s verification system caused some false no-match results.
States submit information to the Social Security Administration’s Help America Vote Verification program when new voters don’t present a valid driver’s license during the voter registration process. The Social Security Administration verifies the accuracy of the applicant’s name, date of birth, and last four digits of the submitted social security number.
The inspector general’s report said the Social Security Administration did not always provide states with accurate information and that its program had "a significantly higher no-match response rate when compared to other verification programs used by states and employers."
The Lawyers’ Committee lawsuit seeks to stop the implementation of the Georgia law and to switch the estimated 53,000 applicants from pending to active status. Inaction from the court would not only affect the November election, but also the presidential election in 2020, the group said.
This isn’t the first time Kemp has been challenged over the "exact match" requirement.
However, Georgia’s Legislature later in 2017 passed a bill codifying the policy. It was signed into law by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal. Supporters of the law say it can help prevent voter fraud.
Kemp has dismissed complaints by Abrams and activist groups as baseless.
Abrams has "manufactured a ‘crisis’ to fire up her supporters and fundraise from left wing radicals throughout the country," Kemp said.
That’s because Georgians with pending voter registration applications can still vote, he said.
"Pending" applicants can vote if they provide at the polls a photo ID that "substantially" reflects the name on the voter registration form, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia said. (Georgia law already requires a photo ID to vote in person.)
Georgians who had their voter registration application flagged pending for possible citizenship issues have to provide proof of citizenship to a deputy registrar.
Kemp’s office has shifted blame for racial disparities in the pending applications to Abrams and the New Georgia Project, which Abrams founded around 2013 to register minority voters. His office told the AP that canvassers were not adequately trained to ensure complete and legible forms. (Kemp's office has investigated New Georgia Project for potential voter fraud.)
The Secretary of State’s office did not respond to questions from PolitiFact.
New Georgia Project told PolitiFact it has a trained staff, and that under state law it has to submit every form it collects, even if it has errors. "This means if someone doesn’t finish their form or incorrectly states their birthday, then we are legally required to still submit the form — even though it’s obvious that there is an error," said Nse Ufot, executive director for New Georgia Project.
Abrams is "proud of the work" she’s done to register voters, a spokeswoman said.
The law "erodes confidence in our elections and the ability of eligible voters to cast a ballot — which is precisely what Brian Kemp intends it to do," said the Abrams campaign's Abigail Collazo.
Minority voters are more likely statistically to have names with hyphens or suffixes or other punctuation that can make it more difficult to match their name in databases, experts noted. That makes them more likely to get caught up in the "exact match" law.
"An unrealistic rule of this sort will falsely flag many legitimate registration forms. Moreover, the evidence indicates that minority residents are more likely to be flagged than are whites," said Barry C. Burden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of its Elections Research Center.
Even if everyone who is on a pending list is eventually allowed to vote, it places more hurdles in the way of those voters on the list, who are disproportionately black and Hispanic, said Charles Stewart III, a Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Kemp’s office has said that Georgia’s law "mirrors" one upheld in Florida. But what sets Georgia’s law apart from those of other states is that the burden to fix any discrepancy lies solely on the applicant, experts said.
In Florida, if an application initially doesn’t match, election officials have to try to reconcile the difference, said Jonathan Brater, a counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
And there is no acknowledgment in Georgia’s law that "matches of these sorts are notoriously problematic," Stewart said.
The lawsuit against Kemp also notes that Florida’s law does not cancel an application if a discrepancy hasn’t been reconciled after a specific period of time. In Georgia, after 26 months, registration applications still with issues are rejected.
While "pending" applicants can vote, it’s likely that there will be some confusion on Election Day about how to handle these voters, experts told us.
"Having one's registration on ‘pending’ status makes the voting process more complicated and might deter some voters from participating," Burden said. "Getting correct information to voters, whether they are formally affected or not, is essential to easing the path to casting a ballot."
It’s possible that a court will intervene in time to provide relief to affected voters, Burden said. But to be effective, it would need to act quickly so that information is shared with voters.
Early voting in Georgia is already underway.