Claims of Dirty Politics Fly in Georgia as Election Grows Closer

ATLANTA (CN) — With less than three weeks to go before a historic election in Georgia, lawsuits are piling up against state elections officials, including Secretary of State and current GOP candidate for governor Brian Kemp.

Kemp, who has refused to step down from his position as Georgia’s top election official during his campaign for governor, is in a neck-and-neck race against Democrat Stacey Abrams. A new poll released Wednesday showed Kemp one point ahead of Abrams.

With Kemp on the campaign trail, multiple lawsuits a day have been filed in Atlanta federal court bringing various allegations of voter suppression against his office.

One complaint alleges that officials in Georgia’s second most-populous county are rejecting scores of absentee ballots over allegedly “inconsistent” voter signatures, another claims that Kemp’s office is withholding information about a massive voter purge from an investigative journalist, and yet another claims that the Secretary of State is blocking over 50,000 voter registrations from being processed.

In Fulton County, the largest county in the state by population, a Democratic candidate for the Georgia House of Representatives now claims that the Georgia GOP has launched a defamatory campaign against him.

Josh McLaurin, the Democratic nominee for Georgia’s House District 51, filed suit against the Georgia Republican Party on October 16. McLaurin alleges that GOP officials sent out mailers to voters in the district claiming that he is subject to “ongoing criminal investigations.”

“The truth was that allies of Mr. McLaurin’s opponent, [Alex] Kaufman, and the State GOP worked with attorneys to file administrative complaints with Georgia state agencies alleging that Mr. McLaurin had violated certain Georgia statutes. Then, the State GOP attempted to claim that these administrative filings constituted a criminal investigation,” the complaint states.

McLaurin was accused of not meeting the residency requirements to run for office but was cleared to campaign after an administrative law judge reviewed the case in April.

But in October, the Georgia Republican Party sent out mailers to Fulton County voters with the headline “Josh McLaurin Under Investigation.” A subheading written on a graphic of a manila file folder said “The McLaurin Files – Ongoing Criminal Investigations.”

Another mailer sent out in October states “Josh McLaurin wants to be your representative but cannot follow the law,” the complaint says.

The complaint states that McLaurin was not accused of any criminal wrongdoing.

According to the complaint, the Georgia GOP has refused to retract its statements claiming that McLaurin was subject to criminal investigation.

McLaurin alleges that the Georgia Republican Party’s actions were defamatory and is asking a Fulton County judge for punitive and compensatory damages.

“If the State GOP is not held accountable for its lies, then politicians and political parties in Georgia will feel free to manufacture whatever lies they can dream up to win elections, the voters will be inundated with false information, and good people will refuse to offer themselves to run for public office,” the complaint says.

Also on October 16, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action suit in Atlanta federal court against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and the Gwinnett County elections board on behalf of two organizations, claiming that Georgia’s elections policies unfairly require officials to reject absentee ballots and ballot applications over allegedly invalid signatures.

The Georgia Muslim Voter Project and Asian-Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta claim that although Georgia law does not require elections officials to receive training in handwriting analysis or signature comparison, officials are still vested with the power to reject an absentee ballot if they believe the signature on the ballot does not match the signature in the government’s records.

“For the most part, signature variations are of little consequence in a person’s life. But in the context of absentee voting, these variations become profoundly consequential under Georgia’s signature-match requirement law,” the complaint states.

The complaint points out that a person’s signature can vary due to a variety of factors including age, physical and mental condition, disability, medication or stress.

“Variants are more prevalent in people who are elderly, disabled, or who speak English as a second language,” the complaint says.

The groups are asking the court to give voters whose absentee ballots or ballot applications were rejected due to a signature mismatch up to three days after they receive notice of their rejection to confirm their identity using a photo ID via e-mail, fax, mail or in-person.

According to the complaint, Georgia’s current policies do not give voters any notice before their ballot is rejected. A voter’s only recourse is to attempt to submit another absentee ballot or attempt to vote in-person. But in-person voting may not be an option for elderly and disabled voters.

“The elections officials’ determination is final, without any review or appeal,” the complaint states.

Although Gwinnett County represents nine percent of the state’s overall population, it is responsible for 37 percent of Georgia’s rejected absentee ballots.

The county is the second most-populous county in Georgia and is also one of Georgia’s most diverse. More than half of Gwinnett County residents are black, Hispanic, or Asian.

According to the ACLU, Georgia has rejected nearly 600 absentee ballots or ballot applications already during the 2018 midterm election.

“People should not be denied their right to vote because of penmanship, but that’s exactly what is happening in Georgia. With an election on the horizon, we should be protecting voters, not denying them the opportunity to ensure their vote is counted,” Sophia Lakin, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement.

On October 15, the Coalition for Good Governance filed a complaint in federal court claiming that Gwinnett County excessively rejects mail-in absentee ballots due to small voter errors. Voters who input an incorrect birth date or sign on the wrong line have had their ballots rejected.

On October 11, a complaint filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Atlanta federal court claimed that Georgia’s “exact match” law, which requires a voter’s registration information to exactly match the information on their driver license or state ID card, is blocking more than 53,000 voter registrations from being processed.

The complaint alleges that even a simple error, like the deletion of a hyphen, the transposition of a number or letter, or the accidental entry of an extra space, can cause a registration to be rejected.

The lawsuit says that approximately 80 percent of the frozen registrations were submitted by minorities.

The deluge of voter suppression accusations against Kemp’s office continued when yet another federal lawsuit was filed on October 17, this time by investigative journalist Greg Palast and Helen Butler, the executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda.

The plaintiffs allege that Kemp’s office violated the public disclosure provisions of the National Voter Registration Act by failing to provide information regarding Georgia’s voter registration roll maintenance procedures.

Kemp’s office allegedly failed to provide Palast with a list of names and addresses of voters who were purged from the rolls and the reason they were removed.

The complaint claims that Georgia purged hundreds of thousands of voter registrations “based on the claim they had moved when they in fact had not moved.”

The plaintiffs state that Georgia utilizes the Interstate Voter Crosscheck System, which uses voters’ names and dates of birth to analyze voter registration records from 28 states to weed out voters who moved to another state.

According to the complaint, the system disproportionately targets minority voters “because people of color are over-represented in 85 of the 100 most common surnames.”

Although Kemp’s office did not provide information about Georgia’s use of the Crosscheck system, the information it sent to Palast revealed that 83,319 voters were purged in 2016 and 665,677 were purged in 2017.

According to the complaint, 555,702 of the voters purged in 2017 were removed from the rolls because they had not voted in the last two general elections and were considered “inactive” for failing to respond to a postcard notice from election officials. Those voters were assumed to have changed their residence.

The complaint states that one in twelve Georgia registered voters was purged from the voter rolls as a result of the Secretary of State’s actions in 2016 and 2017.

Palast claims that his investigation revealed at least 340,134 of the voters who had their registrations cancelled still lived at the address where they lived when they registered to vote.

“This is a travesty for the people of Georgia whose fundamental right to vote has been taken without any formal notice that their registrations have been cancelled. The failure of the state of Georgia and [Kemp] to ensure all who want to vote can vote undermines the democratic process,” the complaint states.

Without access to information concerning whether the Crosscheck system was used to identify voters who moved in the 2016 and 2017 purges, the plaintiffs claim they can’t determine whether those cancelled registrations were caused by the system’s racial bias.

Palast and Butler are asking the court to order Kemp’s office to provide the 2016 and 2017 Crosscheck lists with the full names of those on the lists.

Despite the controversies surrounding Georgia’s election processes, voter turnout in Georgia has far exceeded expectations during the early voting period.

According to data from the Secretary of State’s office, 296,610 people have already voted either via absentee ballot or in person. Turnout is nearly 200 percent higher than it was at the same point in the 2014 midterm election.

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