Georgia's strict system for adding new voters to the rolls risks disenfranchising tens of thousands of minorities in the battleground state this fall, according to a new lawsuit by several voting rights groups.
Since July 2013, Georgia has failed to process more than 42,000 voter registration applications because the personal information provided didn't exactly match existing information in state-maintained databases, lawyers for the groups said. Over 86 percent of those whose applications weren't processed were non-white, even though whites have made up nearly half of those who have sought to register during that period.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court, charges that the "exact match" system used by Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp violates the Voting Rights Act's ban on racial discrimination in voting. It asks that the state be required to stop using the system immediately, while there's still time for affected applicants to be added to the rolls.
"Georgia, like many states across the country, has erected another burdensome and unnecessary obstacle for those seeking to register and vote," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the lead groups behind the suit. "The Secretary of State's exact-match program penalizes those seeking to register and vote because of errors contained in databases maintained by the state."
Kemp's office says it's following the law.
"The verification process Georgia currently uses was pre-cleared by the U.S. Justice Department in 2010," said Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for the Georgia secretary of state. "This lawsuit is an effort by liberal groups to disrupt voter registration just weeks before November's election."
Until 2013, Georgia was among the states required to "pre-clear" any changes to its voting rules with the federal government, to ensure they didn't harm racial minorities. Kemp instituted the system soon after taking office in 2010.
But voting rights groups say that at the time the Justice Department approved it, data showing that the system disproportionately affects racial minorities didn't exist, since the system hadn't yet gone into effect.
The controversy comes at a time when Georgia's non-white population is soaring. Thanks to an influx of African-Americans from other parts of the U.S., as well as Hispanic and Asian immigrants, the state will be majority non-white by 2025, according to one projection made last year.
The demographic changes threaten to upend Georgia's political balance.
It's voted Republican in the last five presidential elections, but polls show Donald Trump clinging to only a very narrow lead over Hillary Clinton there.
Under Georgia's system for handling voter registration applications, even very minor discrepancies — a missing accent, hyphen, or middle initial, for instance — between the personal information provided and the information contained in the state's motor vehicle department or Social Security Administration databases can cause an application not to be processed.
A woman whose driver's license information is under her maiden name but who registers to vote under her married name might also be tripped up. Voting rights advocates say blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are more likely to have names with the kind of unusual features that lead to discrepancies.
And they say the error might not even be made by the voter, but rather by the government worker processing the application, or the one who entered the original information in the state's motor vehicle or Social Security Administration database.
A 2009 report by that agency looked at how well voter registration information matched with the records in the Social Security Administration database used by states. It found numerous potential problems, and concluded that the "high no-match response rate and the inconsistent verification responses could hinder the states' ability to determine whether applicants should be allowed to vote."
"There's a big problem here with the fundamental right to vote being dependent on the accuracy of data-entry by a government agency," said Michelle Kanter-Cohen, a lawyer with Project Vote, which is helping to bring the case.
The state does offer those who fall victim to the mismatch problem a chance to fix it. But voting rights advocates say it's far too difficult.
Applicants are notified by mail and given 40 days from when the letter was issued to fix the mismatch — otherwise their application is rejected. But for those whose applications didn't match with Social Security Administration data, the letter they receive doesn't tell them what the mismatch was or offer any additional information, making it potentially difficult to resolve the issue.
"It is not clear how voter applicants could even begin this process without more information or guidance from the State," the complaint alleges.
Voting rights advocates also say they're concerned that Kemp isn't following through on assurances he gave Department of Justice when the system was approved that his office would first check any mismatches to make sure that they weren't the result of data-entry errors, before contacting the applicant and requiring them to take another step.
Kemp's office declined to comment on the claim.
This isn't the first time that Kemp has been accused of making it harder for racial minorities to vote.
In the lead-up to the 2014 election, he generated national headlines when he launched a controversial probe of an organization led by a top Democratic state lawmaker that was working to register African-American voters.
"There is simply no legitimate reason why this flawed process should be allowed to continue to disenfranchise eligible Georgians," Francys Johnson, president of the Georgia NAACP, said in a statement. "...the evidence shows that the process is disproportionately preventing African American, Latino and Asian American applicants from completing the registration process and is denying them their fundamental right to vote."