Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp. (Photo: John Disney/ ALM)

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp—the state’s Republican candidate for governor—is facing renewed litigation over allegations he’s re-implemented a discriminatory and unconstitutional voter suppression scheme that has left more than 53,000 predominantly minority voter registrations in limbo less than a month before the fall midterm election.

The suit—which mirrors one filed by some of the same civil rights groups in 2016—challenges the constitutionality of a state law passed by the Georgia General Assembly last year that, as implemented by Kemp’s office, requires voter registrations be an exact match either to databases maintained by the Georgia Department of Driver Services or the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Stacey Abrams

Kemp, whom President Donald Trump endorsed last summer before he beat Lt. Governor Casey Cagle in a run-off, is in a tight race with Democrat Stacey Abrams, minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. If Abrams wins, she would become the nation’s first female African-American governor. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday released a poll saying the race is statistically tied, with Kemp leading Abrams 47.7 percent to 46.3 percent.

The suit was filed late Thursday by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Campaign Legal Center, both Washington, D.C.-based nonprofits; Hughes Hubbard & Reed, headquartered in New York; and Atlanta attorney Bryan Sells. It was filed on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, ProGeorgia State Table, the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, and the New Georgia Project.

It has been assigned to Judge Eleanor Ross of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. In 2014, Ross and Judge Leslie Abrams of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia made history when they became the state’s first female African-American federal district court judges. Abrams is the sister of Stacey Abrams, who also founded the New Georgia Project.

The suit claims that, under Kemp’s “exact match” protocol, “the transposition of a single 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’ will cause a no match result.”

Civil rights lawyers said the matching process can also falsely flag U.S. citizens as noncitizens, even where the applicants submit a copy of their U.S. naturalization certificate or other evidence of their U.S. citizenship with their registration applications.

Voter registration applications marked as failed matches are placed in “pending” status. The 2017 law gives an applicant 26 months to resolve the issue or the application will be canceled. But civil rights lawyers contend that notices sent by county election officials are often vague and easily confused with junk mail.

The 2017 law was passed the same month as Kemp settled the 2016 litigation that contended the exact match policy potentially disenfranchised as many as 42,000 voters whose applications had not been processed or were rejected outright. As part of that settlement, Kemp agreed to suspend the exact match program. The settlement also was supposed to restore to pending status more than 34,000 voter registration applications the secretary of state canceled between 2013 and 2014.

Although voters on the “pending” list are entitled to vote a regular ballot in person at the polls, if they show Georgia voter photo ID, civil rights lawyers contend that some may be required to present proof of citizenship before they can vote and that others will not be able to vote by mail or may have their absentee ballots rejected because Georgia absentee ballots do not require photo ID.

The suit seeks a court order that would:

  • Bar Kemp from purging any voters based on the “exact match” protocol.
  • Halt enforcement of the 26-month cancellation period.
  • Place in active status all applicants whose voter registrations are currently pending or were canceled due to a failed match.
  • Count all absentee ballots cast by Georgia voters using nonphotographic forms of identification.
  • Count all provisional ballots cast by Georgia voters whose applications are pending because they were flagged as potential noncitizens.
  • Mandate registrars to check initial voter registration submissions to see if proof of citizenship or identity was provided for applicants flagged as noncitizens.

“If there is one person in Georgia who knows that the ‘Exact Match’ scheme has a discriminatory impact on minority voters, it’s Brian Kemp because we successfully sued him over a mirror policy in 2016,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law,

Calling Kemp “a driving force behind multiple voter suppression efforts” in Georgia, Clarke said the secretary of state “has long endorsed and repeatedly used the ‘exact match’ protocol.” She said the practice “has been previously shown to have a high error rate and a substantial, negative impact upon voting-eligible African American, Latino and Asian American Georgians.”

On Friday, Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce called the suit, “a publicity stunt that the media falls for year after year.”

“Their claims are bogus,” she said. “It is a complete waste of our time and taxpayer dollars. This so-called exact match law was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. [Nathan] Deal. It mirrors a Florida law recently upheld in the 11th Circuit. The 53,000 Georgians cited in their complaint can vote in the Nov. 6 election. Any claims to the contrary are politically motivated and utterly false.”