Brian Kemp’s Voter Suppression Efforts Could Help Elect Him Governor

He’s investigated groups that have tried to register voters—including one led by his opponent.

Brian Kemp gives his victory speech after winning the GOP gubernatorial primary runoff for governor on July 24.Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS via ZUMA

In 2012, Helen Ho set out to register Asian Americans to vote in Georgia. Two years prior, she had founded a small nonprofit to increase civic engagement among this growing minority population, and she found that the most fruitful way to register new voters was at naturalization ceremonies. Soon, she and her small staff were attending two to three ceremonies each week and helping newly minted citizens fill out and turn in voter registration forms. As the presidential election neared, her small organization had registered more than 1,400 new voters.

About a month before the election, Ho realized something was amiss. People whom she had registered were contacting her, reporting that they had never received registration cards. Then others who had tried to vote early told her they had been turned away. Ho’s intern visited the secretary of state’s website and looked up every person the nonprofit—then called the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, now Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta—had tried to register. He found that 574—about 40 percent—were not on the rolls. “That’s when we realized this is a problem,” Ho says. “These are mostly new immigrants, former refugees, that are becoming citizens, and for some reason the registration process is systematically denying them the right to vote.”

Ho’s first course of action was to alert the office of the secretary of state, Republican Brian Kemp. When Kemp’s office failed to respond, she took the issue to the press, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a story about disenfranchised new citizens. A week after the election, Ho finally heard from Kemp’s office: Kemp was launching an investigation into the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, alleging that it had violated protocol when it had retained a copy of registrants’ applications. Ho believes the investigation was spurred by her going public and making his office look bad. “Who would think voter registration is a dangerous thing for a nonprofit to do?” Ho wonders. “But that’s what it felt like. It felt like we were doing something that is in our right, is a right of every citizen, and it felt dangerous doing it.”

In nine years as secretary of state, Kemp has championed and enforced policies that make it harder for minorities to register and to vote. Now he’s locked in a tight race for governor—a race in which his own work as the state’s chief election officer could lift him to victory by suppressing the votes of people who are more likely to back his opponent. Democrat Stacey Abrams is trying to become the country’s first black female governor by boosting turnout among Democratic-leaning minority groups who historically have not voted in large numbers. Kemp’s efforts could keep Abrams from reversing that trend.

Kemp has implemented a stringent voter verification process that flags and suspends registration applications if the information on them does not exactly match information in existing databases, down to each letter and hyphen. Last week, the Associated Press reported that 53,000 people who attempted to register to vote have not been added to the rolls due to this process. Though Georgia is 32 percent African American, 70 percent of those flagged by Kemp’s protocols are black. The revelation prompted a lawsuit the next day from a coalition of civil rights groups, who allege that Kemp implemented a registration process he knew would keep minority voters off the rolls.

“He has not, in my view, seen it really as his mission as secretary of state to encourage people to vote,” says Bryan Sells, an Atlanta-based voting rights attorney who is part of the team suing Kemp. “I think he’s been a willing player in a much larger strategy to do just the opposite, to prevent people from voting and discourage people from voting.”

Kemp grew up in a politically connected family in Athens, one of Georgia’s liberal enclaves and home to the University of Georgia. His grandfather and father-in-law had served in the state legislature, as Democrats. In 2002, Kemp decided to get into the family business with a run for state Senate, with the Republican Party, which had absorbed most of the state’s old conservative Democrats.

Kemp leveraged his family’s political stature in his first campaign. “At a time when it took courage to do so, former Sen. Julian Cox, Brian Kemp’s grandfather, boldly voted to integrate the University of Georgia,” one of his radio ads stated, promising that Kemp would carry on the legacy. But that was a skewed reading of history. As an Athens paper pointed out in 2002, Cox never voted to let African Americans attend the University of Georgia; it was integrated by a federal court order. Over several years in office, Cox cast multiple votes to preserve segregation in Georgia schools. (The state’s segregationist law would automatically defund the university if black students enrolled, so after the court order forced integration, Cox joined a nearly unanimous legislature in repealing that law so the university could remain open.)

Kemp won his race in a Republican wave. Four years later, he lost a primary race for agriculture commissioner, but in January 2010, Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Kemp secretary of state when the incumbent, Republican Karen Handel, stepped down to run for governor. Kemp ran successfully for a full term in November 2010, and again in 2014.

Kemp’s tenure as secretary of state has coincided with a nationwide surge in policies that make it difficult for minorities and poor people to cast ballots. States under Republican control, particularly since the 2010 election that carried Republicans to power around the country, have pursued voter ID laws, proof-of-citizenship laws, and reductions in early voting—all policies that Kemp has supported in Georgia. These developments escalated in 2013 when the Supreme Court gutted a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, freeing Georgia and its 159 counties from having to preclear changes to voting procedures with the federal government. Without that decision, Georgia might not have been able to close 214 polling locations, cut back early voting hours, and place those 53,000 voters in limbo today.

Though he began his political career with a promise to protect civil rights, even at a political cost, Kemp has done the opposite. Not only has he made it more difficult for some people of color to vote, but his campaign has ridden the nativist wave among the Republican base by taking a stridently anti-immigrant tone. In one ad, he threatened to personally round up immigrants and deport them in his red pickup truck. His anti-immigrant stance has endeared him to President Donald Trump, whose endorsement helped him win a close Republican primary runoff in July.

The roots of the current controversy over the suspended registrations stretch back to the 2000 presidential election. In response to the many problems administering that contest, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002. Among other provisions to streamline election administration, it required states to run new registration applications against another state or federal database in order to help confirm registrants’ identities. Some states quickly turned this into a weapon for disenfranchising voters, using it to block registrations where an applicant’s information didn’t precisely match other databases.

Georgia was among the states that took this approach, known as “exact match.” But the state had to clear the program with the Justice Department, which rejected it in 2009 as discriminatory and “seriously flawed.” By this time, the policy was falling out of favor around the country, as states realized how many eligible voters could be disenfranchised by outdated records or typos. Wisconsin’s election board, for example, refused to implement the policy after a test run showed that four of the six retired judges who sat on the board had failed to match. But after Kemp took office in 2010, he forged ahead. He made small tweaks to his predecessor’s proposal in order to circumvent the Justice Department ruling, and for the next seven years, Georgia had the nation’s strictest exact-match program. Tens of thousands of Georgians were disenfranchised as a result.

Under Kemp’s exact-match policy, every new registrant’s application had to perfectly match that voter’s corresponding data held by either the Georgia Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration. A missing hyphen or apostrophe in someone’s name could block his or her application. Sometimes, the discrepancies were caused by election officials who mistyped as they manually transcribed registrants’ information into the state’s elections database.

Would-be voters with mismatched information were sent a notice in the mail asking them to verify their information. They had 40 days from the time their data was run through the matching software to correct the issue. Doing so often required a lot of guesswork. The Social Security Administration database, which a 2009 inspector general’s report found was full of outdated information and even contained a glitch that flags some matches as nonmatches, would not inform officials what part of the information did not match up. This created a mystery for flagged voters to resolve and sometimes proved impossible to navigate. In the case of one voter who sued the state, a county official entered an incorrect address into the matching system, and the voter never received the notice, which was likely sent to the wrong address. Ho believes the exact-match scheme caused some voters she tried to register to be flagged and blocked, because state databases do not automatically update when an immigrant gains citizenship. Voters of color, who are less likely to have driver’s licenses, are more often run through the Social Security Administration database, which is less reliable than the state’s.

In September 2016, several disenfranchised voters and Georgia civil rights groups sued Kemp to stop the exact-match process. In their complaint, they laid out how the system disproportionately disenfranchised minority voters. White applicants had submitted 47.2 percent of voter registration applications since July 2013 but constituted only 13.6 percent of applicants who had been rejected by exact match, while African Americans had 29.4 percent of applications but 63.6 percent of rejections, according to records from Kemp’s office. African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos were all about seven times likelier to be flagged by the process than white registrants. Of the 34,874 registrations blocked by exact match, more than 75 percent were nonwhite.

A month after the suit was filed, Kemp agreed to allow voters blocked by the match process to vote in November 2016. The following February, his office signed a settlement that effectively ended the exact-match program. But for voting rights groups, it was a short-lived victory.

A few months later, at the urging of Kemp’s office, the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature passed a law requiring a matching protocol like the one the settlement had just ended. Kemp interpreted the new law as a green light to bring back a nearly identical exact-match policy. There was one key difference: Voters’ 40-day window to correct a mismatch was extended to 26 months, during which time they could cast a ballot if they brought proper ID. Kemp’s office argues that this new law overrides the settlement.

Predictably, the program once again flagged minority voters at disproportionate rates. By July 2018, after just a year of the new exact-match policy, more than 51,000 voters had been flagged and put on a pending list, with 26 months to provide additional proof of identity to get on the rolls. Of those, fewer than 10 percent had listed their race as white. On October 11, voting rights groups sued again. 

Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce says the outcry over exact match is misguided. “This is a publicity stunt that the media falls for year after year,” she says in an email. “Their claims are bogus. 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 Governor [Nathan] Deal.” Broce notes that the exact-match policy is similar to one in Florida that has been upheld in court, although Florida’s law does not set an expiration date for registrations that do not match. It also allows local officials to try to figure out the matching error, whereas Georgia puts the burden of proof entirely on the voter. 

Lawsuits against Kemp’s oversight of elections have become as routine as elections themselves. Kemp spins this Groundhog Day situation as a sign that he is under siege by his enemies. “November 6, 2018 is right around the corner, which means it’s high time for another frivolous lawsuit from liberal activist groups,” Kemp said in a statement in July, when the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law threatened litigation over his new exact-match policy. “They pulled the same stunt in 2014 and 2016, and it’s no surprise that they’re planning the same tactics this year.”  

The suits aren’t as frivolous as Kemp claims, given that he often loses. In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew barreled toward Georgia’s southeast coastline during the final week of voter registration, causing election offices to shutter and residents to evacuate. The Lawyers’ Committee urged Kemp to extend the voter registration deadline in the Savannah region. When he refused, the group sued. A judge gave voters an extra five days to register.

The following spring, a special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District became a nationwide obsession, a test of the ascendant liberal resistance to Trump. The race pitted Handel, the former secretary of state, against Democratic newcomer Jon Ossoff. When neither received a majority of the vote, a runoff was scheduled for June 20. But Kemp’s office didn’t reopen voter registration because, under Georgia law, a runoff was considered part of the original election. Once again, on behalf of five local civil rights groups, the Lawyer’s Committee sued. State law may not have required a new registration period, but federal law did. Kemp’s office called the suit a “completely political effort to attack Secretary Kemp.” Democrats saw Kemp’s intransigence as an equally political attempt to help keep the 6th District in Republican hands, since voters who would need to register were more likely to be young Democrats or new residents in a conservative district where more diverse newcomers were making an Ossoff victory possible. A federal judge ruled against Kemp, but Handel won.

Despite this record, Kemp claims that voter registration has flourished under his watch. “Under my tenure as Secretary of State, Georgia has shattered records for voter registration and turnout across all demographic groups,” he said in July. He points to the fact that he implemented online and mobile registration, which 200,000 Georgians have used. Two years ago, Georgia began automatically registering voters who visit the Department of Driver Services for license registration and other services, contributing to a surge in registrations, including among voters of color.

But the effect of increased registration has been blunted by an increase in the number of voters who have been purged from the rolls under a policy that allows the state to remove them if they sit out several consecutive elections and fail to respond to mailed notifications. Georgia struck 1.5 million people from the rolls between 2012 and 2016—twice as many as between 2008 and 2012, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice. Another 670,000 were removed in 2017 alone. Kemp’s office has contended that the actual number of purged voters is much lower because the data includes people whose registrations were canceled in one county and added in another. 

From the moment Kemp and Abrams won their parties’ nominations, access to the ballot became a major campaign issue. “I have an opponent who is a remarkable architect of voter suppression,” Abrams said in August on the Daily Show. Kemp has countered that Abrams is too lax when it comes to election integrity; this week, he implied in a misleading tweet that Abrams was hoping for undocumented immigrants to vote for her as part of a “blue wave.” The message on both sides is clear: One candidate is an enemy of democracy. The voters have to decide which one it is.

In 2013, Abrams started the New Georgia Project to educate black Georgians about the Affordable Care Act. She soon realized that the people she was reaching were not engaged in the political process, and in 2014 she turned the group’s focus to voter registration. The effort made her a rising star nationally. And it earned her an enemy worthy of her new reputation as a voting rights crusader.

In the fall of 2014, Kemp received word that among the thousands of registration applications arriving from the New Georgia Project, a small number appeared to have been filled out fraudulently by volunteers with the group. In response, Kemp issued a dire warning that the group may have been engaged in fraud, even though there was no indication that the New Georgia Project’s leadership had done anything illegal. Kemp launched an investigation of the group with great fanfare just before the 2014 midterms. He closed the investigation in 2017 with no findings of wrongdoing.

A month before the 2014 midterms, Abrams sued Kemp’s office, alleging that it was delaying the processing of around half the 85,000 registration applications the New Georgia Project had submitted. A state judge ruled against Abrams, finding that Kemp was following protocol. The following year, 18,000 people registered by the group appeared on the rolls—suggesting that they were eligible voters all along but that Kemp’s office had prevented them from participating in the midterms, in which he was reelected.

There is a mismatch between Kemp’s national persona as a crusading opponent of voting rights and his reputation in Georgia political circles as a mild-mannered guy whose advisers pushed him to the right on issues like immigration to win the contentious GOP primary for governor. He’s been willing to play the role of archconservative on voting issues opposite Abrams, says Todd Rehm, a Republican strategist in Atlanta, “because it got him favorable attention among Republicans.” Kemp boasts of his battles with civil rights groups; in a campaign video, he claimed—falsely—that he had sued the Obama administration to stop noncitizens from voting.

Some Georgia Democrats see the state’s voter registration challenges as a sign of Kemp’s incompetence, not Machiavellian cunning. Several sources say Kemp is struggling to oversee a massive bureaucracy, which includes local voting boards in 159 counties. In 2015, Kemp’s office inadvertently sent 6.2 million voters’ Social Security numbers, addresses, and driver’s license numbers to 12 organizations that regularly receive information about Georgia’s voter rolls. This “clerical error,” as Kemp called it, remains one of the largest personal data breaches ever by any state.

Kemp’s office has not kept a close eye on the state’s voting infrastructure, either. In 2016, a cyber researcher named Logan Lamb discovered dangerous vulnerabilities in the state’s centralized voting database. Several voters and a watchdog group filed a lawsuit alleging that Georgia’s electronic-only voting system is so shoddy that Kemp cannot ensure that people’s votes will be counted, in violation of their constitutional rights. The suit is ongoing. “Whether it’s lack of attention to detail or malign neglect or a deliberate strategy, I don’t think I could offer an opinion,” says Sells, the Atlanta-based attorney. Sells is currently suing Kemp on behalf of the Libertarian Party over what he calls the “lousy” processing of petition signatures for third-party candidates trying to get onto the ballot. “It just seems like the bureaucracy is not functioning well.”

Kemp has likewise struggled to defend exact match in court, and as a result, the program hasn’t actually kept many people from voting. After a successful lawsuit against exact match, Kemp was forced to allow suspended registrants to vote in 2016 and 2017. The 53,000 blocked registrants are able to vote this November as well.

Still, when Kemp and the legislature reintroduced exact match last July, it appeared aimed not at the 2018 elections, but at 2020. “The threat for 2020 is real and significant,” says John Powers, an attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, who has been involved in multiple suits against Kemp. “This law was started in 2017. There’s the 26-month window. We know the list is already 53,000 people deep…So starting in 2019, a lot of people are going to start coming off [the rolls].”

To Helen Ho, bureaucratic incompetence is a feature, not a bug, of voter suppression. It blankets the process in an impenetrable fog, she says, obscuring the mechanisms of suppression in the “technicalities of how voter registration happens.” Even though the 53,000 suspended registrants can vote in November with ID, voting rights advocates worry that people may not realize they can vote, or that poll workers will not be informed of the law and might give them provisional ballots or turn them away.

Ho compares Kemp’s inscrutable oversight of elections to gaslighting, the psychological manipulation that causes people to question their grasp on reality. After Kemp launched his investigation into her group, Ho handed over signed consent forms proving that she and her colleagues had been authorized by the registrants to retain their applications. She then hired a lawyer and waited to see what would happen. Two and a half years later, in 2015, Kemp’s office closed the case with no action taken.

At the time, Ho recalls, some of the people she had tried to register in 2012 were still not on the rolls. A few of them have told her they’ll never try to vote again. “I think that that’s something that the secretary of state is well aware of,” she says. “It’s slowly gaslighting people that can and should vote into believing maybe they might get in trouble, maybe it’s not worth even trying again. Boy, it’s so hard; why should I even try again?”