The 2018 midterm elections were unlike any seen in recent years. Voter turnout jumped 10 percent since the 2014 midterm elections. Florida gave back voting rights to over 1 million felons, the largest U.S. re-enfranchisement since the women’s suffrage movement and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Women of color and LGBTQIA+ candidates made historic wins alongside the Democratic party taking control of the House of Representatives. All in all, the election was applauded as a step in the right direction for progressive politics. However, it was also rife with controversy related to the voting process itself.
The Georgia gubernatorial race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp was mired by claims of voter suppression. If she had been elected, Abrams would have been the first black woman to ever serve as governor in any state in the U.S. Kemp maintained his position as secretary of state of Georgia while he ran for governor, and because the secretary of state oversees voting, many argued this was a conflict of interest and inappropriate. Despite outrage, Kemp refused to leave his position as secretary of state. He claimed that he was ensuring “election integrity,” a ridiculous statement in lieu of his clear conflict of interest.
The “Exact Match” System
Just as people feared, Kemp did many things to suppress votes while he was secretary of state. Before Election Day, his office put 53,000 voter registrations on hold, almost 70 percent of which were submitted by black voters, by using an “exact match” system that is known to disproportionately affect voters of color, so much so that a group of civil rights organizations even filed a lawsuit for the end of the program.
The exact match system stops voter registrations if it finds any kind of discrepancy between an individual’s government records, even something as small as missing hyphens. It is known to frequently have errors and is designed in such a way that many people’s voter registrations are rejected or purged because of common clerical mistakes. Carol Anderson of The Huffington post wrote, “For example, if the registration card reads Carol E. as opposed to the DDS database’s Carole, or Garcia-Marquez versus Garcia Marquez, or Renée instead of Renee, electoral purgatory is in the applicant’s future.”
“Use It Or Lose It”
Georgia also purged the registrations of many voters based on another one of its controversial policies, “use it or lose it.” This allows voters to be taken off the rolls if they have not voted in a certain amount of time. People were able to be purged too close to the election to re-register or sometimes without even knowing they had been removed from the rolls.
An NPR investigation in October found that there was a spike in the number of voters who were purged from the rolls under Kemp based on this policy.
Rejecting absentee ballots was another voting issue in Georgia. U.S. District Court Judge Leigh Martin May ruled on Oct. 24 that Georgia had to stop automatically throwing out absentee ballots because of “signature mismatches” after the state rejected almost 3,000 votes by doing so. This is after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Georgia Muslim Voter Project and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta filed a lawsuit saying voters of color had a higher chance of having their ballots rejected due to “signature mismatch.” They cited 62 percent non-white Gwinnett County, the second largest county in the state, where almost 600 ballots were rejected because of these claims.
On Nov. 13, Judge May also ruled that Gwinnett County had violated voters’ civil rights by rejecting absentee ballots because of their missing or incorrect birth dates and ordered them counted. U.S. District Judge Steve Jones based his ruling on the fact that all Georgia counties cannot certify their election results until after counting absentee ballots previously rejected for missing or incorrect birth dates. This was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Abram’s campaign, which called for those rejected absentee ballots to be counted, along with provisional ballots filed by voters who had attempted to vote in the wrong county.
Both rulings come after District Judge Amy Totenberg stopped Georgia from certifying the election results until Nov. 16 at 5 p.m., at the earliest, after the state’s attempts to do so only one day after the election and six days before state law mandated certification. Judge Totenberg wrote a 56-page ruling on the incredulous attempt, saying it “appears to suggest the secretary’s foregoing of its responsibility to confirm the accuracy of the results prior to final certification, including the assessment of whether serious provisional balloting count issues have been consistently and properly handled.”
Voting conditions in polling locations across Georgia were festering with problems as well. There were delays, limited numbers of voting machines in areas with large minority populations and technical issues. It was so bad in some places that voting hours were pushed past 7 p.m. to make up for the delays. In Gwinnett County, four voting locations went down and caused even longer lines. Some voters were forced to wait over four hours just to cast their vote. In a fifth location in the county, the voting machines were not connected to power cords and ended up running out of battery.
In Fulton County there were very few voting machines at all, which also resulted in exceptionally long lines. Fulton County election director Richard Baron claimed this was the because of a counting error, as there was supposed to be one machine per 350 registered voters, but the number of voters had been incorrectly entered to the system. This oversight led organizers to set up many fewer machines than they needed. Baron said these problems are partially the result of a federal judge’s previous ruling to sequester 700 of the county’s voting machines, leaving them with only 40 spares.
In total, Kemp’s office removed 1.5 million registered voters names from voting rolls and since 2012 closed over 200 polling locations in mostly rural, impoverished black neighborhoods. Regardless of his conflict of interest and evidence of voter suppression, Kemp refused to resign as secretary of state until Nov. 8, after claiming victory in the gubernatorial race well before all votes had been counted.
At the time Kemp claimed he had won he held just 50.3 percent of the vote, which translated to a lead of only 63,000 votes. Abrams had not conceded at this time and as a result Kemp’s campaign called her “a disgrace to democracy.” Kemp spokesman Ryan Mahoney said, “Clearly, Stacey Abrams isn’t ready for her 15 minutes of fame to end.”
In the end, on Nov. 16, Georgia certified the Nov. 6 election results in favor of Kemp. According to official results, Kemp received 50.22 percent of the vote. He had to have more than 50 percent to prevent a runoff election with Abram and official numbers show Abram’s losing by only 54,723 votes.
Although Abrams did acknowledge the election was over, she purposely did not concede. Instead she pointedly declared that Kemp had committed “deliberate and intentional” voter suppression. Abrams told NPR that Kemp needs to be held accountable, saying: “The totality of the errors made, of the gross mismanagement, of the incompetence — 1.5 million people purged [from voter rolls], 53,000 [votes] put on hold, 3,000 denied the right to register as new citizens, long polling lines, misplaced provisional ballots — the totality of the issues demonstrates that there has been gross mismanagement of our elections. I’m not suggesting that I know I would have won, but I am saying that the results were unalterably made less safe and less secure because of the actions taken by the secretary of state . . . But my point is that it was not a fair fight.”
Abrams is currently creating a group called Fair Fight Georgia to address the lack of a “fair fight,” alongside claims to run for office again. One of the organization’s first actions will be to file a federal lawsuit against the State of Georgia over its gubernatorial election.
However, University of California, Irvine, School of Law professor Richard Hasen suggests the election wasn’t stolen. “Democrats should stop with the rhetoric that the race was ‘stolen'” because “rhetoric about stolen elections feeds a growing cycle of mistrust and delegitimization of the election process.” Abrams, however, said, “It’s necessary to push for integrity in our elections based on the evidence.”
Even though Georgia’s gubernatorial race has officially ended, its effects are far from over. In the coming months between Kemp’s election and taking of office, only time will tell whether voter suppression in the election will be investigated. Either way, it will go down in history as one of the most controversial and questionable elections of the 2018 midterms.