By Tom Baxter
To fully appreciate the irony of last week’s headlines, as stories about the state’s investigation of voter fraud competed with the latest nursing home scandal, you have to understand something about the actual theory and practice of stealing votes.
When asked why he robbed banks, the late Willie Sutton is said to have replied, “Because that’s where the money is,” thus assuring himself more posthumous fame than he earned with his crimes. When it comes to votes, you could say much the same thing about nursing homes, which is why they often come up in speculations about voter fraud.
I must say speculations, because stories that prove an election has been stolen, like the one the Atlanta Journal’s George Goodwin won a Pulitzer Prize for in 1947, are very rare. Still, the folklore about some close elections of the past, especially in rural parts of the state, hinges around unusual turnouts from nursing homes.
So even if it was just coincidental, it was a bit jarring to see the story about the Department of Community Health board putting off a vote that would have granted a $26 million reimbursement increase for 40 of the state’s nursing homes, jostling for space above the fold with a story about the fallout from Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s announcement that he was investigating allegations of fraud against the New Georgia Project. Although officially nonpartisan, the project was founded by House Minority Leader Stacy Abrams and is aimed at registering likely Democratic voters.
This seems to have been a week for coincidences. How about this one: Just a few hours after the board put off that vote on the reimbursement, two board members who had voiced skepticism or opposition were informed they weren’t going to be reappointed. Total coincidence, according to Chris Riley, Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign manager and former chief of staff.
The $26 million increase, which comes at a time when hospitals across the state are facing closure, would have gone by unnoticed but for the alert reporting of the AJC’s James Salzer. It would have benefited a fairly small group of health care providers, including some major contributors to Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, but no one seems to have noticed when it slipped through the legislature.
Kemp’s announcement that he would subpoena all the New Georgia Project’s records also coincided with the dust-up over Sunday voting, which began with state Sen. Fran Millar’s objections to DeKalb’s plans and gathered steam when other counties announced their own Sunday plans and Deal said he, too, wanted to visit the issue of Sunday voting in the next legislative session.
Thus we have the perfect setup for a big, free-for-all debate over whether the issue is voter fraud or voter suppression. But amid all this rhetorical thunder, it’s surprisingly hard to get a sense of the real numbers in this story. Not just the number of irregularities that are being investigated, but the numbers that might affect the election.
Abrams says her group has registered 85,000 people, but not all the applications have been processed. How does that number compare, generally, with registration among more likely Republican voters? The Secretary of State’s office says it has no current tally of recent registrations by race or sex, or even, as of late Monday, the total number of new registrations so far this year.
Democrats have charged that Kemp’s investigation, like the objections to Sunday voting, are an attempt to suppress Democratic registration. But Deal’s willingness to jump into the middle of the Sunday voting issue seems an especially clear signal that these really are attempts to fire up the base and register new Republican voters. Ballot integrity is a hot-button issue among conservative voters, and both Deal and Senate candidate David Perdue could use one of those.
There were a flurry of polls last week, all pointing to an extremely close governor’s race, a close U.S. Senate race and the increasing possibility that either or both races could end up in a runoff. That means we aren’t likely to hear the end of these voting fraud charges for a long time.
The most serious of New Georgia Project’s problems appears to be in Fulton County, where 7,000 of its 30,000 registrations cards reportedly were for voters in other counties. DeKalb reported “a handful” of possible fraudulent registrations, and Muscogee County, 10 of the 11,000 registration cards New Georgia Project turned in. We’ll see on Tuesday how the group responds to its subpoena.