By Tom Baxter
First the math.
If we assume a reasonable increase in turnout over the 2.6 million Georgians who voted in the election four years ago, as most observers do, then the 40,000 voter applications (in some reports the number has floated up to 55,000) which the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights says have not been properly processed would amount to between 1 to 2 percent of the total vote in next month’s election.
If we also assume, as I do, that the Libertarian Party candidates in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races pull a higher share of the vote than they did four years ago, then the real impact of these votes could be significantly greater than that — assuming, as we all do, that these are mostly Democratic votes.
Polls show both these races to extremely close. So we’re not talking about a matter of principle, as in the case of the 51 voter applications which Secretary of State Brian Kemp has alleged were or might be fraudulent. We’re talking about what could be the difference in these elections.
There has been something odd all along about the voter registration dispute which led to the law suit filed Friday by the Lawyer’s Committee and the NAACP. It’s as if the state has been playing rope-a-dope in a case which could have national implications.
State Rep. Stacey Abrams, head of the New Georgia Project, has charged that Kemp’s office refused to meet with the group to discuss issues that had come up in its registration drive. This was followed by Kemp’s high-profile decision to subpoena all the group’s records, culminating in a state Elections Board Hearing in which his office basically folded its case. Except for the principle of the thing, of course.
The rope-a-dope continued last week, when Kemp’s office refused to meet with the Lawyer’s Committee to discuss its concerns, with more than half the people it claims to have signed up still missing on the voting rolls. The Lawyer’s Committee was going to file suit against Kemp’s office and five county election boards anyway, but the refusal seemed tantamount to an open provocation.
The legal communications with the Lawyer’s Committee have so far been handled by the secretary of state’s general counsel, C. Ryan Germany. Presumably, in a case of this potential magnitude, Attorney General Sam Olens’ office will step in at some point, but while we’re in rope-a-dope mode that remains unclear.
While this law suit was being born last week, a federal judge struck down Texas’ voter ID law, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay on the implementation of Wisconsin’s new law. The climate doesn’t seem conducive to rope-a-dope if this case climbs up the judicial ladder. Kemp’s refusal to work with Abrams’ group to resolve any questions, while simultaneously saddling New Georgia with the burden of a subpoena over a handful of complaints, seriously calls into question his commitment to insuring that every qualified citizen gets the chance to vote.
Maybe the New Georgia Project’s records on its new registrants will prove so shoddy the case will collapse, but the bar seems rather high for the state. If the Lawyer’s Committee can put a sufficient number of witnesses on the stand who profess to a good-faith effort to register, the state is going to have a hard time accounting for the backlog.
We are four weeks away from Election Day, which could be a mess if the confusion over registrations hasn’t been resolved by then. But the mess could go on well beyond Election Day. If there’s a runoff in either race, the question of whose vote counts may still be an issue.
Even if there isn’t a runoff, or a lingering court case that throws the election in doubt even longer, Georgia’s registration mess seems likely to linger. The Democrats will be sure of that.
There is a part of the Republican Party which remains stuck down in the boiler room at Fox News on Election Night, 2012, desperately trying to figure out how Mitt Romney could possibly have lost. This case hands the Democrats a powerful weapon to prevent Republicans from connecting with the voters they need to move past that painful moment.
Writing in the recent Wisconsin case, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner described the state’s photo ID law as “a mere fig leaf for efforts to disenfranchise voters likely to vote for the political party that does not control the state government.”
If the registration mess blossoms into a full-fledged voting rights case, the burden will be on the state to prove it has more than a fig leaf.