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Allegations Of Voter Suppression Surface In Georgia During Tight Governor's Race


Allegations of voter suppression are grabbing headlines in the tight race for governor there. Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp is running against Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who, if elected, could become the state's first black female governor. Activists are suing Kemp because about 53,000 voter registration applications have been put on hold. The majority of those applications belong to black residents. We wanted to learn more about this, so we called up Mark Niesse. He's a government reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Mark, welcome to the program.

MARK NIESSE: Thanks for having me.

MERAJI: All right. So why were these voter applications put on hold?

NIESSE: Georgia passed a law last year that's known as the exact match law. And if your name or voter registration information doesn't exactly match or pretty closely exactly match your driver's license or Social Security information, your voter registration won't be completed until you verify that you are who you say you are. And this delays these potential voters from becoming active registered voters in Georgia.

MERAJI: Where did this law come from?

NIESSE: It was a policy of the secretary of state's office for several years to put voters on pending lists until they could become fully registered. And then some of these same civil rights groups that are suing the state now sued them previously over this law. That resulted in a settlement in February of last year. And very quickly after that settlement with the state, the Georgia legislature passed it into state law. And so now we're in round two, where these civil rights groups are suing the state of Georgia and secretary of state, Brian Kemp, again. But this time, they're suing over something that's already passed into state law. Now, the secretary of state's office says other states have this kind of law, including Florida. And in Florida, anyway, a federal court upheld their law.

MERAJI: And activists are saying that this law is disproportionately affecting minority voters. How have they made that case to you?

NIESSE: Well, it is true. If you look at the list of these 53,000 pending voters, 70 percent of them are African-American. If you add in other minority groups, in particular Latinos and Asians, you get up to about 80 percent minorities that are pending.

MERAJI: Brian Kemp's running for governor. He's also the sitting secretary of state whose office oversees the voting system. Does he have a history of getting involved with this kind of issue?

NIESSE: It depends which side you talk to. The - his opponents say that Brian Kemp is part of this process. As secretary of state, he's in charge of elections. And we have seen precincts close. We have seen that there are these voters on pending lists. And we have seen Georgia pass a photo ID law before you can vote. However, in Georgia, the way our elections work is the secretary of state, while he is responsible for overseeing elections and enforcing state laws regarding elections, most of election processes are local decisions. And so Secretary of State Brian Kemp says, look, I'm doing everything I can to make it easy to vote and follow Georgia's law. And, in fact, this week, we reported that Georgia has a record number of registered voters - 6.9 million, including well over 200,000 new voters just since the May primary election.

MERAJI: What's the mood in Georgia right now so close to the election?

NIESSE: There's a lot of interest in it. And this particular case is motivating Democrats who feel that Republicans are cracking down on voting rights. And Republicans are saying that it's a manufactured controversy was I believe the words that Brian Kemp used.

MERAJI: That was Mark Niesse of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Mark, thanks so much.

NIESSE: Sure thing. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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