Judge Rules Against Georgia Election Law, Calling It A ‘Severe Burden’ For Voters

The Georgia governor's race is already drawing people to the polls in record numbers, and a federal judge has just made it easier for even more voters in the state to cast a ballot.

U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross ruled on Friday the state must relax restrictions that could prevent more than 3,000 people, flagged under a controversial state law as potential noncitizens, from voting in Tuesday's midterm elections.

The "exact match" law flags voter registrations that have discrepancies with other official identification documents used by the state. Mismatches can occur under the law for such reasons as missing hyphens, accent marks and middle initials. Those who are flagged can still vote if they settle the discrepancy by providing proof of identity.

Those who are flagged as potential noncitizens must be approved by a deputy registrar before being allowed to vote. Civil rights groups filed suit, arguing that the law's requirements are part of a discriminatory voter suppression effort that disenfranchises predominantly minority voters. Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor who also oversees the vote as Georgia's Secretary of State, says the law is vital for election integrity.

In her ruling, Ross said the requirements raised "grave concerns for the Court about the differential treatment inflicted on a group of individuals who are predominantly minorities ... The election scheme here places a severe burden on these individuals."

Ross ruled that Georgia must immediately start allowing poll managers to clear voters who show proof of citizenship. Ross also ordered Kemp to issue a news release explaining how flagged potential voters could vote by proving their citizenship, and offer a phone number for people to call with any questions.

In a statement to NPR, Candice Broce, the spokeswoman for Secretary of State Kemp's office, said Ross's decision is "a minor change to the current system."

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit, called the decision "scathing."

"Prior to the court's issuance of relief, these citizens, many of whom provided proof of citizenship with their registration form, would have had to physically track down a Deputy Registrar in the county to provide proof of their citizenship," said Clarke. "Tracking this one individual down was a fatal requirement that would have been impossible for many to meet."

A report by the Associated Press said that under the "exact match" law, Kemp had stalled more than 50,000 voter registrations by mostly black voters. The AP also reported that through a process Kemp calls "voter roll maintenance," his office has "cancelled over 1.4 million voter registrations since 2012" and that "nearly 670,000 registrations were cancelled in 2017 alone."

Voting rights been a central issue in Kemp's race against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is vying to become the nation's first black female governor. The race has attracted national attention, even drawing a visit on Friday by Oprah Winfrey, who spoke at an Abrams rally about the state's history of voter suppression, and implored people to show up at the polls.

"For anybody here who has an ancestor who didn't have the right to vote and you are choosing not to vote wherever you are in this state, in this country, you are dishonoring your family," Winfrey said. "You are disrespecting and disregarding their legacy, their suffering and their dreams when you don't vote."

President Trump is scheduled to appear in the state on Sunday at a rally for Kemp.

In a gubernatorial debate last month, Kemp said allegations he had been attempting to suppress the vote are "totally untrue."

"I've staked the integrity of my whole career on the duty that I have as secretary of state. I have always fulfilled and followed the laws of our state and I'll continue to do that," Kemp said.

Abrams has based a large part of her strategy around turning out minority voters. On Saturday in an interview with MSNBC, Abrams said, "The fundamental belief that I have for my campaign and this state, is it's an organizing opportunity. It is not just about my election. It is about building the capacity for voters who are often overlooked by our politics to have their voices heard."

On Friday, in a separate case, the American Civil Liberties Union announced the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit had denied Kemp's request to block a court order requiring him to exercise due process before rejecting ballots over mismatching signatures and handwriting.

The state attorney general's office has not responded to a request from NPR for comment on the ruling.

The debate over voter suppression in the midterm elections extends to multiple states. In North Dakota the Republican-controlled government has implemented a controversial new law requiring residents to show identification with a current street address. But as Ruben Kimmelman reported for NPR, "Many residents of Native American reservations — who tend to vote for Democrats — do not have street addresses. They have Post Office box numbers, and those don't qualify."

In Iowa, the Republican Secretary of State is phasing in a new voter ID law, and in Dodge City, Kansas, a federal judge has denied a request to open a new polling site far from the city center that advocates say would put Latino voter turnout at risk. The location of the new polling site would have been more than a mile away from the nearest bus stop, making travel there difficult for some potential voters.

The debate over voting rights extends back decades to before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which sought to make voting easier for millions of minority voters across the country.

In a 2013 ruling, Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which stipulated that states like Georgia, with a history of racial discrimination, had to get changes to voting measures approved in advance by the federal government.

With that oversight abolished, multiple states have moved to implement new voting measures, such as the "exact match" law, which Georgia legislators enacted last year.

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