Voting rights battles in Georgia, Texas loom over midterm elections

October 29, 2018

Black leaders and Democrats cheered last week when a judge in Georgia ruled that the state was being too persnickety in reviewing absentee ballots, potentially hindering hundreds of voters’ ability to cast regular ballots.

Republicans, meanwhile, were pleased that the Texas secretary of state demanded an investigation into the Democratic Party for asking noncitizens to sign up to vote and helpfully prechecking the application box stating, wrongly, that they were citizens.

The number of votes affected in each case is likely small, but the symbolism is huge as the debate over voting rights rages in some of the most-watched elections this year.

“This is a fight between keeping our voter rolls accessible while protecting it against foreign attacks versus hasty efforts to grow them by any means,” said Logan Churchwell, of the Public Interest Legal Foundation.

At stake is the size of the voter pool that could determine the outcomes of some elections.

Yet the political parties cast their fights in loftier terms. Democrats say they are defending everyone’s right to vote, even though that could open the door to some fraud. Republicans, meanwhile, say they are protecting the integrity of the vote itself, even though some legitimate voters might face new hurdles.

In Arizona, voting rights advocates say they are worried about an out-of-date voter database that could lead voters to the wrong polling location or missing out on a mail-in ballot. The state is home to one of the key U.S. Senate races.

So is North Dakota, where a voter ID law is drawing complaints from voting rights advocates who say requiring identification with a residential street address could disenfranchise thousands of American Indian voters who use post office boxes instead.

Every person turned away could matter in a state where Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, won her race by just 3,000 votes in her last election.

“This is not an accident,” Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said in a conference call with reporters last week. “It seems like folks have decided that precisely where elections are close they can get the most bang for their buck when it comes to trying to slice off a sliver of the electorate.”

The fights themselves can be political acts.

In Georgia, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, a longtime voting rights advocate, has attacked her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, for the state’s handling of absentee ballots.

She said Mr. Kemp, who oversees the election process as secretary of state, has delayed approval of 53,000 voter registration applications, most of them from black residents. Mrs. Abrams, who is black, is counting on those voters to help her win the race.

“If even five Georgians are being denied the right to vote or are afraid of the right to vote, then we are not doing our job as guardians of the public trust,” Mrs. Abrams said in a debate last week.

Former President Jimmy Carter, a Georgia resident and former governor, joined those calling on Mr. Kemp to resign from his post as secretary of state over concerns about a conflict of interest.

Mr. Kemp dismissed the complaints and said he is following state law that requires residents registering to vote to give the same information as it appears on Social Security and driving records.

The 2017 law is an example of a Republican-led push to make sure only legitimate voters are registered and able to vote.

Mr. Kemp said the massive number of applications in limbo is caused by sloppy work by activists trying to register voters, including members of the New Georgia Project that Mrs. Abrams founded to expand minority participation.

“This farce about voter suppression and people being held up from being on the rolls and being able to vote is absolutely not true,” Mr. Kemp said.

Mr. Kemp points out that even voters whose applications are held up because of the law can show up and vote, provided they have proper photo identification.

In Texas, meanwhile, the state Democratic Party has struggled to explain its overzealous voter registration efforts, including prefilled applications mailed to noncitizens who aren’t able to vote.

The state received a large number of calls from immigrants who wondered whether they were allowed to vote despite not having citizenship. It’s not clear how many people were affected, but Mr. Churchwell, whose group drew attention to the state party’s practice, says it’s part of a pattern of sloppy work by Democrats.

“How do you stop this at the polls?” he said. “That is a good question.”