Over the past few months, upwards of 40,000 voter registrations from three counties in Georgia have reportedly gone missing. The groups that registered most of these voters, the Georgia chapter of the NAACP and the New Georgia Project, filed a lawsuit against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, alleging that most of those missing registrations are from “members of the underrepresented classes of voters.” The lawsuit went before the court on Friday October 24. By the following Tuesday, the judge had dismissed the case, writing that “there has been no failure of clear legal duty,” and asserting that there was still time for the missing registrations to appear.
The stakes in Georgia are high. The Senate contest between David Perdue and Michelle Nunn has hovered within a couple of percentage points. The Governor’s race between Nathan Deal and Jason Carter is just as close. The loss of tens of thousands of voter registrations is a big deal. 1
In the four years that Brian Kemp has served as Georgia’s secretary of state, most of the issues that various voting rights activist groups have flagged have been about voter identification. This isn’t the first time, or the second, or even the third that Kemp has clashed with civil rights groups over voter registration. In 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court found that a Georgia law requiring first-time voters to show proof of U.S. citizenship (that went above and beyond federal requirements) violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, Kemp called the decision “disappointing.” Last Monday, on the eve of the dismissal of the lawsuit, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that eight protestors were arrested because they refused to leave Kemp's office after breaking off from a larger rally and sit-in at the state Capitol.
I spoke with Georgia NAACP President Francys Johnson to figure out how 40,000 registrations could simply go “missing.” In Georgia, when a person registers to vote, his application is matched against two data systems to verify his identity. The first is the Georgia driver’s license system, which keeps records for every person in Georgia with a license. The second is a data system with the social security numbers of every Georgia resident. If neither of these systems yields a match, the registration application goes on a pending list, which is supposed to prompt a notification to the would-be voter that their application needs additional identification. Unfortunately, according to Johnson, many of these letters were never sent, and because a person on the pending list is removed from the system after 30 days, the registration of such an individual goes “missing.”
Whether or not this system is a logical means of verifying identity, it undeniably disadvantages certain kinds of people. Matching a registration against driver’s license data won’t work for any would-be voters who can’t afford to get a license and renew it, let alone buy a car; live in an urban area with public transportation and don’t need a license; are elderly and have lost driving privileges; are young and haven’t yet taken some of the traditional first steps of adulthood, like getting a full-time job, that may require having a car. (Federal law does not require a driver’s license to vote.) Basically, such a requirement puts many socio-economically disadvantaged (and likely ethnically diverse), urban, younger, and older people—most of whom the Republican Party is not overwhelmingly popular with—in a bad position.
The second data system check is even easier to fail simply because most voters aren't even aware of it. Federal law does not require the last four digits of a person’s SSN to vote, and so this field is optional on voter registration forms. In fact, Johnson says that the last four digits of a person’s social security number is the “least likely piece of information [you] get from a voter at a registration drive.” Because voters don't regularly offer this information, the state has nothing to verify, and thus the would-be voter fails the verification process. Moreover, Georgia technically accepts other types of identification for voter registration (like utility bills, property tax records, and state-issued IDs), but the current matching system, Johnson says, isn’t checking these forms of ID.
What’s the alternative? In many states, a payroll stub can be used as proof of residence—a recommendation made by the PEW Center in a 2010 report. In Maine, for example, a person can register without either a driver’s license or a social security number. But Maine also has same-day registration, which could be just what Georgia needs. Voter registration has been in place in Maine since 1973—the longest any state has offered it. (Currently, ten states and Washington, D.C. offer same-day registration, and California and Illinois have enacted it, but have yet to implement it.) In 2011, when Maine’s same-day registration policy came under attack by newly elected officials, the state’s residents collected thousands of signatures and forced a vote that November to restore the program. And it's no wonder why Mainers valued same-day registration so highly. Same day registration has been found to raise voter turn out by three to seven percentage points.
With the election only a day away, it seems certain that the 40,000 missing registrations in Georgia will not be restored, and that those would-be voters will be excluded from the midterms. It also seems possible that the NAACP and the New Georgia Project will follow up on their case after the election, once it’s been established that these registrations did, in fact, disappear.
But there’s another way forward. The people spoke in Maine to defend their right to same-day registration. Johnson, it seems, believes that Georgia is overdue to follow suit: “In a state that is quickly becoming the most diverse in the South, in the most diverse country in the world, representative democracy can do better.”