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Register Minority Voters in Georgia, Go to Jail

AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hyosub Shin

In the weeks leading up to the 2012 election, Helen Ho, an attorney who has worked to register newly naturalized immigrants to vote in the Southeast, made an alarming discovery. Some new citizens that her group, then known as the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, had tried to register in Georgia were still not on the rolls. Early voting had begun and polling places were challenging and even turning away new citizens seeking to vote for the first time.

After more than a week of seeking answers from the office of Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, which oversees elections, AALAC issued a sharply worded open letter on October 31 demanding that Georgia take immediate action to ensure the new citizens could vote.

Two days later Ho received her response. In a letter, Brian Kemp, Georgia's Republican secretary of state, offered few specific assurances about the new voters in question and informed Ho that his office was launching an investigation into how AALAC registered these would-be voters. Kemp’s office asked that AALAC turn over certain records of its registration efforts, citing "potential legal concerns surrounding AALAC's photocopying and public disclosure of voter registration applications."

Ho was aghast. “Our genuine desire was to help the secretary of state clear these people through to vote, so it was interesting that their response was to investigate us,” she told me. “I’m not going to lie: I was shocked, I was scared.”

The investigation targeted her group not for any voter fraud, per se, but for more technical issues, such as whether canvassers had people's explicit, written consent to photocopy their registration forms before mailing the originals to the elections office. Kemp’s investigation into AALAC lasted nearly two-and-a-half years. This past March 12th, it ended with no finding of violations.

Now that the state has concluded its investigation, Ho is speaking out about her story for the first time. “We were retaliated against,” said Ho, now the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which encompasses what used to be known as AALAC.

Ho’s experience with the elections authorities in Georgia is not unique. Republicans have long amplified the threat of voter fraud to justify restrictive voter ID laws. In Georgia, any whiff of impropriety surrounding voting registration has come to carry tremendous personal stakes. Kemp’s office has aggressively policed minority-focused voting groups for potential breaches of the state’s lesser-known voting regulations, raising questions about whether the state has taken a selective approach to its zealous pursuit of such infractions.

Last September, before the midterms, for example, Kemp announced a criminal investigation into the New Georgia Project, a voter registration effort that was attempting to bring 120,000 mostly-minority voters onto the rolls. “We're just not going to put up with fraud,” Kemp said of the New Georgia Project in an interview with a local news station. In a subpoena, Kemp demanded that the voter group turn over massive portions of its internal records relating to the campaign.

Before Kemp’s announcement, the New Georgia Project had received media attention for its putative potential to turn Georgia—with some 700,000 unregistered black voters—into a more Democrat-friendly state. Brian Kemp seemed to take note.

“Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines,” Kemp told a group of Republicans in an Atlanta suburb on July 12th. “If they can do that, they can win these elections in November. But we’ve got to do the exact same thing.”

Two months after these remarks, Kemp announced his criminal investigation into the New Georgia Project. In short order, civil rights leaders accused Kemp—who previously has emphasized voter fraud to justify the state’s voter ID law—of using his position to cast a pall of criminality on the state’s largest effort to register minority voters.

In the weeks before the election, Kemp’s office seemed to soften its tone, announcing that the state confirmed all of 50 "forgeries" among the tens of thousands the registration forms that the group had submitted, amounting to roughly 0.001 percent of the New Georgia Project’s submissions. (The New Georgia Project, for its part, said that state law requires its canvassers to turn in applications regardless of what people write on them.) “We have not detected from anything that [the group's leaders] have said or done that it is a goal of the New Georgia Project to go out and commit voter registration fraud,” Kemp’s lead investigator said on September 17th, according to an opinion blog of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Yet more than seven months after the fracas, Kemp’s office is still charging ahead with its criminal investigation into the New Georgia Project.

In addition to the alleged forged signatures, Kemp’s investigation into the New Georgia Project is examining ten potential violations of state law, including whether canvassers failed to inform registrants of the following: that they can turn in their own registration forms; that an online system to check their registration status is available; that they may cast a provisional ballot in some circumstances; and that registration requires the board of registrars to approve the application.

Since October, Kemp's office has released little information about the investigation, and assessing the probe's merits for certain remains difficult. But the experience of some residents in the small town of Quitman, Georgia, underscores the state’s recent history of coming down hard on get-out-the-vote activists.

Quitman, a town of fewer than 4,000 people, sits in Brooks County, Georgia, ten short miles to the Florida state line. In 2010—for the first time in the county’s history—the county elected a majority-black school board. This upset victory followed a sudden surge in local black voting that was catalyzed by a group of get-out-the-vote activists.

For weeks after the historic primary, Kemp’s armed investigators, along with officials from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, went door-to-door in Quitman’s black neighborhoods. Without evidence of actual voter fraud in Quitman, the state’s case against the town’s voting activists came to rely on allegations of less glaring breaches of absentee ballot procedure.

Echoing Kemp’s investigation into AALAC, many accusations against those in Quitman focused on voting organizers improperly possessing voters' materials. (The Quitman investigation was spurred by a local district attorney with strong enough connections to the county's white school board members that he could not work on the case.)

State agents arrested a dozen voting organizers, three of whom had won seats on the county school board. With the charges pending, Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, issued an executive order temporarily removing those women from their posts, reinstating the county’s white-majority school board.

A Quitman resident named Lula Smart faced 32 felony counts that could have carried more than a hundred years in prison, largely for charges of carrying envelopes containing completed absentee ballots to the mailbox for voters. Smart told me that in the first year of the prosecution she contemplated taking her life.

Another Quitman resident, Debra Dennard, faced two felony charges of voter fraud for helping her father fill out his absentee ballot. Her father, David Dennard, is missing both legs and is partially blind. Mr. Dennard says that with his daughter’s assistance he voted for just who he wanted to without any coercion or meddling. “All she did was help me—just as she helps me with almost everything,” the father told me last year. “I knew who I wanted to vote for, and I signed the ballot myself.”

At the first of Lula Smart’s three trials, Quitman resident Bessie Hamilton testified that one of Kemp’s investigators came to the doctor's office where she worked, took her into an unused break room, and intimidated her into signing a statement against Smart. “I was scared,” she said on the stand. “This man came to my job with a gun, and on top of that, he told me I could have went to jail.”

Last September—four years after the election in question—a jury in Quitman cleared Lula Smart on every count against her. This past December, the state dropped all of its remaining charges against the group. A dozen arrests netted not a single conviction or plea deal in Quitman. (One member of the group died in 2012.)

But the damage to those targeted in Quitman was already done. Quitman resident Sandra Cody told me that, last November, she and another member of the group were removed from their longtime Head Start teaching jobs because of the pending voting charges. “They said were not supposed to be around children,” Cody said, “because we have this on our record.”

Although the charges were dropped weeks after their removal, bureaucratic red tape delayed their return to those jobs until February. Cody told me that, in addition to the years of stress resulting from the now-dismissed felony charges, she fell behind on her rent and utility bills because of the loss of work.

Last month, Brian Kemp told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that his elections director, Linda Ford, was resigning at his request because of a “technical error” that caused nearly 8,000 voters to be improperly removed from the rolls. “It was an honest mistake by a hard-working person and, unfortunately, she has to pay the price,” Kemp said.

In response to questions about Ford’s resignation, Kemp’s office provided me with a 60-page report detailing the findings an internal investigation into the incident. It found the cancellation of the thousands of voters “could be a potential violation” of the National Voter Registration Act, a federal law meant to help ensure equal access to the ballot box. The law requires that a state cannot move voters off the rolls within 90 days of an election. Kemp’s office had struck thousands of voters, mostly in Georgia’s Richmond County, from the rolls six days past this key federal deadline.

Kemp has called the issue "very serious." But in public statements, he elided the fact that his own office may have violated federal law. Instead, he has emphasized that the action was a mistake. The report his office released to me states that the matter was discovered only after Project Vote, a non-profit group that seeks to increase voter participation among low-income and minority voters, requested a related records.

The secretary of state seems to take a firmer tone on cases that originate outside his purview.

He has forcefully denied that his investigation into the New Georgia Project is meant to discourage people from registering voters. (The New Georgia Project has a number of apparent faults, detailed in Atlanta media. The group declined to comment for this story.) His office also defends its investigation into Helen Ho's former organization AALAC. “There was no retaliation,” Jared Thomas, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said in an email. “The investigation initially revealed that a voter may not have given consent to have their voter registration application copied by AALAC. The investigation revealed AALAC did acquire waivers from people registering to vote through AALAC.”

As to Ho’s complaints about voters not making the rolls, Kemp’s office said that it identified processing issues relating to four AALAC-registered voters, who it says were allowed to vote on election day. The office also pointed to issues with the voting system in Atlanta’s Fulton County, a case that is now with the state’s attorney general. Thomas said that Kemp’s office has received no additional complaints from AALAC since the 2012 election.

Ho says that the sheer number of applications turned in during registration drive can lead to one-off problems with registration forms.

“We do our best to train volunteers, but like any operation, not everyone does everything identical—exactly the same—so of course I had a fear in the pit of my stomach that if they really wanted to stick it us, they could have,” Ho said of the secretary of state’s investigation. “By the ways the policies are set here, they could stick it to anyone, really.”

Like the New Georgia Project, AALAC attained legal counsel to handle the secretary of state’s investigation. Ho asserts that her group was lucky to have the resources to defend itself. “There are plenty of nonprofit groups that don't have the capacity that we do,” Ho says. “If the secretary of state wanted to go hard on them—I mean, can you imagine?”

So long as Ho continues to register new immigrants in Atlanta, she will have to work with Kemp, and she's careful to emphasize that she has no personal issue with his operation. “I respect the secretary of state’s office,” Ho says. “I don’t want to come off as having a bee in my bonnet about any particular person there.” She still has an unfinished piece of business that she plans to correspond with Kemp’s office about. Some of the new citizens who could not register in 2012, she says, are still not on the rolls.