This guy really doesn't like black voter registration drives. Photo via Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp's official website
On Wednesday, the state of Georgia suffered a major defeat in its four-year odyssey to win fraud convictions against twelve African American voting organizers in the small town of Quitman. After a grueling five-week trial (and two previous mistrials), a jury cleared the state’s key target, Lula Smart, of all counts of voter fraud. In 2010, Georgia agents arrested and briefly incarcerated Smart and the Quitman group just weeks after they had led an unprecedented surge in the black community’s voting participation, ushering in the first-ever black majority on the local school board. The state has since failed miserably to provide evidence supporting the charges.
The defeat comes as Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, has begun aggressively pursuing another, larger-scale version of the Quitman case. The new investigation, uncovered just last week, targets a massive new voter registration project led by some of the state’s most prominent African Americans. Kemp’s move has revived worries that Republicans in Georgia are raising the specter of voter fraud to cast a pall of criminality on groups that register minorities. And the stakes are high: Democrats say the state’s unregistered 700,000 black voters could turn Georgia into a genuine battleground that’s more competitive in national elections. Kemp’s latest target, The New Georgia Project, has led this effort with eye-popping registration totals statewide. Kemp himself was recently caught candidly saying such efforts could spell doom for Republicans.
For the past week, as Kemp has issued forceful public statements about the group’s alleged fraud, voting organizers in the Atlanta area have scrambled to counter the state’s latest accusations. But on Wednesday afternoon, Kemp’s office astonished voting advocates with the disclosure that, of the more than 85,000 voter applications successfully submitted by the New Georgia Project, just 25 are believed to be forged, according to local news reports. Just like in the Quitman case, the state’s bellicose rhetoric relies on comically scant evidence.
Kemp’s latest investigation probably comes as no surprise to those in Quitman’s black community, where, in 2010, his agents went door-to-door seeking evidence on voter fraud. For weeks, armed state investigators visited residents’ houses, having them sign personal statements the agents had written out for them. Among these households, it is widely believed that the state’s investigation sought to intimidate a minority community that had suddenly begun voting in droves. One resident, for instance, asserted that state investigators threatened her with potential incarceration before having her sign a statement agents had written on her behalf.
Despite the extensive multi-agency investigation in Quitman, the state failed to produce any evidence of actual voter fraud related to the historic local school board election. It instead built its prosecution on proving that Smart and others had violated the law by carrying completed ballots to the mail for close acquaintances and helping elderly voters fill out their forms. Yet, even on these charges, the state had surprisingly little—if any—sound evidence. (This did not stop Georgia’s Republican Governor, Nathan Deal, from stepping in to issue an executive order temporarily removing three African Americans from the local school board.)
In May, VICE spoke with several Quitman residents the state alleged were the victims of voter fraud at the hands of the accused. Each alleged victim interviewed asserted that no such fraud had taken place, and that they had successfully cast ballots in 2010 for the candidates of their choice without any coercion or meddling. For instance, two felony voter fraud charges rely on the state’s assertion that Quitman resident Debra Dennard criminally handled the ballot of her father, David. But Mr. Dennard, who uses a wheelchair and is partially blind, says his daughter cares for him and did nothing wrong. “All she did was help me—just as she helps me with almost everything,” Mr. Dennard told me. “I knew who I wanted to vote for, and I signed the ballot myself.” (A spokesman for the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia told VICE that the state accepts Wednesday's verdict and is currently considering whether or not to pursue any further prosecution of the Quitman group.)
Just like in Quitman, Georgia's new round of thunderous fraud accusations have been seized upon by political opponents of the alleged fraudsters. The campaign of David Purdue, Georgia’s Republican US Senate candidate, quickly accused his Democratic rival, Michelle Nunn, and her allies of trying to “steal an election.” Such an assertion may seem premature—until you compare it with the statements of Kemp himself. In a letter to elections officials in the state, Kemp said that, even though the investigation was still in a preliminary stage, his office had discovered “forged voter registration applications, forged signatures on releases, and applications with false or inaccurate information” connected with the New Georgia Project. “We launched a formal investigation and found significant proof of fraud," he said, according to the Marietta Daily Journal.
That the Secretary of State’s office has only found problems with what amounts to a tiny fraction of the New Georgia Project’s registration forms has Georgia’s black community on edge. “It’s frustrating to hear them raise the same hoopla and standing in front of cameras just because there are 25 forms that have some questions about them,” said Francys Johnson, the president of the Georgia NAACP. (Kemp has suggested a couple dozen additional forms are suspicious, but has yet to take the leap of calling them fraudulent.)
Johnson says that groups registering voters are legally required to submit all applications, even if they appear to be flawed. “The law does not afford us the right to throw away an incomplete form—we flag it and we still have to turn it in,” he told me. Along with fellow organizers, Johnson is calling on the secretary of state to put aside the “witch hunt” in order to focus on what they allege are more than 50,000 registration forms Kemp’s office has so far neglected to process.
In Quitman, get-out-the-vote organizers are now racing against the October 6 registration deadline for this fall's elections. It didn't exactly help that they were required to spend the last five weeks in court.
Smart tells me that Wednesday’s verdict affirmed for her a right that many Americans might take for granted.
“It is legal to go door-to-door to people’s houses to get out the vote,” she says. “And that’s what we’re going to keep doing. We already have plans for this weekend.”
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