With control of the Senate up for grabs in this year’s midterm elections, a major voting registration controversy could impact one of the chamber’s tightest races. More than 40,000 voter registrations have allegedly gone missing in Georgia, most of them representing communities of color, who largely support Democrats. Could this help Republicans win the Senate? We are joined by Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, whose group the New Georgia Project submitted the tens of thousands of voter registration forms that have gone missing. Abrams is the first African American to lead the Georgia House and the first woman to lead a party in either chamber of the Georgia Legislature. We are also joined by Benjamin Jealous, former head of the NAACP and chairman of the Southern Election Fund.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AARON MATÉ: It’s Election Day across the country, and control of the Senate is up for grabs. One of the most tightly contested Senate races is in Georgia, where a controversy about voter registration has raised the stakes. Over the past few months, more than 40,000 voter registrations have allegedly gone missing, most of them from communities of color, who largely support Democrats. The New Georgia Project and the Georgia chapter of the NAACP are suing the office of Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, saying about half of the 80,000 voter registration forms they submitted do not appear on state rolls. Last week, Fulton County Court Judge Christopher Brasher sided with Kemp and dismissed the lawsuit. Brasher wrote the New Georgia Project, quote, “failed to allege, much less show, the counties’ registrars past or continued failure to process voter registration applications.”
AMY GOODMAN: The Senate contest between Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn is very close, within a couple percentage points, so these tens of thousands of voters could tip the balance, determining who ultimately controls the U.S. Senate. They are facing off to determine who will fill the seat of retiring Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss. The governor’s race in Georgia between Nathan Deal and Jason Carter is just as close. Earlier this year, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp accused the New Georgia Project of voter fraud, but an investigation found just 51 potential forgeries out of the more than 80,000 applications the group submitted. In September, audio was released of Kemp warning fellow Republicans Democrats might win because they’re registering minority voters. The audio was released by Better Georgia and features Kemp speaking at a July 12, 2014, event in Gwinnett County.
SECRETARY OF STATE BRIAN KEMP: After we get through this runoff, you know, the 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, if they can do that, they can win these elections in November.
AMY GOODMAN: To find out more about what’s happening in Georgia, we’re joined by two guests. In Atlanta, Democratic state Representative Stacey Abrams, she’s the House minority leader in Georgia, the founder of the New Georgia Project, which has been leading a voter registration drive across the state. She’s the first African-American to lead a party in the Georgia House and the first woman to lead a party in either chamber. Here in New York, Ben Jealous, chair of the Southern Election Fund, which he started with Julian Bond. They’re working on several reports with the New Georgia Project, former president and CEO of NAACP.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Representative—thanks so much for joining us, Representative Stacey Abrams. Talk about what’s happened. What about these—what is it? Forty thousand missing registration forms?
REP. STACEY ABRAMS: It’s actually more than 40,000. We are using the most conservative estimate. The challenge is not that the counties, we think, did anything untoward, but that the state of Georgia, headed by the secretary of state, requires that every form that is completed go through a series of screens, including the Social Security Administration proof of citizenship. And the problem is that, according to experts, that proof could be a false negative almost 40 percent of the time, which means that you could have a 20-year-old who’s a college student without an ID, without a driver’s license, who submits his Social Security number and is rejected falsely but is never told that they’re rejected and is never told why. And we think that a variety of these problems—clerical errors, screenings—these have all led to more than 40,000 of our applications not being properly processed.
AARON MATÉ: Well, can you respond to the judge? He said you “failed to allege, much less show, the counties’ registrars past or continued failure to process voter registration applications.” What evidence did you submit?
REP. STACEY ABRAMS: Well, the problem with our process is that we don’t have information unless the secretary of state gives it to us. The reason we went with a writ of mandamus—it is an extraordinary request—we went with that because we couldn’t get the secretary of state to meet with us and tell us what was happening. And so we used the legal route of the writ of mandamus. However, I do want to point out that Judge Brasher did not allow for discovery. He did not allow for an evidentiary hearing. So we were essentially being asked to prove something we suspected without being able to access the information that would give us the proof.
AMY GOODMAN: So, last week, the county—
REP. STACEY ABRAMS: I mean, it’s like—
AMY GOODMAN: The county judge dismissed the lawsuit brought by your group, the New Georgia Project, and the Georgia chapter of the NAACP over the more than 40,000 voter registration records that have gone missing. Fulton County Court Judge Christopher—Judge Brasher wrote the petitioners, quote, “failed to allege, much less show, the counties’ registrars past or continued failure to process voter registration applications.” The judge went on to exonerate Secretary of State Kemp, saying, quote, “the Petitioners have failed to come forward with evidence showing that the Secretary of State has failed to carry out this duty, or even that this duty is ripe, since it can only be carried out after the various counties’ election registrars register an eligible voter.” Your response to that?
REP. STACEY ABRAMS: I think it’s a poor reading of what the law says. The law requires, and the state has set, the secretary of state is essentially the CEO of elections. He’s the chief elections officer. That means it’s his job to tell the counties what to do. When the counties do that job, he sets up the screenings, the use of the secretary of state’s website, the—I’m sorry, the use of the Social Security Administration, the use of the Department of Driver Services, the use of the Department of Corrections. He batch processes all of the letters that say that there are deficiencies. He batch processes all of the precinct cards. The secretary of state is actually the head of elections. The counties are essentially franchisees that get information from the secretary of state or have to follow the secretary of state’s orders.
And the problem we have with the judge’s response was that what he said is, “Well, out of six million, 40,000 is not substantial noncompliance, and so we’re not going to hold him accountable.” But worse, what he said is that the remedy for not being registered to vote is to cast a provisional ballot, which in the state of Georgia can be akin to not being able to cast a ballot at all. So, essentially, there is no do-over. Our issue is that the secretary of state is in charge of elections, and to put the responsibility on counties that have to follow his directions, use his systems and abide by his rulings, and then to say that he’s not responsible is a very poor reading of state law, but even worse, it’s a poor reading of our system of voting.
AARON MATÉ: And can you give us some background on this voter drive? Who are the people that you signed up? And what was thinking behind launching it in the first place?
REP. STACEY ABRAMS: So, I founded the New Georgia Project. It’s an offshoot of a nonprofit I started 16 years ago. And in 2013 we did a lot of work in southwest Georgia around the Affordable Care Act. And what we discovered was that a number of people who were being denied access to healthcare because of Medicaid expansion refusal in Georgia didn’t understand why they couldn’t have access to healthcare. They thought it was the fault of the president, and they didn’t realize it was the governor and the Legislature. And most of those folks weren’t registered to vote.
The more we looked into this issue and the larger conversation about civic engagement, I realized that we needed to register the more 800,000 unregistered African-American, Latino and Asian voters in Georgia. And so we began to register these voters. It was a 145-day effort. We went to 151 of 159 counties, we collected registration forms from 146 counties, and we registered more than 86,000 people. In addition, we funded an additional 12 groups, and they registered more than 30,000. So our total registration over the course of that 145 days was in excess of 120,000 registration forms collected.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you respond, Representative Stacey Abrams, to the Secretary of State Kemp’s allegations of voter fraud?
REP. STACEY ABRAMS: So, first and foremost, it was a misuse of the term. What he was alleging was that there was some voter registration fraud. And voter registration fraud assumes that there is some systematic effort to deceive, which is completely belied by his own acknowledgment of what we did. I personally called the secretary of state in June to tell him about our efforts, to tell him where we were and to ask for his assistance. We’ve gotten one complaint from one county. And based on that complaint, I wanted to make certain that we did everything we could to be in substantial compliance with the law. We worked with his investigators until the Friday before the subpoena was issued. He even admitted a week later, after his allegations were disproven by the fact that there were only 25 forms that he could show had any problematic problems—and those were forms we were actually working with his office to resolve. He walked it back and said, “Well, we don’t believe the New Georgia Project committed fraud. We don’t believe that Representative Abrams committed fraud.”
Essentially, what he did was use inflammatory language to call attention to this effort, and I can’t speak to his motive, but I can speak to the effect, which is that it had a chilling effect on organizations that were engaged in third-party registration. When you have 800,000 citizens who are not engaged in the body politic, we have an affirmative obligation to do this work. This is a nonpartisan effort. We cannot register by parties in Georgia. But if your fear is that your party can’t speak to the people once they’re registered, that is something that should be fixed internally and not by trying to suppress voter registration in the state of Georgia.
AARON MATÉ: If you contacted him in June, do you think he’s taken advantage of your cooperation?
REP. STACEY ABRAMS: I was disappointed by his reaction. I’ve worked with Secretary Kemp during my four years as minority leader and his four years as secretary of state. We’ve collaborated on efforts. And I was very disappointed by his reaction. I don’t know what precipitated his response, but I do know that I’ve been as forthright and as upfront about what we are doing. You can’t secretly register 800,000 people. And this is not a one-time event. This is an ongoing process. We will register these voters, and we will turn them out.
And what we’ve discovered from this process is that there are deep flaws embedded in our system. The secretary of state has, I think, unfettered power to make decisions that will affect negatively our voters. There’s a system called the Interstate Crosscheck system that he has begun using without notifying the Legislature—and I would know, serving as the minority leader. We didn’t know that he could possibly be purging up to half a million Georgians, primarily African-American, Latino and Asian voters, based on their last names. Those are decisions that he’s making that I think are deeply problematic, but speak to a larger need for us to better define and control our voting system, because this is a sacred and basic right as a democrat, as people in a democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, you have done a lot of work in the South, and particularly you’ve looked at Georgia. There are interesting races here. I mean, on the one hand, you have these tens of thousands of voter registration forms. Where are they? You have these races both for governor, that involve the grandson of Jimmy Carter, Jason Carter; the Senate race, the daughter of Sam Nunn, the former senator, Michelle Nunn—but people being represented.
BEN JEALOUS: Yeah, no, look, I mean, this is a big moment in Georgia. And what’s happened in Georgia, of course, is that you’ve had more and more blacks move back; you had more and more Latinos move in, you know, actually come in from Mexico over the years, establish families; and you have more and more swing voter white women who say, “You know what? I would prefer to vote as a Republican, but they’ve lost their mind when it comes to my rights, and I’m going to go with Nunn.” And so, there’s a real concern.
And what is terrifying about Georgia is you see how a man who could be a good man on most days, Mr. Kemp, can get worried, in a very public way, about the impact of these changes in who’s voting in Georgia and how it could impact his party, and then very publicly appear to be dragging his feet. The allegations that he made are so ridiculous, it’s just like hard to comprehend. Georgia’s law says as soon ink goes onto a voter reg form, it has to be turned in. So if I hand you a form at your door and you write down “Mickey Mouse,” I’ve got to hand it in. When you have a law like that, up to 10 percent of the forms can be impacted. Out of 86,000, he’s been able to find maybe 50. You know, if it was above, say, 8,600, we would be concerned, because it’s their own law that requires you to turn in these problematic forms. They’ve done such a great job, when there could have been 86,000, there’s 50.
AMY GOODMAN: Is this—is Georgia the next Florida?
BEN JEALOUS: Georgia could be. I mean, you know, you have these real dynamics. Nunn and Carter are big names in Georgia. They are attracting a lot of folks to vote who may not have voted before, and certainly may not have voted for a Democrat in very long time. And on top of that, Stacey has been leading what is the largest voter reg drive we have seen in decades. It’s not just the 86,000 her group has done; it’s like about 50,000 more that they’ve funded other groups to do. It’s about 130,000 new voters coming onto the rolls.
But as Stacey says, what is absolutely deeply concerning, and should be for the entire civil rights community and really anybody who cares about voting, is all of these encumbrances. You know, the fact that you could have a 40 percent error rate, you know, in this crosscheck—think about—I used to be a reporter in Jackson, Mississippi. I can’t tell you how many men I met named Willie Williams or Johnny Johnson. And they’re going to crosscheck every Willie Williams and every Johnny Johnson in the South? I mean, it’s a mess. And then you go back and say, “Well, who created this interstate check system?” And it’s Kris Kobach, who is like the most inflammatory secretary of state in the country. And now you have people like Kemp, who, again, you know, for a long time seemed like a reasonable guy but has become increasingly partisan, signing up from him, you know, with Kris Kobach’s crazy scheme and not telling folks in the Georgia Senate or Assembly. It’s deeply troubling.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben, we want to talk to you about, overall, the South.
BEN JEALOUS: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: But before we break away from Georgia, Congressmember Stacey Abrams, in your final words, what do you think people should do today, if they go to the polls?
REP. STACEY ABRAMS: They should go to the polls. Whether you have received your precinct card or not, whether you have information or not, show up. The judge said that you should try to use provisional ballots. We’ve got lawyers across the state that are ready to help, because what we want to demonstrate is either that Brian Kemp is correct and everything got done on time—and if that happened, congratulations to him, kudos to the counties—but if they failed to do their duty, then we need to know about that. And that can only be proven by having people show up and having that information. So all we can say is, go vote.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Representative Stacey Abrams, Georgia House minority leader, founder of the New Georgia Project, has been leading a voter registration drive across the state. Ben Jealous will be staying with us, chair of the Southern Election Fund, former head of the NAACP. Stay with us.