Suit Claims Georgia Secretary of State Violated Federal Voting Law by Withholding Records

by Greg Land, Daily Report

The voting rights group Project Vote has sued Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp in an effort to force the release of voter registration records the group says it needs to determine if voters were improperly rejected or purged from voter rolls.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Georgia’s Northern District on Wednesday, said that Project Vote first began attempting to get such records in 2014, and noted that the state’s elections director resigned in 2015 after “illegally changing the status of almost 8,000 voters from inactive to canceled” just three months before the previous year’s election, in violation of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

More than two years after the records were requested and with a presidential election just four months away, the records have still not been fully provided, according to the suit.

The suit was filed by Project Vote’s elections counsel, Michelle Kantor Cohen, along with a group of pro bono lawyers from Washington’s Ropes & Gray and James Cobb and T. Brandon Waddell of Atlanta’s Caplan Cobb.

In a statement, Cohen said the NVRA demands that such records be disclosed “to ensure that election officials are complying with the law when rejecting applications or removing voters from the rolls.”

“This provision was included in the law so groups like ours can play an important oversight role and ensure that voters are protected from illegal practices, discrimination and wrongful disenfranchisement,” said Cohen. “Secretary Kemp is deliberately sidestepping this oversight by ignoring federal law.”

Kemp’s spokeswoman, Candice Broce, said via email that the secretary’s office has “been more than cooperative and transparent with Project Vote through all of their information requests. We have dedicated a substantial amount of time and resources to gather information for this organization, and they have received the information free of charge.”

Broce said it was “disappointing” that Project Vote “resorted to this unnecessary measure when our office has acted in good faith throughout the entire process.”

Project Vote said that in early 2014 it began receiving reports from multiple sources that some voters were being asked for proof of their U.S. citizenship. The group sought to determine whether Georgia was enforcing proof of citizenship laws and in the process rejecting applications or requiring additional documentation for would-be voters.

The organization sent Kemp a letter in May 2014 asking for records of registrants who were not added to the rolls or who were “flagged” as requiring additional documents, data indicating whether such applicants had been sent any notice that their status was in question, and whether they had responded.

The letter also sought any policies, manuals or other guidance provided to Kemp’s staff, contractors or local election officials regarding proof of citizenship requirements.

Kemp’s office did not provide any records until October 2014, one week after voter registration had closed for the midterm elections, the suit said. The records included 14,000 applicants who had been rejected because they could not be found on Social Security or Department of Driver Services records; it did not identify which, if any, applicants had been rejected due to lack of citizenship documentation.

In 2015, Kemp’s office provided another list of “canceled” voters, including those who had lost eligibility because they had been convicted of felonies. Project Vote said those records still did not provide the requested information regarding applicants’ pending verification or other reasons for rejection.

In the intervening months, the secretary of state’s office provided some additional records, along with training records and manuals.

But even now, according to the suit, “Project Vote has never received the records it requires to understand Georgia’s reasons for rejecting, canceling, or otherwise not adding applicants to the official list of eligible voters.”

The suit seeks to have the court declare Kemp in violation of the NVRA, order him to turn over the records of any voters who have been rejected or canceled from the voter rolls, allow Project Vote time to assist such voters in registering, and allow the group to retain jurisdiction over the matter to ensure compliance with the law.