● Georgia: Unbelievable: On Tuesday, Rolling Stone obtained leaked audio from a private campaign event in which Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who oversees Georgia's elections, outright said he was worried that too many Georgians would vote in his own race for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams. Kemp fretted about the resources Abrams is "putting behind the get-out-the-vote effort," saying that her campaign's unprecedented number of absentee ballot requests "is something that concerns us, especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote."
Kemp's fretting is more than mere talk, because he's one of America's most infamous voter-suppression zealots. Under Kemp’s leadership, Georgia has been one of the leaders in purging voter registrations, even if those voters may still be eligible to vote. And just last week, we learned that his draconian "exact-match" system has suspended the voter registrations of 53,000 citizens, roughly 90 percent of whom are people of color, over trivialities like a misplaced hyphen in their names.
Kemp has also failed to protect Georgia’s election equipment from the threat of hackers, and he’s refused to even acknowledge the obvious conflict of interest in overseeing his own race for higher office. Indeed, he also recently said he won't recuse himself even if his own race goes to a recount.
Kemp's naked desire to suppress the vote is reminiscent of the tactics of the Jim Crow era, especially since polls show he’s locked in a very tight race with Abrams. If elected, Abrams would make history as the first black governor of Georgia or any Deep South state, and she would also become the first black woman to become governor of any state in history.
Republicans like Kemp, on the other hand, are emblematic of the GOP’s racist response to a rapidly diversifying electorate. Rather than seek to broaden its appeal, today’s Republican Party would rather make sure that as few people vote as possible. Kemp’s latest comments illustrate once again that he is quite simply an enemy of democracy.
Meanwhile, in a positive development, a federal court has rebuked populous and diverse Gwinnett County over its haphazard process for rejecting absentee ballots based on signatures that allegedly do not match what the county has on file. Officials there, with no training in handwriting analysis, had been arbitrarily rejecting absentee mail ballots due to supposed signature discrepancies, disproportionately from voters of color. The court ordered Kemp to inform local officials that they must mark these ballots as provisional and provide the several hundred voters affected so far with a "pre-rejection notice," giving them an opportunity to resolve the issue. However, Kemp, of course, is appealing the order.
And these aren't the only issues Georgia is experiencing with voter suppression. The New York Times reported on Thursday that Democratic Party officials say more than 4,700 absentee mail ballot applications were missing in neighboring DeKalb County, which, like Gwinnett County, is also a highly diverse and heavily populated blue county in the Atlanta metro area. Democrats say county officials acknowledged the applications were missing in a phone call earlier this week, but these officials publicly contend they never received the applications.
If voter suppression weren't bad enough, the integrity of Georgia's voting equipment itself came under scrutiny on Tuesday when the NAACP filed a complaint with election officials alleging that some of the state's paperless electronic voting machines were initially registering votes cast for Abrams as votes for Kemp. The NAACP claims such issues have occurred in at least four counties that are home to more than one-tenth of the state's voters.
While it's plausible this is simply a result of using 17-year-old voting machines (purchased in the aftermath of the 2000 Florida presidential election debacle) that run obsolete software, Kemp's fingerprints are on this problem, too. That's because he successfully defeated a lawsuit to force Georgia to switch to paper ballots this year over concerns following Russian hacking during the 2016 elections and a massive data breach under Kemp's watch that exposed 6 million voters' sensitive personal information like Social Security numbers.
● Arizona: In a positive development for voting access, Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a Democrat who's in charge of election administration for the county (which covers greater Phoenix and three-fifths of Arizona's population), has announced his office will give mail-in voters a chance to confirm their identities if it appears the signature on their ballot doesn't match the one on file. This is especially important because roughly four-fifths of Arizona voters have typically voted by mail in recent years.
● Voter Protection Hotline: If you or anyone you know experiences trouble trying to cast a ballot or register to vote, the nonpartisan Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law is once again administering an election protection hotline and website where voters can report problems and find information to navigate issues like voter registration, casting an absentee ballot, and more. You can find their website here or call the hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683). Furthermore, if you have problems at your polling place, make sure to alert polling place officials, too.
● Missouri: In a thorough victory against Missouri's Republican-backed voter ID law, the state Supreme Court refused the GOP's appeal to stay a lower court ruling that gutted the law's most restrictive provision. That ruling held that non-photo IDs, such as bank statements or utility bills, are all that voters need to provide to comply with the law, eliminating the need for voters who lack a photo ID to sign a confusing and intimidating affidavit. The lower court additionally clarified that its previous ruling also applies to local elections.
● New Hampshire: In a major loss against Republican-backed voter suppression in a key swing state, a New Hampshire's Supreme Court blocked a lower court ruling that struck down a law the GOP had passed in 2017 that imposed additional residency restrictions on voters. The plaintiffs could still succeed on the merits at a later date, but that’s little solace for voters in 2018.
This law was crafted to suppress the votes of Democratic-leaning college students after Republicans narrowly lost the 2016 presidential and Senate races yet regained full control of state government. The law requires voters who register within 30 days of an election to provide additional documentation showing that they live day to day at the residence they claimed as their “domicile" and intended to do so long-term.
Voters who lack suitable documentation will be able to cast provisional ballots, but they still have to provide documents proving their residency meets the state’s new requirements at a later date. If they don’t, this law empowers state election officials to visit voters' homes and refer them to the office of Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who has had no qualms about backing these restrictions, for a potentially intimidating investigation. True to form, Gardner sided with Republicans to appeal to the high court.
Republicans passed this law after Donald Trump baselessly claimed last year that thousands of illegal voters were bused into New Hampshire to cast ballots, which he falsely asserted cost GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte re-election in 2016. Despite the fact that this completely bogus conspiracy theory was shot down even by Republicans, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu himself also made the same brazenly fraudulent arguments just prior to that year's election.
Of course, this law is simply intended to make it more difficult for Democratic-leaning demographics to exercise their right to cast a ballot, like college students and young adults who are more likely to move frequently. Ironically, though, it could also unintentionally disenfranchise a group that tends to favor Republicans: active-duty military members who happen to be stationed in New Hampshire.
This court ruling is also a major defeat for preserving same-day voter registration. Since New Hampshire does not permit early voting, same-day registration is only available on Election Day itself. That means election officials will have to verify all the extra documents provided by new registrants at the same time they will be conducting what’s shaping up to be a historically high-turnout election. That likely will lead to longer wait times to vote—delays that could further hamper voters.
Unfortunately, state courts also upheld another GOP-backed restriction aimed at college students earlier this year by forcing those who are from out of state to obtain in-state residency. That effectively subjects out-of-state students to a poll tax by requiring them to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license and car registration, despite judicial precedents that should have rendered both laws invalid. This latest ruling will make voting harder even for thousands in the Granite State who are originally from New Hampshire.
The order also demonstrates the importance for progressives to appoint or elect state supreme court justices who are strong allies of voting rights. Indeed, moderate former Democratic Gov. John Lynch’s appointees hold a three-to-two majority on the court, but the court unanimously stayed the lower court’s ruling by citing the imminent approach of next month’s election, a principle Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court had no problem disregarding in a recent case that put North Dakota’s GOP-backed voter ID law into full effect.
● North Carolina: After the judges who recently struck down the North Carolina GOP's system to deprive Democrats of control of the state board of elections put their ruling on hold due to the imminent timing of this year's elections, the court announced on Monday that it would lift its stay of its ruling to restructure the board after Dec. 3. As we've previously explained, though, this ruling could become moot if the GOP's deceptively written constitutional amendment that would give the legislature appointment power over a new board, leaving it gridlocked between the parties by design, passes next month.
● Tennessee: In a triumph for voting rights, a Tennessee court ruled that Shelby County, which is Tennessee's largest and a Democratic stronghold home to more than 900,000 residents, must permit thousands of voters whose registrations were stalled due to incomplete information to cast regular ballots on Election Day once any missing information is provided. The court also ordered election officials to notify the affected voters that they'll still be able to cast regular ballots if they provide the necessary information.
This ruling is in response to a lawsuit by organizations promoting black-voter turnout after they submitted 36,000 voter registration forms, only to have the county's elections commission invalidate 55 percent of them. Election officials claim they rejected so many because of incomplete or duplicate registrations, or because they came from ineligible voters, and they say they intend to appeal.
● Census: In a partial setback in the fight against the Trump administration's effort to turn the census into a partisan weapon by adding a question on citizenship, the Supreme Court stayed a lower-court ruling on Monday that had ordered that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross be deposed. The plaintiffs are seeking to question Ross under oath after documents surfaced that showed he lied to Congress when he claimed the citizenship question originated with the Justice Department as a necessity to comply with the Voting Rights Act. Instead, these documents confirmed it was Ross who approached the DOJ.
However, this stay is by no means a total defeat for the plaintiffs, as the high court declined to block the discovery of other forms of evidence that the plaintiffs are seeking, including the deposition of other key administration officials. Furthermore, this stay could end up only being a temporary measure that gets lifted in the coming weeks, since only Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch indicated they would have sided with the Trump administration in full. Meanwhile, one of the multiple lawsuits over this issue is slated to start trial on Nov. 5, following a district-court ruling on Friday.
● Florida: In a new report that casts a damning light on Republican Gov. Rick Scott, the Palm Beach Post has analyzed statistics on how many and what kinds of voters with past felony convictions have had their voting and civil rights restored upon completion of their sentences. Florida is one of very few states that disenfranchises voters for life, even after they've completed parole or probation, but the governor and state cabinet members can restore voting rights on a case-by-case basis to those who have finished their sentences.
Felony disenfranchisement arose immediately after the Civil War explicitly as a way to preserve white supremacy in a state that was nearly half black, and these statistics confirm that it's still being used to that end today by Scott. Indeed, Scott has restored voting rights for only about 3,000 individuals during his nearly eight years in office, a figure that pales in comparison to the number of restorations granted by Scott's modern Republican predecessors, including former Govs. Charlie Crist, Jeb Bush, and Bob Martinez. Together, this trio restored nearly a quarter million voters' rights in their 16 years in office.
What makes Scott's slashing of the number of restorations even worse is that he made the system more draconian upon taking office, in a reversal of a liberalization of this restriction implemented under Bush and Crist. Scott imposed a five-year waiting period and required applicants to appear in person before very infrequently held cabinet hearings, effectively restricting the very electorate he would face in his 2014 re-election and 2018 Senate races.
But the worst part of Scott's actions is how nakedly partisan his underlying motivations appear. African-Americans accounted for 43 percent of those released from state prison over the last two decades, but only 27 percent of Scott's 3,000-some restorations were for black citizens, a lower proportion than under any of his modern predecessors. Republicans made up a higher proportion than under any governor since 1971, too. In one astonishing episode recorded in 2013, Scott questioned an applicant about illegally voting after his release from prison. The man responded by saying he voted for Scott, prompting the governor to chuckle and restore his rights.
Fortunately, Florida voters have a chance to finally strike a crushing blow against this arbitrary and unjust policy by passing Amendment 4 at the ballot box next month. This ballot initiative would automatically restore voting rights upon the completion of sentences for all crimes except for murder and sexual offenses. Limited polling has shown the amendment with a good shot at attaining the 60 percent of the vote needed to pass, and if it becomes law, nearly 1.5 million citizens could regain the right to vote in the largest expansion of suffrage since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.