Inside Georgia Democrats' 'voter protection' war room

As the polls opened this week in Georgia for the first day of in-person early voting, telephones were buzzin...

Posted: Oct. 16, 2018 3:03 PM
Updated: Oct. 16, 2018 3:03 PM

As the polls opened this week in Georgia for the first day of in-person early voting, telephones were buzzing inside the state Democratic party's "voter protection" war room in downtown Atlanta.

The operation, which has been promoted for months now by the party and Democrat Stacey Abrams' gubernatorial campaign, connects rows of trained volunteers with callers asking about anything from polling locations to a controversial protocol that has left tens of thousands of voters in legal limbo.

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Those "pending" registrations became a flashpoint last week when an Associated Press report revealed that 53,000 registrations, nearly 70% of them belonging to African Americans, had been held up under "exact match," a law championed by the office of Secretary of State Brian Kemp -- Abrams' Republican opponent.

Kemp's perennial clashes with civil rights and Democratic groups -- and his record of purging 1.5 million voters from Georgia's rolls between the 2012 and 2016 elections, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice -- set the tone for the race from early on in the year. The AP report, followed days later by a new lawsuit against Kemp's office, has driven national attention to a state that has not elected a Democrat governor since 1998. Abrams, who is running an audaciously progressive campaign, would be the first African American woman ever elected to the office, in Georgia or anywhere else.

"Hotlines like this are oftentimes seen in battleground states during presidential election years," said Rebecca DeHart, the state Democratic party's executive director. "This is a bit more rare in a midterm election and it is, by far, the first time the state of Georgia has done anything of this magnitude."

In February, Georgia Democrats hired Sara Tindall Ghazal to lead its election integrity project full-time, a commitment described as the first of its kind among the state parties. On Monday, Ghazal, who has monitored elections from Jamaica to Zimbabwe, touted the program's work -- on display now in dowtown Atlanta -- to make sure county offices around the state, along with poll workers and voters were all on the same page.

"We're able to act as a liaison between the voters and the county and respond to those issues on the spot," Ghazal said. "We've also done a great deal of outreach beforehand to make sure that voters understand that we are here."

But in a state where suspicions, in particular among Democrats, run deep, the hotline number and organizational muscle behind it -- which, organizers and volunteers insisted, are deployed without regard for the caller's party affiliation -- is designed to do more than resolve specific disputes or mix-ups.

"We give (voters) confidence in the process," Ghazal said. "Confidence that their votes will be counted, that they will have access to the polls, that we will make sure that everything is in order, that we're going to have observers there."

Kiki Wilson, who has been volunteering at the call center since Labor Day, said that while the bulk of the questions are mundane -- about polling hours or early voting dates -- there were, as in-person voting began, notes of skepticism about their effort and worry that the campaign wouldn't be decided on the level.

"There has been a little concern about -- is this a hoax? Is this hotline a hoax? Are you telling me something because you don't want me to vote," Wilson said. "Very little of that, though. And today, for the first time, we've had some elevated anxiety about -- 'Can you check and make sure I'm registered?' Because it's the registration (issues) that will keep people from being able to vote."

That anxiety spiked last week with the arrival of the AP's findings and the filing of a lawsuit a couple days later by a coalition of advocate groups. "Exact match" voter verification was used by Kemp from 2013 to 2016, then halted, briefly, as part of the settlement of a lawsuit. But Republicans in the state legislature passed it into law last year.

Kemp has never disputed the numbers, but insists that everyone stuck in "pending" status would, if they had the required photo identification, be able to vote or, at worst, cast a provisional ballot. His office has dismissed a lawsuit, filed on Thursday, that asks a federal court to block the state from enforcing the law as a "publicity stunt" and "complete waste of our time and taxpayer dollars."

Even after his campaign highlighted that, by the time registration closed last week, more than 7 million people would likely be eligible to vote in this year's election, marking a state record, Kemp's critics argued that number could be higher still.

Still, when it comes to the ongoing concerns over the registrations stalled by "exact match," Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, suggested voters take Kemp at his word and arrive at the polls with a flexible strategy.

"If somebody knows that they're on the pending list they can take their voter ID and try to correct the situation on the spot," Gillespie said. "If they encounter problems there, that's when you go to Plan B, which is to request a provisional ballot, or even plan C, which is where you would know to notify lawyers who are doing election protection work about the situation so that we can get an aggregate sense of exactly what the problems are and where they are."

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