Read It and Weep: Georgia Lawsuit Paints Stark Portrait of Voter Suppression

AP Photo/David Goldman

Voters wait in line on Election Day in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Emory University freshman Phoebe Einzig-Roth took three IDs to her Atlanta polling place on Election Day, determined not to let anything block her from voting for the very first time. Einzig-Roth had accompanied her parents to the polls as a little girl, and had “always dreamed of the day” when she could vote herself, she later recalled.

But when she handed her driver’s license to a poll worker, Einzig-Roth—who was born in New York and grew up in Boston—was told that “she might not be a citizen of the United States,” and was directed to a supervising official. That official ultimately handed her a provisional ballot, but gave her no receipt, and no instructions on how to ensure that it would be counted. Einzig-Roth’s confusion turned to anger when she later tried to verify her eligibility, and was rebuffed for the lack of a receipt. “THIS is what voter suppression looks like in Georgia,” she fumed in a widely-circulated Facebook post.

Einzig-Roth is one of hundreds of Georgia voters who have come forward to sign affidavits in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by allies of losing gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. The suit alleges gross mismanagement, systematic disenfranchisement, and state and federal voting law violations by Georgia public officials in the recent midterm. It calls for an end to voter purges, new technology to replace the state’s aging touch-screen machines, and for the reinstatement of federal election oversight in Georgia.

The lawsuit will demonstrate how “the constitutional rights of Georgia voters were trampled in the 2018 general election,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, former campaign manager to Abrams, at a press conference this week. Groh-Wargo now heads the advocacy group Fair Fight Action, which filed the suit alongside Care in Action, a group representing mostly female domestic workers.

The suit won’t change the outcome of the gubernatorial contest, which Abrams conceded following her narrow loss to former Secretary of State Brian Kemp, but it may impact another Georgia election coming up on December 4—the secretary of state runoff between Republican Brad Raffensperger, a defender of Georgia’s voter purge practices and a self-described “conservative who means it,” and Democrat John Barrow, who has pledged to renew voter protections, and whom Abrams has endorsed.

The suit also offers ammunition to Democrats in Georgia and on Capitol Hill who have pledged to fix what’s wrong with voting in the wake of an election that saw widespread irregularities, both in Georgia and around the country. Georgia and Florida, in particular, saw bitter statewide contests disrupted by lawsuits and allegations of voter suppression. 

The Fair Fight Action suit also gives the tens of thousands of voters who called election protection hotlines run by both Abrams and by voting rights groups the chance to tell their stories. It’s one thing to know, as was widely reported before the election, that Kemp had purged 1.5 million voters from the rolls between 2012 and 2016, curtailed voter registration, closed polling places in counties dominated by voters of color, and suspended more than 50,000 registrations under “exact match” rules that mostly impacted African Americans.

It’s another to hear the first-hand accounts of voters like Einzig-Roth, who properly registered but could not vote because polling places lacked machines, provisional ballots or even power cords, and because poll workers and election officials failed to follow rules and court orders. Georgia wasn’t the only state where things went wrong on Election Day, but this week’s lawsuit catalogues one voter heartbreak after another.

There was the disabled veteran who went to the polls with her husband, service dog, and eight-year-old son, having verified her registration weeks in advance, only to be told that she could not vote in that precinct because her address on the rolls differed from the one she gave when she registered. But she had never lived at the address on the rolls, and her husband voted with no difficulty. Numerous family members who shared an address were told on Election Day that they would have to vote in two different places, according to the suit, which recounts this veteran’s story without naming her.

There was the Emory University professor, a department chair in the School of Public Health, tripped up by the “exact match” system because his name is Carlos del Rio. The state rejects voter registrations that don’t exactly match driver or Social Security records, but the state’s Department of Driver Services system “does not recognize spaces in last names,” the lawsuit states. 

Del Rio was able to vote “only after being forced to navigate a lengthy process,” according to the suit, which quotes him saying: “While I was ultimately able to cast my vote, it was a frustrating experience and I can only imagine the powerlessness that others less fortunate than I may have felt as they attempted to exercise a fundamental American right.”

Kia Marlene Carter and Tyra Bates were among numerous voters denied provisional ballots, according to the suit, in violation of federal law. Bates registered to vote online in early October, receiving a reference number and even taking a screenshot of her registration confirmation. But once at her polling place she was told she was not registered, and “not allowed to cast a provisional ballot.” Carter was born in Virginia and has voted in Georgia for 18 years, but like Einzig-Roth was told she was not a U.S. citizen, and also was not offered a provisional ballot, the suit states. 

Provisional ballot shortages were widespread, and Groh-Wargo said at this week’s press conference that her group “will prove in court that local elections officials were rationing provisional ballots. They did not have enough of them printed. There were husbands and wives who were told: ‘You’ve got one ballot. Who’s going to vote?’”

Kemp, who oversaw his own election—stepping down under pressure only after Election Day—has rejected Abrams’s complaints as “outrageous,” and sought to portray her as a sore loser. His would-be GOP successor, Raffensperger, endorsed by President Donald Trump, has parroted Kemp’s line that Georgia’s repressive voter rules are necessary to combat supposed fraud. It was a flimsy argument to begin with. This week’s lawsuit makes it all but impossible to defend Georgia’s deeply flawed voting practices, and to deny the damage they inflict.

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