There are just 46 days until the November midterm elections, and some Republicans in Georgia are panicking with a capital P. The cause of their distress is a significant increase in minority voter registrations. A high turnout could determine the outcome of two very tight races, sending one Democrat to the State House as governor and another to the U.S. Senate. In addition, an unprecedented slate of five African-American women running for statewide offices could win election.
The New Georgia Project, an organization founded by state Rep. Stacey Abrams, the Democratic House minority leader, set a goal to register this year 125,000 minorities, young adults and unmarried women. The tally so far is 85,000 — and counting. In addition, Abrams told BET.com, the project has invested in 12 other groups that have registered 25,000 other voters.
There are approximately 700,000 unregistered Black voters in Georgia. Registering and getting just a fraction of these likely Democratic voters to the polls in November would be a major blow to the Republican Party.
In a case of what some are calling success breeding contempt, the state's Republican secretary of state, Brian Kemp, last week slapped the New Georgia Project with a subpoena alleging voter fraud based on complaints from county clerks offices. On Wednesday, he spoke at an emergency Election Board meeting to which New Georgia Project representatives were not invited and said he was simply doing his job.
Less than 1 percent of the forms were found to be fraudulent, however, and the secretary of state's chief investigator, Chris Harvey, said there's no evidence that Abrams intended to commit fraud.
That the office would entertain such a notion in the first place left Abrams feeling stymied. The New Georgia Project is a grassroots organization, but it operates like a well-oiled corporate or political machine.
"We designed a program that not only meets the letter of the law, but goes above and beyond," Abrams said.
Its canvassers are paid employees, she explains, who have undergone background checks and are paid a rate that exceeds minimum wage. In addition to receiving extensive training before they are sent out into the field, canvassers participate in daily training sessions that include activities like role-playing. There are no quotas or incentives to register a certain number of people.
Canvassers are accompanied in the field by supervisors who review their forms with them on their rides back to the office. The forms also are checked by a separate entity. The group not only complies with the law mandating that every form filled out must be turned into the county clerk's office, it also flags the ones that may be incomplete or invalid. With so many applications, the group acknowledges, there are bound to be some problems.
The New Georgia Project also met on several occasions with representatives in the secretary of state's office who not only reviewed their training manual and verification processes but also complimented them. Abrams also sought advice and feedback on areas in which there was room for improvement.
"I cannot imagine a more complete system to do this level of registration. Instead of being celebrated by the secretary of state's office, we're being penalized because, I think, they were surprised by how effective we were and our numbers," Abrams said.
Interestingly, the subpoena came shortly after the New Georgia Project group began inquiring about why 51,432 voter-registration applications have not yet been processed. According to Abrams, the secretary of state is using a new system in which it must verify an individual's information with information in the Department of Drivers Services database, which has had significant problems processing new applicants and renewals. Early voting in the state starts in 25 days.
"Instead of addressing their internal issues, they've externalized their concerns and tried to make it something we've done wrong," Abrams said.
It is an "abuse of power" that also could backfire, says Rev. Raphael Warnock, who serves as a spokesman for the New Georgia Project and pastor of the city's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
"Frankly, I think Kemp's efforts to derail the project and suppress African-American voters will motivate even more people to get registered and to get to the polls," he told BET.com.
Warnock also believes that the setback is symptomatic of how many GOP officials feel about increasing opportunities to vote for people who aren't likely to vote for Republican candidates.
In July, Kemp was recorded warning fellow Republicans about the impact of efforts by the New Georgia Project and other groups.
"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," he said, adding that "we've got to do the same thing."
Earlier this month, Republican state Sen. Fran Millar slammed the interim DeKalb County CEO, Lee May, an African-American, for implementing Sunday voting at the South DeKalb Mall, an area "dominated by African-American shoppers" that also is "near several large African-American mega churches." Millar plans to eliminate "this election law loophole" in January when the state legislature is in session. He also said that he'd prefer to see "more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters."
"His response to the prospect of more African-American voters getting to the polls is not to adjust his message to appeal to them, but to silence their voices," Warnock said. "So I don't see the secretary of state's efforts as disconnected from a larger pattern that we're witnessing in the state and nationally to suppress certain voters and diminish their voices in the process."
Leo Smith, who is director of minority engagement for the Georgia GOP, in a statement issued after the election board meeting, slammed both Warnock and Abrams and said the fraud investigation doesn't "warrant cries of voter suppression and racism." Their "attack" on the secretary of state's office, he said, is "embarrassing."
"African-Americans in Georgia should not blindly buy into the rhetoric and grandstanding from [Warnock and Abrams]," Smith said. "The civil rights movement gave people like me the right to vote without fear, not escape the processes of accountability."
The New Georgia Project has until Sept. 26 to provide additional information about its process. But Warnock in a statement on Thursday called on Kemp to focus the 50,000-plus forms that haven't been processed.
"The unconscionable delay in registering 51,423 voters violates the basic obligation of the secretary of state to ensure the right of qualified Georgians to cast ballots. This is yet another example of how important the fight is to protect voter rights," he added. "These attacks on the New Georgia Project are simply a way to distract from the failures of the secretary of state's office to do its job in advance of the Oct. 13 start of early voting."
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
BET Politics - Your source for the latest news, photos and videos illuminating key issues and personalities in African-American political life, plus commentary from some of our liveliest voices. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.
(Photo: Courtesy of the New Georgia Project)