Advocates of full and unrestricted voting rights in Georgia won a significant victory in federal court on Friday that will give relief to more than 3,000 naturalized citizens who will now be able to cast a regular ballot in Tuesday’s midterm elections. The ruling represents a defeat for both Brian Kemp — currently Georgia’s Secretary of State and the Republican gubernatorial nominee — as well as the controversial “exact match” law that he has used to suspend tens of thousands of voter applications this cycle.
U.S. District Court Judge Eleanor Ross, an Obama appointee in the Northern District of Georgia, issued a 36-page ruling granting the emergency injunction filed jointly October 19th by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Campaign Legal Center.
Kemp’s gubernatorial campaign offered no comment on the ruling. Candice Broce, Press Secretary and Staff Attorney for the Georgia Secretary of State office, tells Rolling Stone, “Earlier today, Judge May recognized that changing existing election procedures at the last minute is a terrible idea. There are already processes in place for individuals to rectify any issues to cast their ballot. We agree with the Judge’s decision. In a separate ruling, Judge Ross acknowledged that Georgia already has a process in place to check citizenship at the polls. She decided to also allow poll managers to participate in the verification process. It is a minor change to the current system.”
The Stacey Abrams campaign echoed a statement issued by the Democratic Party of Georgia, calling the ruling “another major defeat for Brian Kemp’s voter suppression efforts” and arguing that he “cannot be trusted to protect the votes of Georgians, and he has made no secret that he wants fewer people to vote.”
Kemp had flagged approximately 3,141 voters erroneously as non-citizens, making them ineligible to cast a regular ballot without showing proof of citizenship to a deputy registrar at their polling place.That is, if one happened to be there, which Campaign Legal Center senior counsel Danielle Lang tells Rolling Stone was not guaranteed. The ruling ensures that those voters will be able to cast that ballot provided that they show proof of citizenship to a polling monitor, one of which is present at every polling site.
“This is a major victory for Georgia voters and instills hope that our democracy will function as it should in Georgia on Election Day,” Lang said in a statement. “The court clearly recognized the harm that the state’s flawed ‘exact match’ system caused voters, particularly minorities. It’s especially gratifying that the state is required to take steps to educate registrars and poll managers on how to properly verify voter eligibility.”
The case was aided by the declaration of Yotam Oren, an Israeli-born immigrant whose voting status was listed as “pending,” even though he registered to vote after becoming a naturalized citizen in December 2017. Oren claims that he was never notified that he needed to change his information with the state’s driver services prior to heading to the polls. Despite bringing proof of citizenship when he went to vote in mid-October, Oren was denied a regular ballot and wasn’t offered a provisional one, as he should have been.
Judge Leigh Martin May, who serves alongside Ross, wrote that “the Court does not understand how assuring that all eligible voters are permitted to vote undermines integrity of the election process.”
After the ruling, Lawyers’ Committee president and executive director Kristin Clarke argued that Ross’ decision represented a thorough repudiation of Kemp and the tools he used to make voting more onerous for Georgia citizens.
“We have fully defeated Brian Kemp’s exact scheme,” Clarke tells Rolling Stone. “The court has provided all of the wholesale relief that we sought, eliminating all of the restrictions that were imposed on people flagged as ‘pending.’ The court’s opinion is resounding condemnation of Kemp’s voter suppression scheme.”
The joint lawsuit argued that the “exact match” protocol disproportionately affected black, Hispanic and Asian American voters. It was filed two days after an October 9th Associated Press report found that nearly 70 percent of the approximately 53,000 voter applications that Kemp suspended were filed by non-white voters.
On October 23rd, Rolling Stone published audio from a closed-door ticketed event in which Kemp was be heard saying that Abrams’ voter turnout operation “continues to concern us, especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote.”
Current polls have the Georgia gubernatorial race deadlocked. If neither candidate gets the majority of the vote Teesday, there will be a runoff on December 4th. TargetSmart data published October 30th indicates that Georgia early voter totals for residents between ages 19 and 28 is up 476 percent from the 2014 midterm elections. African American and Hispanic turnout in the state is up 165 and 571 percent, respectively.
For now, Clarke looks forward to the opportunity to end Kemp’s “exact match” process, and others like it, once and for all. “This is just the tip of the iceberg of the sort of obstacles that are being placed in front of voters — disproportionately minority voters,” Clarke added. “We will continue to fight to knock every one of them down.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on November 4th to include additional reporting.