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Jamil Smith: Watch the Georgia Minority Vote Disappear Before Your Eyes

Brian Kemp, the Republican running against Democrat Stacey Abrams, is blocking more than 53,000 people from the polls over a technicality, continuing his history of voter suppression

Georgia gubernatorial nominee Brian Kemp smiles as he participates in a Georgia Republican Party Unity Rally in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, USA, 26 July 2018. The event comes on the heels of a bitter GOP gubernatorial runoff election in which Brian Kemp defeated Casey Cagle.Georgia Republican Party Unity Rally, Peachtree Corners, USA - 26 Jul 2018

Georgia gubernatorial nominee Brian Kemp smiles as he participates in a Georgia Republican Party Unity Rally in Peachtree Corners, Georgia.

Tami Chappell/EPA-EFE/REX Shutterstock

My younger sister lives in the Atlanta area, and, like any annoying brother, I’ve been hounding her about something. I texted her this week to make sure that she is registered to vote. Not because I’m worried that she’ll be one of these Millennials Who Doesn’t Vote, but because she is black and living in Georgia, and could fall victim to Brian Kemp’s voter suppression tactics.

Kemp is Georgia Secretary of State, the state’s top elections official. He has decreased the overall number of voters in Georgia since 2012 by more than 1 million — all while purging the rolls in a way that has predominantly affected black residents. Kemp is also the Republican nominee for governor. Democrat Stacey Abrams, the first African American woman nominated by a major party for that job anywhere in the country, is competing against a rival who is also the referee.

Most candidates don’t want to be seen as cheaters. But for Republicans like Kemp, necessity outweighs propriety. Republicans have nothing else to sell, really. The tax cut is a bust, and I’m not sure how the Brett Kavanaugh fight helps Kemp as he runs against arguably the best-known female challenger on a ballot this November.

This past Tuesday, the deadline for Georgia residents to register to vote, the AP reported that at Kemp’s insistence, more than 53,000 voter applications have been suspended indefinitely. More than two-thirds of those applications were filed by black people. As the AP report makes clear, a lot of people in Georgia don’t even know that this has happened to them. One woman, while trying to demonstrate to her college students how Georgians can verify their registration, discovered that she had been removed from the rolls, herself.

Abrams is within half a percentage point of Kemp in the RealClear Politics average as of this week. Already implicated in a failed effort to close seven of nine polling places in a sparsely populated but majority-black county, it is clear that Kemp and his allies understand how close this race will be. Those 53,000 voters could make all the difference in this race, which he surely realizes. Even if this was a blowout, his move would be suspect.

Kemp’s campaign didn’t respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment. Spokesman Ryan Mahoney told the AP in a statement that, “Kemp is fighting to protect the integrity of our elections and ensure that only legal citizens cast a ballot.” The aforementioned registrations were held up by the state’s controversial “exact match” verification policy. If a word is misspelled, an address not updated, or even a hyphen is out of place, a Georgia voter could end up in Kemp’s limbo. Early voting in Georgia starts Monday. Those who failed to exactly match their registrations to the state’s databases should still try to vote. If they cannot show approved photo ID and possibly proof of citizenship at their local polling place or at the county registrar’s office, they would have to cast a provisional ballot or request an absentee one. However, voting rights advocates tell Rolling Stone that those who want or need to cast a ballot by mail won’t be able to as long as their applications are “pending.” So, “exact match” is making voting more onerous for many—and is disenfranchising those who can’t physically make it to the polls.

“Exact match” is a process that civil rights groups have sued to end, and that Kemp had been told was discriminatory eight years ago, before he implemented it. Yet his campaign would have us believe Kemp as an avenger, supposedly protecting democracy even as he mutilates it.

Five years after the neutering of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, we have gotten used to Republican voter suppression being a part of every election cycle. Along with police violence and mass incarceration, it is Jim Crow’s longest living descendant. Just in the past week, North Dakota’s voter-ID law got the Supreme Court’s sign-off, likely disenfranchising many tribal Native American residents who either don’t have an address on their identification or don’t have an ID at all. Missouri’s voter-ID measure was blocked by a state circuit judge, but Arkansas’ Supreme Court ruled in favor of its state’s law — which looks a lot like the one that the same court blocked four years ago. For Republicans looking to jimmy open new pathways to power, consistency is an afterthought, especially when few of these stories garner the kind of press that Shelby case did. Where there is no attention, there is no accountability.

Kemp’s actions reflect the worst instincts of Republicanism by placating those who believe President Trump’s lie about millions of illegal votes being cast against him. Kemp no doubt excites Americans who think that voter ID laws, discriminatory purges and other suppressive measures are here to save us from those who would thwart our electoral system. People in this camp obscure the con this way, further mutilating democracy even as they claim to be covering its wounds.

The Abrams campaign sees through it. Calling upon Kemp do away with “exact match” and to resign his position as Secretary of State, Abrams spokeswoman Abigail Collazo tells Rolling Stone that Kemp’s move to “silence” thousands of eligible voters “isn’t incompetence; it’s malpractice.”

Kemp tried to smooth things over on Wednesday by boasting about how Georgia broke its record for registered voters: more than 6,915,000 are eligible to vote this November. In announcing the registration record, Kemp was defensive and outright conspiratorial. “While outside agitators disparage this office and falsely attack us,” his office said in a Wednesday statement, “we have kept our head down and remained focused on ensuring secure, accessible, and fair elections for all voters.” Naturally, he expected applause for this, as if this was his accomplishment. But it was Abrams and her New Georgia Project that, for about five years now, has been working consistently to not only get 800,000 people on the rolls, but particularly to encourage those from marginalized groups to vote.

In return for the help in doing his job, Kemp blamed the victims. His office told the AP’s Ben Nadler that Abrams and the New Georgia Project were directly responsible for their need to interrupt those 53,000 voter applications. Kemp “accuses [her] organization of being sloppy in registering voters, and says they submitted inadequate forms for a batch of applicants that was predominantly black,” wrote Nadler, offering no proof to substantiate his claim. But how else is he to legitimize his discrimination against black Georgians — only 32 percent of the state’s population and yet nearly 70 percent of Kemp’s suspended voters? Too many of them were registered by Stacey Abrams, it’s her fault.

Republicans have been proud of their suppressive measures in the past, even if they try to cloak them in this false crusade against voter fraud. But Kemp has added a new twist. Outside of über-suppressor Kris Kobach’s run in Kansas, no other governor’s race has a candidate not just working the referee, but being the referee. In the Trump era, Kemp must know that there is no need to be coy about just what Republicanism is now, and how it is exercised.

After I texted with my sister about the Kemp news, she told me she will check her registration again. That seems wise. Georgians should do the same today. Then perhaps next week, too. Brian Kemp is trying to shape his own electorate in a tight race against a black woman already making history. He has about 25 days left. Unless the courts stop him, who knows what he’ll do next?

Editors Note: This article has been amended to provide more detail about the voting options available to Georgia residents.

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