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With less than a month until the Georgia primary, voting rights organizations and lawyers have formed a voter empowerment task force to protect voting rights and ensure voters can access the ballot without fear. Intended to encourage voters and ease potential confusion, the voter empowerment task force is a direct response to the absentee ballot fraud task force formed last month by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Voter empowerment task force member organizations include Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, Black Voters Matter Fund, Fair Fight Action, the New Georgia Project Action, and the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda.

After a chorus of national and state Republican elected officials pushed a false narrative of increased voter fraud with expanding vote-by-mail, last month Raffensperger announced the formation of an absentee ballot fraud task force comprising primarily white conservative prosecutors to address a problem that is virtually nonexistent in Georgia and across the nation. Indeed, a review of State Election Board transcripts by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed only 34 cases involving absentee ballots in the past five years, many of which challenged county election staff’s handling of absentee ballots. 

As of Thursday, May 14, the secretary of state’s office reported that nearly 1.4 million absentee ballots have been requested for the June 9 election. County boards of elections have received 278,643 absentee ballots so far. In 2016, only 37,231 absentee ballots were counted for the primary.

[Read: Georgia and Texas voting rights advocates go to court in the battle for absentee ballot access]

In remarks made during a Thursday afternoon press conference, members of the voter empowerment task force expressed concern that the Raffensperger task force could target “innocent mistakes” such as possible signature match issues on absentee ballots for fraud investigations.

Raffensperger has said his task force will investigate signature match issues—where a voter’s signature on the absentee ballot application or ballot doesn’t precisely match the signature on their identification—and, according to local news outlet WALB, will also investigate ballots that look “peculiar,” along with reports of alleged voter fraud.  

Prior litigation arising out of the 2018 general election requires Georgia to provide voters time to cure ballot issues. Allowing voters time to cure a signature issue is a common practice in vote-by-mail states like Washington. A November 2018 report from the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project outlined the disproportionate impact of signature match challenges on voters with disabilities, the elderly, military personnel, and trans and gender-noncomforming people. There are many reasons a signature may change. Some suggest that younger voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected than voters over 65. There are also issues with matching a real signature with a signature created on an electronic pad, such as at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“This voter fraud task force is a new avenue for voter suppression and the latest tactic by the Kemp administration to intimidate voters,” said Swathi Shanmugasundaram, policy manager for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta. Pointing to prior challenges to the exact match law, Shanmugasundaram warned that the Raffensperger-led effort would “again disproportionately affect minority voters.”

[Read: Voter fraud claims and criminal task forces will undermine the democratic process in 2020 election]

Concerned about voter confusion and safe participation, voter empowerment task force member organizations are working with voters to make sure their absentee ballot applications are in fact being processed so that they count come Election Day. In collaboration with Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, the empowerment task force is translating directives and instructions into several languages including Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese. Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, said her organization was helping voters across the state with checking the status of their absentee ballot requests and following up with county boards of elections where necessary.

Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight Action, recounted several examples of the state using innuendo and false allegations to justify voter suppression, such as Brian Kemp’s unsupported claim ahead of the 2018 general election that the Georgia Democratic Party hacked the state election system. A recently completed investigation found no evidence of alleged hacking.  

“Over the past decade, how and when a state decides to use its power and abuse of power against its own citizens’ heads vary so widely from the secretary of state,” said Groh-Wargo.

Groh-Wargo also pointed to Quitman 10+2, a case that had a chilling effect on voting rights work in Georgia after reports of “excessive” absentee ballot use by Black voters in a 2009 election in Quitman. In 2010, 12 Black residents from Quitman were arrested and targeted for prosecution on multiple felony counts of alleged voter fraud. The organized effort to encourage Black voters to cast an absentee ballot, as permitted by law, effectively flipped the Brooks County School Board from white to Black for the first time ever. Driven by white fear of losing political power, the fact that more Black people were voting or being encouraged to vote by absentee ballot gave rise to a four-year ordeal resulting in arrests and mugshots plastered across newspapers. Ultimately, all involved were cleared of any wrongdoing.

Given delays in processing absentee ballot applications along with reduced early voting locations, if appropriate measures aren’t taken, Georgia could shape up to be another Wisconsin, a state where voters are forced to choose between risking their health or forgoing the right to vote. A recent report from the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights found that the COVID-19 pandemic depressed the turnout of Black and Latino voters in Milwaukee as compared to 2016. “When the state decides to scrutinize people [who] are only trying to access their vote, it is something that threatens our American democracy,” said Aklima Khondoker, the Georgia state director for All Voting is Local. “We must stand up, we must be present and we must fight for voters so that they have greater access to the ballot.” 

Anoa Changa

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.