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Georgia’s neck-in-neck gubernatorial race is at the epicenter of the national fight against voter suppression. Brian Kemp — Georgia’s Secretary of State and its GOP gubernatorial candidate — has put more than 53,000 voter registration applications on hold, 70% of them black. It’s the latest voter suppression controversy for Kemp, whose opponent, Stacey Abrams has previously squared with him in court. We speak to attorney and activist Anoa Changa.

Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

The governor’s race in Georgia is one of the tightest and most closely watched contests in the country in the upcoming midterm elections, and now it’s also at the epicenter of the national fight against voter suppression. Last week, the Associated Press revealed that over 53,000 voter registration applications are on hold at the Office of the Georgia Secretary of State. That Secretary of State happens to be the Republican candidate in the governor’s race, Brian Kemp. Nearly 70 percent of the voters on Kemp’s list are black. They’re being held up under a system known as Exact Match, which flags potential name discrepancies between a voter’s registration and their official ID. Kemp’s opponent Stacey Abrams says she’s deeply worried of a voter purge.

STACEY ABRAMS: What happens is if you have a hyphen in your last name, if you have a difficult spelling, if anyone misspells or leaves out anything, they can use that as a basically as a reason to not process your registration. And that means that about 53,000 Georgians currently have their registrations in ‘pending’ status. Technically they can cast provisional ballots, but provisional ballots are often not processed. And so we’re deeply worried that 53,000 people- 70 percent of whom are African-American- will be disenfranchised in this election.

AARON MATE: Abrams is vying to be the nation’s first female black governor. A coalition of civil rights groups has filed suit against Kemp, and the Abrams campaign is calling on him to resign as Georgia’s Secretary of State. Polls show the two candidates are neck and neck, and so a purge of some 50,000 voters could prove decisive.

Joining me is Anoa Changa, attorney and host of the podcast The Way With Anoa. Welcome. So, what is going on here? As I understand it, this list, the names being held up on this list, doesn’t mean they can’t vote, but it could mean that they run into problems when they show up, right?

ANOA CHANGA: Right. Part of the concern is that these 53,000 individuals who had their registration listed as being held up for whatever machinations and reasons the Kemp administration comes up with, they may run into issues. They may not understand that they can vote. I mean, it’s not like on the website or anywhere that it really explans or gives people information about what process or procedures to take. As Abrams noted, and as others have noted, there is concern about whether or not those working the polls would actually let people vote.

So we’re really encouraging people to make sure they know the Election Protection number. Even the party here has set up a 24 hour hotline to make sure that even this additional hurdle does not keep people from accessing the ballot.

AARON MATE: OK. So let’s talk about who Brian Kemp is, because this is not his first entanglement with issues of voter suppression. I’m going to go to a clip of him speaking to a Republican gathering back in 2014, when he warned about Democrats signing up what he called ‘minority voters,’ and others on the sidelines.

BRIAN KEMP: In closing, I just wanted to tell you real quick, after we get through this runoff, you know, the Democrats are working hard. There’s been all these stories about them registering all these minority voters that are out there, and others that are sitting on the sidelines. And if they do that, they can win these elections in November.

AARON MATE: That’s Brian Kemp, now Secretary of State, and candidate for governor for Georgia Republicans speaking in 2014. Again, that quote, in case was hard to hear, is “registering all these minority voters out there, and others that are sitting on the sidelines.”

So Anoa, talk about his record, including him filing suit against Stacey Abrams’ group, the New Georgia Project, for their efforts to sign up voters.

ANOA CHANGA: Yes. Brian Kemp has a longstanding vendetta, as you’ve already heard, against the increase in registrations of those voters of color who exist in the state who have been provably unregistered. It is definitely something that gives him and the rest of the Republican Party fear here, because they won’t be able to maintain control.

So Brian Kiemp in 2014 at the time making those statements was the Secretary of State, and was up for reelection. And at that time, the New Georgia Project had been formed and was working alongside other groups to undertake voter registration of, you know, black, Latino, and AAPI voters, as well as those voters between the ages of 17 and 35 of all races. We know that these are the demographics that are trending and leaning more progressive, more Democrat, more left. And here in Georgia, when we look at the extensive changes in our demography, that these are the voting populations that we do need to tip this state away from the red conservative control that it’s been under for the last 20 years.

So Brian Kemp, there’s several different lawsuits that you can just look up and find of him having been forced to enforce the law properly. He sent impermissible, inactive notices to voters who were registered properly within their county last summer, and was just challenged by the ACLU, and they reached a settlement. In 2016 he was seen by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights along with some other groups on this particular issue of Exact Match. And they reached a settlement in, I think, it was February of 2017.

So this is the issue, this current Exact Match issue, has already been litigated in terms of his, as Secretary of State’s Office, ought to be doing; how they ought to be informing the Board of Elections, who can then in turn properly inform the poll workers. And that simply has not happened. There’s countless lawsuits. But he has specifically targeted Stacey Abrams and the New Georgia Project, even trying to pursue criminal charges in terms of voter registration, and ultimately had to exonerate clear everyone of wrongdoing.

This has been a longstanding issue. But it’s also part of a bigger effort we have seen in this country to disenfranchise and deny access to the ballot of those who don’t fit in particular sensibilities of voting patterns.

AARON MATE: The numbers in Georgia are pretty staggering. So Kemp’s office has nixed the voter registrations of some 1.4 million voters, including 670,000 just in 2017, last year alone. And you know, speaking of his record there, you have that case of the Quitman 11, where after the town of Quitman elects a number of black members to the local school board, Kemp’s office comes in and investigates them, charges them with with felonies- later on they were acquitted. But it’s, you know, it entailed- you read the reports about it, even police going door to door to interrogate voters, and those who signed them up. So the history here I don’t think is very much known outside of Georgia.

ANOA CHANGA: It’s really a chilling effect. And particularly to be the child of activists, you never really believe that the things that we learned about, that our predecessors fought for, particularly when we talk about being here in the South in the ’60s and the legacy of voting rights and that struggle, it never really- I never imagined that however many, 50 years later, we’d be having a very similar battle. I won’t say it’s exactly the same, but it’s very similar. I mean, folks down in the southern part of Georgia have been advocating frequently, trying to make sure that people have access to the ballot and are able to vote.

And like you just mentioned, you know, this case that happened, I think it was in 2010, that has a chilling effect on anyone who is trying to get out here and do that work. You had a lot of people who were actually trying to do what they thought was the right thing who were then threatened with not just a fine, but actual- like you said, felonies. That type of stuff hearkens back to what we have learned about from the ’60s. Even his recent comments about people being ‘outside agitators,’ that hearkens back to the same language and betrayal we know from the ’60s. I mean, we are really fighting tooth and nail for the soul of this right now.

AARON MATE: It’s interesting in terms of what gets national attention. So this issue of voter suppression and these 52,000 names, 70 percent black, that has gotten attention. But has also gotten attention is a so-called controversy of comments surrounding former Attorney General Eric Holder. He was addressing a gathering of Democratic organizers, and he said comments that the right-wing media have seized on. Let’s play what Eric Holder said.

ERIC HOLDER: Michelle says that when they go low, we go high. No. When they go low, we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about. We’re proud as hell to be Democrats. We will fight for the ideals of the Democratic Party. We’re proud of our history. We’re proud of our present. And we’re proud of the future we can create for this country.

AARON MATE: So that’s Eric Holder, speaking recently to a gathering of Stacey Abrams supporters. Now, that’s gotten- that’s led to accusations of Holder and Abrams’ supporters advocating violence. But I want to contrast that with a campaign ad from Brian Kemp. This is what Kemp says in a recent campaign.

BRIAN KEMP AD: I’m Brian Kemp. I’m so conservative, I blow up government spending. I own guns that no one’s taking away. My chainsaw’s ready to up some regulations. I got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself. Yeah, I just said that. I’m Brian Kemp. If you want a politically incorrect conservative, that’s me.

AARON MATE: That’s an ad from Brian Kemp. So Anoa, I know you were at that meeting where Eric Holder spoke. What’s your response to seeing it being turned into a talking point for Republicans, accusing Holder and Abrams of backing violence against Republicans?

ANOA CHANGA: That they’re scared, and they really are grasping at straws. That wasn’t just simply a meeting of supporters, that was actually a volunteer kickoff for phone banking and canvassing for statewide candidates, as well as for those running for the state House- and Regina Lewis Ward in House District 109 here in Georgia, and El-Mahdi Holly, who is running in House District 111. Notably, House District 111 is one of the House districts that’s a part of the redistricting lawsuit that Eric Holder, his new organization, has been pursuing. But you wouldn’t know if you listened to any of the commentary from any of the outlets right now.

I think when he’s speaking in particular to that group of people down in Henry County, who are literally fighting for democracy to be actually enforced, and for people to have the right to select their representatives and not the other way around, his comments were perfectly fine. I mean, it’s a euphemistic phrase. You know, we talk about fighting for our values and issues. That doesn’t mean we’re literally going out in the street boxing, unlike those who actually back and support conservative Republican candidates, right. We’ve just seen in New York with the Proud Boys- we’ve actually seen the Proud Boys all over the country, you know, leading very violent actions, and the Republicans just shrug.

You showed Brian Kemp’s commercial. He has had very, very violent rhetoric as a part of his campaigning. He has very violent individuals supporting him who he is not denounced, such as several white nationalist groups, including some appeared at an event for veterans last month, who not only verbally accosted a black woman veteran supporting Abrams, but also threatened violence if Brian Kemp lost.

So the Republicans aren’t really concerned that somehow this is being violent. They’re hoping to actually make Democrats feel bad about standing strong on values and making them backtrack. So I was glad to see Eric Holder tweet out that this is just, you know, nonsense; that they tried to create a big hoopla over nothing. Because quite honestly, we need Democrats actually standing up on values and actually galvanizing people on what matters.

Eric Holder also said during that that comment- that was about a 15-minute speech which I have the full video on because I recorded it- that he wasn’t saying people need to do anything illegal, unlike Brian Kemp, who’s advocating kidnapping of individuals under the suspicion that they’re undocumented. And his constituents are actually advocating criminal activity. Right? And so Eric Holder actually was like I’m not saying that we need to actually do anything illegal, what I’m saying is- because he’s smart. He knows that they’re going to try and parse and take bits and pieces of what he’s saying. The conservatives are doing now the same thing with Stacey Abrams and Elizabeth Warren’s comments last week that undocumented individuals, that everyone counts as a part of the, quote-unquote, blue wave. Which does not mean that they’re encouraging non-citizens to vote, but that when we vote we’re voting for everyone in our community, and that we’re representing everyone.

So they’re going to spin and distort, because that’s all they’ve got. They can’t do anything better. It is important that we make sure people are going to stand on strong issues and not backtrack when they see- I mean, what Eric Holder said is fine, because a lot of us have rolled our eyes at Michelle Obama’s statement about taking the high road and not even bothering. No, we need to get down there and fight them tooth and nail, because they’re wrong and they lie.

AARON MATE: Anoa Changa, attorney, host of the podcast The Way With Anoa. Thank you.

ANOA CHANGA: Thank you.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Anoa Changa is an electoral justice staff reporter for Prism, a nonprofit media outlet elevating stories, ideas, and solutions from people whose voices are critical to a reflective democracy.