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Did 40,000 voter registration application forms in Georgia just disappear?

Voting in Savannah, Georgia in 2008
Voting in Savannah, Georgia in 2008
Stephen Morton / Getty

This year, Georgia is the site of some of the nation's most hotly-contested elections, including a close governor's race and a Senate contest that could determine control of the chamber. But recently, state and national headlines have been dominated by an allegation that 40,000 voter registration applications have mysteriously vanished. Here's a guide to the controversy that could affect some of this year's closest elections.

What's the dispute about?

The New Georgia Project, a voter registration effort led by the state's House Democratic leader, Stacey Abrams, says that it submitted more than 81,000 voter registration applications — many from young voters of color — before the state's deadline on October 6.

As the election drew nearer, the Project double-checked the Secretary of State's list of eligible voters and its list of pending applications to ensure the applications were actually processed. Abrams said the Project found that more than 40,000 of its applicants weren't named on either list.

So the Project's parent nonprofit filed a lawsuit to force those missing voters to be added to the rolls. Additionally, Abrams and her supporters have been making their case in the media, and some activists staged a sit-in in the office of Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) earlier this week.

What did the Secretary of State say in response?

Kemp has flat-out denied the New Georgia Project's allegation that a large batch of submitted applications has vanished. "The claim that there are over 40,000 unprocessed voter registration applications is absolutely false," he said in a press conference. "The counties have processed all of the voter registration applications that they have received for the general election. The applicants on these forms have either been added to the rolls or they are in pending status, and the county has contacted them to get the required information to be registered if they are eligible to do so."

Applications received by Kemp's office, he said, were quickly sent to county offices — mainly run by Democrats — for processing.  "Any backlog would need to be addressed by county election officials," he said in a statement. In a letter (quoted here), Kemp went further in denying that there were serious problems: "We are not aware of any county registrar who believes that his or her respective office will be unable to process all timely submitted applications received from your client or any other third-party group."

According to Jennifer Leslie of 11Alive News, the majority of applications submitted by the New Georgia Project were given to five county offices, not the Secretary of State's office. She called the counties and found that none of them had any remaining unprocessed applications.

What's more, Kemp said he checked the New Georgia Project's list of missing applications against their own records — and he found that the vast majority of them are active and on the rolls, reported Kristina Torres of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

What was the result of the lawsuit?

In an October 28 decision, Fulton County Judge Christopher Brasher said he wouldn't take any action, because the petitioners failed to show that a legal duty hadn't been carried out. "There is no express time limit for placement of a voter's name on the statewide qualified elector list," Brasher wrote. That means that, theoretically, there's still time for any missing applicants to be added to the voter rolls before election day.

Considering that, Brasher wrote, the petitioners "have merely set out suspicions and fears" — but no evidence — "that the Respondents will fail to carry out their mandatory duty" to add newly-registered voters to the rolls. He added that the Secretary of State and county officials "have supplied evidence... that they have fulfilled, and that they are continuing to fulfill, their mandatory statutory duties regarding newly-registered voters."

Have the applications been held up because of fraud?

There's no indication that the alleged tens of thousands of missing applications have vanished because of voter fraud — Kemp has said his office is looking into only about 50 specific forms for possible fraud. However, there is an ongoing investigation of the New Georgia Project by the Secretary of State's office, and it has contributed to distrust between the two sides.

The investigation started in September when Secretary Kemp subpoenaed the group for documents, saying there was was evidence of "significant illegal activities including forged voter registration applications, forged signatures on releases, and applications with false or inaccurate information." But the New Georgia Project has said that it's legally obligated to submit any voter registration form it is given, even if the information it contains doesn't appear to be accurate.

Fights over voter fraud are often fraught with racial and partisan implications. Republicans often view urban, large-scale voter registration drives like the New Georgia Project with suspicion — a number of forms collected in any effort like this can turn out to be bogus. But Democrats argue the problem of voter fraud is practically nonexistentand that efforts to crack down on it can end up suppressing turnout among minorities. Most studies have found little evidence that in-person voting fraud occurs in any significant amount.

What's next?

The New Georgia Project has said it will explore other potential legal options. But with the election only days away, it looks like voters will just have to show up to their local polling places — either this coming Tuesday, or today, the last day of early voting — and hope that they're on the rolls. If there's been some problem with a submitted application, these voters can still cast a provisional ballot. They'll then be required to show up again within three days with additional documentation to make their votes count. More legal challenges are possible afterward.

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