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Georgia's Contentious Battle Over Voting Rights Continues As Election Day Approaches


We are here to talk to voters and to keep tabs on a battle over voting rights that is playing out in different parts of the country but maybe nowhere as contentiously as here in Georgia. So let me bring you straight here to ground zero of that battle. I am inside the state Capitol right under the famous gold dome and right in front of the door that belongs to Brian Kemp. He is Georgia's secretary of state. He is also the Republican candidate for governor, which means he is running in the same election that he is in charge of refereeing, an election in which a lot of Georgians maybe aren't going to be able to vote because in his role as secretary of state, Brian Kemp has overseen a purge of the voter rolls here.

Well, we've got Johnny Kauffman of member station WABE. I asked him to meet us at the Capitol. Hey there. Thanks for coming.


KELLY: So it seems like the battle lines are so stark here. You have Brian Kemp - white, Republican - overseeing, as we said, the removal of voters. His opponent, Stacey Abrams - black, Democrat - has made trying to get people to turn out and vote the centerpiece of her whole campaign. And now this week, we've got the courts weighing in. What's the latest?

KAUFFMAN: The latest is a ruling from a federal judge over some absentee ballots that were essentially thrown out by one county in particular a large number. And the judge has ruled that the voters in that situation need to have more time to review their ballots to challenge them being thrown out and to actually have a chance to vote. But that's just really, like, one part of a number of controversies that have gone on. You mentioned the purges. In some of my reporting along with AP and reports in the podcast Reveal, we found that in 2017, there were about 100,000 voters removed from the voter list because they hadn't voted and hadn't responded to some notifications from the state.

KELLY: The use it or lose it policy that's on the books.

KAUFFMAN: Yeah, this is a policy that's in a few states. It's very controversial. So there were those purges. There's a policy called exact match that Secretary Kemp has implemented that freezes applications if there's just a tiny mistake in the voter registration application, if it doesn't match other government databases. That pending list which we've reviewed shows that that program flags a disproportionate number of people of color.

KELLY: People who Stacey Abrams is trying to capture the votes of.

KAUFFMAN: Exactly.

KELLY: OK, so do we have any way to put a number on this? Potentially how many people are we talking who might want to vote on Tuesday, who might not be able to vote on Tuesday?

KAUFFMAN: It's hard to say exactly because registering to vote doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to vote. But with the purge - there's a hundred thousand people there, something around 40,000 on this pending list. So we're talking tens of thousands of people who may show up at the polls on November 6. They may be turned away or deal with some other problem that discourages them, and they decide to go home.

KELLY: OK, so let me bring in the voices of our two protagonists here. Brian Kemp says he's just trying to conduct an orderly election, that he is following the law. Here's Kemp speaking at a debate last week.


BRIAN KEMP: Voters should look at the numbers and know that this is all a distraction to take away from Ms. Abrams' extreme agenda that she has. And we're having record turnouts right now. And this farce about voter suppression and people being held up from being on the rolls and being able to vote is absolutely not true.

KELLY: So that's Brian Kemp. Meanwhile, his critics, with Stacey Abrams leading the charge, argue that he is purposely making it harder for people to vote. Here's Abrams at that same debate.


STACEY ABRAMS: Voter suppression isn't only about blocking the vote. It's also about creating an atmosphere of fear, making people worry that their votes won't count. As the next governor of Georgia, I will work with the secretary of state to ensure that there is no question that the right to vote in Georgia is not a privilege. It is indeed a right that belongs to those who are Georgia citizens.

KELLY: Johnny Kauffman, is she right? I mean, this has been a point of tension here, whether voting is a right or whether voting is a privilege.

KAUFFMAN: It's pretty clear right now in Georgia that voting is a privilege. The Republican-controlled Legislature has erected a number of additional obstacles to people voting in the name of combating voter fraud. There are some individual cases of voter fraud here in Georgia that have been prosecuted, but there's no widespread voter fraud. And so when we talk about is voting a right or a privilege in that debate, really it's also part of this larger debate between Republicans and Democrats in the state. Should we open up voting more and make it easier to vote, or should we be more concerned about the integrity of voting and who's able to vote, making sure that nobody's voting illegally?

KELLY: That's a fascinating window into what is at stake in the vote here on Tuesday, which prompts me to ask. How tight is this race? How's it looking?

KAUFFMAN: It's very close. The polls are showing right now that both candidates are just a little bit under 50 percent, which means that this race could go to a runoff.

KELLY: And meanwhile, early voting is in full swing. I know you have been down at the early voting stations talking to voters. What are they telling you?

KAUFFMAN: I went to a few different early voting locations to talk to folks and see what's going on. And at the first polling place I went to, I spoke with somebody named Edwin Adams. And he's black. He lives in Atlanta. And he actually brought up this issue of voter suppression without me asking about it. And he thinks that Kemp is doing this for a particular reason.

EDWIN ADAMS: I just feel like this is a Republican state. It should not even be close. You know what I'm saying? So I feel like the reason he's doing that is 'cause he's scared.

KAUFFMAN: And what you couldn't hear in that tape is Edwin's mom behind him, who had some more choice words for Kemp that we can't put on the radio.

KELLY: Oh, choice as in unbroadcastable (ph)...


KELLY: ...Words on public radio. OK, now meanwhile, what are Kemp supporters telling you?

KAUFFMAN: I met one woman named Jo Campbell. She's from Sandy Springs, which is a suburb of Atlanta. And she really feels like Democrats are making a bigger deal out of these voter suppression allegations than what is actually going on. Here's what she said.

JO CAMPBELL: They can take something I think and make it more of a mountain than it is depending on if it suits their need. Both sides, both parties are guilty of this.

KAUFFMAN: And I thought it was really interesting to hear her say that. She said she would be concerned if there is voter suppression going on, and she would be concerned if people's ballots were rejected because their signature didn't match. But she thinks Democrats are using this to motivate their supporters to go to the polls and cast ballots for Stacey Abrams.

KELLY: Reporter Johnny Kauffman of member station WABE giving us the latest on the governor's race and claims of voter suppression here in Georgia. Thanks so much.

KAUFFMAN: Thanks for having me.


And, Mary Louise, you were out at an early voting station this morning, right? Was there a long line?

KELLY: I was. There were no lines when we stopped by. We were at a voting station in Fulton County. But the onsite manager came out and said, you got to come back because tomorrow is the last day of early voting. And she said, we're expecting lines, lines, lines. It's going to be busy. There was - can I tell you about this one moment of joy this morning?

SHAPIRO: Please.

KELLY: I started chatting with a woman who just voted. Desiree Andrews, 38 years old, voted for the very first time today. She told me, here I am; I'm lending my voice.

Well, and how'd it feel today lending your voice...

DESIREE ANDREWS: Oh, my God (laughter).

KELLY: ...On the ballot for the first time?

ANDREWS: It felt amazing (laughter). I was very anxious to start with.

SHAPIRO: She's almost giddy there.

KELLY: She's giddy. She said she grew up - her family didn't vote when she was a kid, so she just had no window into the process. She was intimidated. And she said, today's the day. It is time. Collectively, we all got to get off the bench.

SHAPIRO: Our co-host Mary Louise Kelly hosting from Atlanta today. Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Johnny joined WABE in March, 2015. Before joining the station, he was a producer at Georgia Public Broadcasting, and NPR in Washington D.C.

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