ATLANTA — Reports that tens of thousands of Georgia voters, predominantly African-Americans, were placed on a list for further scrutiny have exploded into the Georgia governor’s race, leading to bitter exchanges between the candidates and leaving many residents uncertain what to expect as the state began early voting Monday.
The uproar over voting seems almost an inevitable development in the race, which pits two candidates on opposite sides of the nation’s voting wars who have battled with one another over access to the polls for years.
Stacey Abrams, the Democrat, who is hoping to be the nation’s first black female governor, forged her political profile through a group she founded that in the last five years has registered thousands of new minority voters. Her opponent Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state since 2010, has advanced strict voting rules that he says are needed to combat fraud, but which critics call a form of voter suppression directed at precisely the new voters Ms. Abrams is aiming to bring to the polls.
Their race is the latest example of how contentious and far-reaching voting issues have become in American politics, where once largely nonpartisan issues have been weaponized to gain an edge.
Ms. Abrams on Sunday repeated calls for Mr. Kemp to resign as the state’s top elections official to avoid a conflict of interest. She accused him of disenfranchising minorities for years, including his office’s latest effort, suspending the processing of 53,000 voter registrations, mainly African-Americans. It fits “a pattern of behavior where he tries to tilt the playing field in his favor,” Ms. Abrams said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Mr. Kemp told the Valdosta Daily Times Sunday that it was a “politically motivated, manufactured story,” made up by his opponent to drum up Democratic turnout. Everyone on the suspended list will be able to cast a ballot, he said. And he leveled an incendiary charge of his own at Ms. Abrams: that she wants noncitizens’ votes to count. “She wants illegals to vote in Georgia,” he said on Fox News on Monday.
Ms. Abrams accused Mr. Kemp of intentionally taking comments she made out of context.
As early voting began Monday, Ms. Abrams kicked off a weeklong bus tour of Georgia churches and schools, with the topic of voter suppression coming up within minutes.
The current controversy began after an analysis last week by The Associated Press found that 70 percent of 53,000 new registrations currently suspended were for black Georgians.
A state law passed in 2017 at Mr. Kemp’s urging requires an “exact match” between a voter’s registration form and his or her government documents. A missing hyphen, or a difference between a married and a maiden name, causes a registration to be suspended.
Many of the stalled registrations were voters signed up by the New Georgia Project, Ms. Abrams’s group, which has worked for years to boost minorities’ registrations.
Despite being on hold, all of the 53,000 pending voters will be able to vote this year with a proper photo ID that matches their registration, said Michael McDonald, an elections law expert at the University of Florida, who was an expert witness in a lawsuit over the issue of exact-match registration.
But Ms. Abrams said uncertainty alone might cause many new voters not to show up on Election Day, especially low-propensity voters in rural areas who are not following the issue closely.
“They get a confusing letter saying there’s something wrong with their registration,” she said on Sunday. “And more than likely they will sit out this election. The miasma of fear that is created through voter suppression is as much about terrifying people about trying to vote as it is about actually blocking their ability to do so.”
Mr. McDonald added that, absent another successful lawsuit, the 53,000 on the list will have to prove they are legally registered to vote in 2019 and the 2020 presidential race.
Experts say any impediment to voting can be enough to dissuade someone from casting a ballot.
Michelle Dehaven, a veterinarian based in Smyrna, Ga., said she learned over the summer she had been temporarily dropped from voting rolls when she visited the Department of Motor Vehicles to replace a lost driver’s license. She was told she was no longer registered to vote.
“It never occurred to me it would be a problem,” she said. When she called the Secretary of State’s office to fix the problem, she said, the person who answered informed her, “I don’t know, I can’t help you.”
Eventually, county election officials helped her return to the voter rolls. “I had to really fuss,” Ms. Dehaven said. “I’m educated and I’m well versed in this. But it was just shocking.”
The Georgia race highlights the national transformation of the office of secretary of state since the disputed 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Once a low-visibility, uncontroversial job, focused on administering voting laws in a nonpartisan way, secretaries of state in many places have become politicized.
This year, two of the most activist-minded Republican secretaries of state are running for governor: Mr. Kemp of Georgia and Kris Kobach of Kansas, who was the face of President Trump’s commission that unsuccessfully sought proof of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election.
Both are in statistically tied races, according to polls. Should the vote on Nov. 6 be so close in either state that a recount is necessary (or, in Georgia, a runoff if no one wins a majority), the candidates would face a conflict of interest in the determination of the victor.
The issue is not academic. Mr. Kobach awoke the morning after his Republican primary in August leading an opponent, the incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer, by just 121 votes.
At first, Mr. Kobach refused to recuse himself, as the state’s chief elections official, from a potential recount, arguing that the counting would be done by local officials. Eventually, under pressure, he turned over his duties to a top deputy. No recount took place, as Mr. Kobach’s lead grew to 345 and Mr. Colyer conceded.
More important than any possible role in umpiring a close election, Mr. Kemp and Mr. Kobach have for years narrowed who is eligible to vote, in ways that critics say are intended to help Republicans by suppressing votes by minorities, the poor and college students — groups that lean Democratic.
Mr. Kobach was the author of a Kansas law that required proof of citizenship to register to vote. Before it was struck down in June in federal court, the law blocked 31,000 Kansans from registering.
Despite repeated studies disproving Mr. Kobach’s claims that waves of “illegal aliens” cast votes, he has not toned down his rhetoric, which plays well with the party’s base.
The battle over election rules reached a boiling point in 2016, when federal courts struck down or curtailed some of the most restrictive ballot laws in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas and elsewhere. But Republican backers of restrictions have since found more success in cases before an increasingly conservative federal judiciary.
In North Dakota, for example, a federal court has refused to stay a state law that require voters to display ID cards with addresses. The seemingly routine requirement is aimed at Native Americans, whose culture discourages fixed addresses.
At the same time, a number of states have moved in recent years to make it easier to vote. Thirteen states have approved automatic voter registration laws, four of them this year. Utah voters will be able to register on Election Day in November for the first time, and Washington approved a state voting-rights law and preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds.
In Georgia, Mr. Kemp has overseen the mass cancellation of 1.4 million registrations since 2012. Although federal law requires updating voter rolls by removing the dead or those who have moved, critics charge that aggressive purges have led to many eligible voters being unfairly removed. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that states with a history of racial discrimination, which were freed from federal oversight under a 2013 Supreme Court voting rights decision, have had significantly higher purge rates.
Mr. Kemp “has long had a reputation for over-aggressive purging, trying to make it more difficult for African-Americans to vote as part of a political strategy,” said Miles S. Rapoport, a former secretary of state of Connecticut, who is senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Astead W. Herndon reported from Atlanta, and Trip Gabriel from New York. Maggie Astor contributed reporting from New York, and Michael Wines from Washington.