How the Republicans are stealing Georgia
Hundreds of thousands of people of colour have had their names erased from the voter list in this vital state.
This is an extract from Palast’s book ‘How Trump stole 2020’.
It was raining that day in Atlanta. But I could see the large tears tracking down the face of Christine Jordan’s niece.
“It’s horrible,” she said.
Ms. Jordan, 92 years old, had dressed elegantly for the occasion, her 50th year at the same polling station, “voting right here since 1968,” Ms Jordan said, the year her cousin Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down.
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But she would not vote this time. They threw her out of the polling station. “It’s horrible,” repeated her niece, Jessica. “It’s horrible to come out and not be able to vote and no one can give you an explanation. She held civil rights meetings in her home and they had no record of her.
She was here in the West End community when we couldn’t. . . .” She choked on the word “vote.”
“It’s extremely emotional. And it bothers me. Bothers me to my core.”
“I’m sorry.” She apologized for crying. “I’m sorry.”
I’m an investigative reporter. I don’t cry. But it bothered me, too. Because I knew I was witnessing more than the ugly Jim Crow blockade of an elderly Black woman from the ballot box. I knew I was witnessing the successful test run in Georgia of a new vote-snatching game designed to re-elect Donald Trump no matter the will of America’s voters.
I’ve seen this movie before. In November 2000, when I got my hands on two computer discs from inside the offices of Katherine Harris, chair of the Bush for President campaign, and crucially, the Secretary of State of Florida, the person in charge of the voting.
I cracked the codes, and discovered that Harris had flushed 97,000 voters from registration rolls – most of them Black – tagging them as felons, ex-cons, who can’t vote.
In fact, the number of illegal ex-con voters? Zero. Their only crime was VWB, Voting While Black. Harris announced George W. Bush had won Florida, and therefore the presidency of the United States, by just 537 votes. That is, “won” by excluding the tens of thousands of African-Americans she’d secretly – illegally – barred from voting.
And here I was in Georgia, 18 years later, and it’s déjàvu all over again. Again.
Raheim Shabazz was at the same polling station as Ms Jordan. He’d also been given the heave-ho. He got no ballot, but they did give him a lapel sticker that said, “I’m a Georgia voter!” printed on a peach, the state fruit.
At the next polling station, Ashlee Jones, a Latina, brought her three cute daughters to watch her get bounced from the poll as well. Bounced along with Yasmine Bakhtiari, daughter of Iranian immigrants, whose name had also vanished from voter rolls.
Dark-hued voters, by the tens of thousands, flushed from voter registries. The Purged.
They didn’t accuse Ms. Jordan of being a felon, an ex-con. So what was this new game?
The Purge’n General
Brian Kemp stood next to his pick-up truck. “Ah like to blow up . . .” Ka-blamm! A dynamite cap spews a part of his lawn into his hedges. “. . . government spending!” Next we see Kemp with a shotgun pointed at a nervous young man to ensure the kid has “a healthy respect for the Second Amendment.”
And, he adds in his brand-new Dawg Patch accent, “I got a Big Truck just in case I have to round up some criminal illegals and take’m in myself! I just said that!”. Brian Kemp isn’t some redneck goober. He just plays one on TV. Until recently, he dressed as what he is, landed gentry, with that soft Jimmy Carter New South accent, Brooks Brothers blue suit and tie. But, running for governor of the Peach State, he went full hayseed: old jeans, plaid shirts, pick-up truck and shotgun – and the yokels ate it up.
But Kemp had a problem: Stacey Abrams, his opponent, a super-popular legislator, Harvard Law grad, both parents Baptist ministers, the daughter every parent dreams of, the nice lady next door, the kind that will help your kid with their homework. No visible shotgun, no chainsaw, just a plan for expanding health care. In the polls, Abrams was passing Kemp’s alien laden pick-up truck.
And Kemp had another problem: demographics. A lack of Good Ol’ Boys. The census is about to list Georgia as the first “minority majority” state in the Deep South, whites outnumbered by non-whites.
And as the first African-American woman in history to run for governor of any state in the USA, the Black turn-out would be crushing and decisive.
Bluntly, there simply weren’t enough white people to make Kemp governor.
But Kemp wielded a dark weapon more powerful than mere voters. As Secretary of State, Kemp had complete authority over the election. Kemp could say where people vote, how they vote and, most importantly, who gets to vote.
There’s a cable TV show, The Purge, in which Americans in the future get one day a year when they can kill anyone they want to kill.
It’s based on a true story.
Once a year, since the beginning of this century, a group of political hitmen, “Secretaries of State,” are allowed to wipe out the voting rights of Americans by “purging” them from the voter rolls.
As the Purge’n General of Georgia, Kemp used his power like a chainsaw. In the lead-up to his run for governor, Kemp purged 665,677, two-thirds of a million registrations. The Purge erased the voting rights of one in eight Georgians. Including Ms Jordan, Mr Shabazz, Ms Jones and Ms Bakhtiari.
(If you’re thinking, “How can this guy run for governor and be in charge of his own election?,” you’ve never been to Georgia.)
I admit, I’m a suspicious man. I’d been trailing Kemp, for Al Jazeera and Rolling Stone, for six years.
His trick-bag of vote suppression tools, including prior purges that smelled of Jim Crow, kept drawing me back to Georgia.
But this Purge was breathtaking, something new. Surely, there must be a law to prevent someone like Kemp from just taking away your registration?
Yes: the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, known as the Motor Voter law because it requires states to give out registration forms with your driver’s license applications. Every DMV becomes a safe voter registration center. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 won African-Americans the right to vote in the South. But you can’t vote if you aren’t registered, so the NVRA jammed registration right down the throats of states that still made voting for Black people a cruel obstacle course.
Not that the Good Ol’ Boys hadn’t come up with a way around the Motor Voter law. I’d just returned from a visit to the DMV in Lowndes County, Alabama. The door was locked, midday. The DMV had been closed by order of the state, as was virtually every single DMV in the “Black Belt” counties of Alabama, the African-American counties.
Kemp himself was even less subtle. When a registration drive sent Georgia officials 86,419 registration forms of new voters, mostly young students of color, Kemp simply did not add 40,000 of them to the voter rolls. In 2016, I flew to Atlanta to find out what the hell was going on.
I met attorney Nse Ufot:
“You know what [Kemp’s office] told us? ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about. What forms?’ They did not disappear. We intentionally registered voters on paper forms so that we could make copies. We knew who they were. They were not on the voter rolls.”
Kemp responded by threatening to arrest the voter registration leaders – including the founder, Stacey Abrams – for alleged criminal tampering of voter registration forms. That is, they copied the forms so Kemp couldn’t disappear them.
Ufot saw the registrations sitting in government offices, piled high and dusty, “with my own four eyes” (she wears glasses). Once the forms were “discovered,” Kemp’s office then claimed the government simply had no time to review the voter applications. That was 2014.
In 2018, four years later, and running against Abrams, Kemp still had not found time to add her voters.
Lynched by Laptop
How’d he get away with it? Pull off the caper? How did Mr. “I-got-a-big-truck” remove way over half a million voters, a nuclear hit on the registration rolls that somehow targeted Black, Hispanic and young voters with a laser-like precision? And how did he do it and stay on this side of prison bars?
And how, with this giant voter eraser, did Kemp snatch the governorship of Georgia – and, potentially, re-elect Donald Trump?
His excuse was so benign, so innocent, so simple. The excuse the Purge’n General used to eliminate the registrations? Kemp kept the info locked up – but a federal judge unlocked them for me. Some Georgia voters had died (64,446 of them), some were imprisoned for felonies (14,021) and there were a few other smatterings of legit removals.
But that left 534,510 – over half a million purged – for a reason identified only as “System Cancels.” They were cancelled by the system because they had failed to vote in two elections and hadn’t returned a postcard mailed to their registration address. On the basis of the missed elections and a missed postcard, Kemp concluded that every one of these half million voters had moved away: they had moved out of their county, or out of state or out of the country. Who can argue with that? Only a fool would say that someone who’s left Georgia for Ohio should stay on Georgia’s voter rolls.
But something was missing. U-Haul trucks.
I’d traveled to Georgia a number of times during The Big Purge. With half a million voters leaving – and that means hundreds of thousands of families moving in two years – Interstate Highway 85 out of Atlanta should have been filled with U-Haul trucks, mini-vans, rickshaws, anything that could carry the households of this mass exodus.
The press wrung their hands over this terrible mass purge but wrote it was legit.
But no one asked, “Where are the U-Hauls?” Riddle me this:
The US Census says less than 3% of Southerners move out of their county in any year, or 200,000 of Georgia’s 6.8 million voters.
You don’t have to be a math whiz to see the numbers don’t add up. I’m not Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t figure out the con in a flash of inductive reasoning after injecting a 7% solution of cocaine. I started with Kemp’s office, with a formal Freedom of Information request. However, in Georgia, information has not yet been emancipated.
“Please, sir, could you give me the names of the voters you purged and their former addresses?” just didn’t cut it. Kemp’s office told me to fly.
Now, as an investigative reporter, I have a few (legal) tricks and a team of experienced tricksters. The best, Zach D. Roberts, who, conveniently, has other legal names, had gotten a purge list from Kemp four years earlier. ZD told one of Kemp’s flunkies, a leader of the Young Republicans, that he was gathering info for a Fox radio show to run a glowing story about Kemp’s worthy purge operation. ZD did in fact do some work for Fox, but the lists would go first to a Rolling Stone reporter: me.
You can’t pull that off twice. So, I wheeled out big guns: the New York law firm of Mirer, Mazzocchi and Julien. They filed an unprecedented lawsuit in federal court based on rarely used powers in the National Voter Registration Act.
Kemp’s crew came out with their hands up and files open: turning over the names and addresses of half a million Georgians who had supposedly moved. The Purged.
What could we do with half a million names? Start calling. We wanted to know, had they really left the state? There was Gladys Bonner, in an assisted living home, who had indeed moved – but from one room in her building to another. Under the law, she should never have lost her vote. And there were a whole lot of people like ML King’s cousin, who hadn’t moved at all.
And almost every one we reached was . . . well, not white. Hmmm.
But this was anecdotal – a sample. I didn’t like the smell of Kemp’s purge, but a few cases do not an indictment make.
So my investigations team created a computer program at GregPalast.com which allowed Georgians to see whether they were on Kemp’s purge list. We added a request at the site: contact us. Within days 1,900 did, angry, upset that they lost their right to vote without so much as a posting on their Facebook page. Dawan Mitchell, returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, wrote us, telling us he did move . . . but into the state.
The smell of mendacity rose, but this still was not the scientific gotcha evidence I needed. How could I find out exactly how many on the list had actually moved – versus how many were simply re-moved by Kemp?
Ask yourself, “Who knows exactly where every American lives, with 100% accuracy?” And you know the answer:
Amazon. eBay. Amazon never sends John Jackson another John Jackson’s pimple remover. Who else knows where you live, with certainty? American Express. Your friendly credit card company will find you in the far corners of North Korea if you try to skip out on your bill.
So I turned to Mark Swedlund, a legend in the “direct marketing” business – do not call it “junk mail.”
Swedlund had helped me out over the years, including setting up an elaborate false front for The Guardian. (We pretended to be fixers for a company called Enron and set out to buy the British government. It was surprisingly cheap. We were invited into prime minister Tony Blair’s residence at 10 Downing Street before we splashed the headline in The Guardian about the government’s flea market for favors.)
Swedlund’s clients included Amazon, eBay and American Express and he confirmed that “they know exactly where you were last Thursday, and if you ordered Chinese food and then downloaded a Kevin Costner movie.”
He added, “I think that’s creepy” – but suggested we could use their tracking systems to go through Kemp’s purge list.
For that, he said, you need to retain the services of someone called an “advanced address list hygiene expert.” I’d never heard of “advanced address list hygiene.” But Swedlund hooked me up with the best in the field, John Lenser, the CEO of the advanced address list hygiene company CohereOne, used by the industry big boys.
Lenser and Swedlund put together a hell of a team, including a “de-concatenation” specialist who picked apart the pile of computer mush Kemp’s flunkies had given us.
What the Lenser/Swedlund team found was eye-popping. They went through Kemp’s purge list of half a million voters name by name, and the registration addresses of every person Kemp said had moved their residence. Lenser looked at tax bills, where someone last had pizza delivered, phone bills, your alimony checks . . . accessing two hundred and forty databases that can confirm where you reside with stone-cold accuracy.
Notably, Mr. Kemp hadn’t bothered to ask why thousands of people had supposedly moved out of Georgia but were still paying Georgia income taxes.
I lost the office pool. I expected about 15% inaccuracy in Kemp’s purge. I was wrong, big wrong.
Lenser’s first report blew me away: 340,134 Georgians that had been purged for moving were, in fact, still living in the home in which they’d registered.
Lenser told me, 340,000 of those voters remained at their original address. They should have never been removed from the voter registration rolls. More than a third of a million wrongly purged – in this one state. The list was more than 74% wrong. Three out of four.
This was not a statistical sample, not an algorithm nor an estimate. This was a name-by-name investigation of those disappeared in plain sight. We were using Amazon’s method and Amazon, unlike the Pope, is infallible. (Actually, 96% accurate, according to Lenser. He told me his figures had a 4% error rate because, between gathering data and reporting it, people do pass on to another county or further: the Lenser team found that the state purged 19,118 folks who “moved,” but had, in fact, died.)
After two decades on this beat, I knew what would come next. The Georgia vote purge game, spread to a dozen key states, would stealthily bleach the voter rolls whiter than white. The Purge, not the voters, could re-elect Donald Trump.
openDemocracy is attempting to contact Brian Kemp for comment on the allegations on this piece. How Trump stole 2020 is available from all good bookstores.
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