In early May, a federal judge extended the voter-registration deadline for the special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District by two months, from March 20 to May 21. That allowed nearly 8,000 additional people to register to vote in time for the June 20 election.
Democrat Jon Ossoff praised the decision. “Voting rights are constitutional rights,” he said. “I encourage all eligible voters to ensure that they are registered and make their voices heard on June 20th and in all elections, regardless of their party or political persuasion.”
But Republican Karen Handel did not. “This is going to boil your blood,” she wrote in an e-mail to supporters. “Just hours ago, the Democrats won their lawsuit to extend voter registration in Georgia before our election. This lawsuit should be seen for exactly what it is: A partisan attempt to change the rules in the middle of an election for a nakedly partisan outcome.”
There was more than a little irony in Handel’s e-mail: Not only did she not want more people to register and vote, but shaping election rules to achieve a partisan outcome was exactly what Handel was known for as Georgia’s secretary of state from 2007 to 2010. She has a long record of making it harder to vote—supporting Georgia’s strict voter-ID law, trying to purge thousands of eligible voters from the rolls before the 2008 election, repeatedly challenging the residency of qualified Democratic candidates, and failing to secure the state’s electronic voting machines.
Let’s start with the purge. Weeks before the 2008 election, thousands of registered voters in Georgia had their citizenship challenged by the state, a policy spearheaded by Handel. One of them was Jose Morales, a student at Kennesaw State University, a legal permanent resident since he was a toddler who became a US citizen in November 2007. After filling out a voter registration form in September 2008, Morales received a letter from Cherokee County telling him that he must provide evidence of his citizenship in court or would be kept off the voter rolls.
Morales drove 30 minutes from his home in Kennesaw to the Cherokee County Elections office in Canton, to give the clerk a copy of his passport. He was told that was sufficient evidence to prove his citizenship and received a copy of his voting card a week later. But a month before the election, on October 7, 2008, he received another letter saying he was still not qualified to vote and had to appear again before the Cherokee County Elections office to prove his citizenship again or else he would be purged from the rolls.
At that point, the ACLU sued Georgia on Morales’s behalf, holding that the state’s citizenship verification process violated the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act. “Despite all the steps he has gone through, Mr. Morales’ right to vote is still being threatened,” the lawsuit said. “Mr. Morales wants to vote, particularly in the upcoming election, and wants to make sure his vote is counted.”
Handel criticized the lawsuit and spread unfounded claims about noncitizens voting. “Unfortunately, some groups appear to want to open the door to allow non-citizens to register and vote in the General Election,” she wrote.
As Ian Millhiser of Think Progress noted, a panel of three Republican-appointed judges ruled against Handel and ordered her to “reasonably ensure that no voter is permanently deleted from the voter registration list.”
However, despite the court victory, nearly 5,000 registered voters were told by the state they had to cast a “challenge” ballot at the polls. Congressman John Lewis called it “an attempt to take us back to another dark period in our history when people were denied access to the ballot box simply because of their race or nationality.” Of the 4,700 “challenged” voters, 2,700 never cast a ballot or had their ballots rejected, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
After the election, the Justice Department said the voter purge violated the Voting Rights Act and was “seriously flawed.” “African Americans comprise a majority of the registrants flagged,” Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Loretta King wrote to Georgia officials. “Hispanic and Asian individuals are more than twice as likely to appear on the list as are white applicants.”
But that wasn’t the only way Handel undermined election rules, during the 2008 election or after. She repeatedly tried to prevent Democratic candidates from running for office, no matter how small, including Jim Powell, a candidate in 2008 for the Georgia Public Service Commission. Powell had moved from Cobb County to Towns County but Handel ruled he couldn’t run for the Fourth District seat on the commission because he didn’t live there, even though as the AJC wrote, “Powell had bought a home in the district in 2006, had voted in the district three times, and got his mail, attended church, paid taxes and spent the majority of his time there.”
Handel removed Powell from the ballot and, even after an administrative court ruled in his favor, there were signs at polling places during the July primary that votes for him wouldn’t count and he was disqualified from running for office.
“She’s wrong, she’s absolutely wrong,” Powell said. “I’m troubled that she continues to disadvantage my campaign by filing these legal challenges and tries to keep me off the ballot by legal means.”
Handel attempted to strike Powell’s name from the ballot on two more occasions through the courts before the Georgia Supreme Court ruled unanimously for Powell a week before the election. “No matter the outcome of Tuesday’s election, a loser has emerged—Secretary of State Karen Handel,” wrote the AJC.
But the damage to Powell’s campaign was done. He lost to a Republican in 2008.
At the same time she was trying to purge qualified voters from the rolls and prevent Democrats from running for office, Handel championed Georgia’s strict voter-ID law, among the first of its kind to take effect in 2005. Four of five career lawyers at the Justice Department recommended blocking the law, but political appointees in the George W. Bush administration approved it even though the bill’s Republican sponsor in the legislature, Rep. Sue Burmeister, told DOJ lawyers: “If there are fewer black voters because of the bill, it will only be because there is less opportunity for fraud. She said when black voters in her precinct are not paid to vote, they do not go to the polls.”
“Opponents of photo ID have failed to produce even one voter who has been harmed by the requirement, despite nearly three years of scouring the state in search of such an individual,” Handel wrote in the AJC.
That prompted a response from reader Ed Neubaum of Marietta, who wrote:
My 73-year-old mother is one.
After moving to Georgia from Florida, we attempted to obtain a Georgia ID. Based on the then-published requirements on the Department of Motor Vehicles Web site, we gathered proof of her new address (bank statement), birth certificate and valid Florida driver’s license. At the DMV, we where told that as of May, the secretary of state required her marriage certificate because the name on her birth certificate did not match her driver’s license. They would accept a passport with her married name, something she has never applied for.
Tracking down and paying $40 for a copy of her marriage certificate.
Two trips to the DMV, time and gas.
Missing the July 15 primary.
In fact, political scientists M. V. Hood III and Charles S. Bullock III found that the Georgia law did reduce voter turnout. When the law passed, they noted, 289,622 Georgia registrants—5.66 percent of the electorate—had neither a driver’s license nor state ID card.
Before the voter ID law: “In 2004, those registrants lacking photo ID had a turnout rate of 47.6% compared with other registrants with a 72.9% rate of turnout.” After the voter-ID law: “In 2008, the turnout rate for those registrants lacking ID drops to 39.6%, whereas for those with photo ID the rate falls to 70.0%.”
“Stated succinctly, we estimate turnout in Georgia in 2008 would have been about four-tenths of a percentage point higher had the courts blocked the law.” That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it could be enough to swing a close election. They called the turnout drop “a conservative estimate of voter suppression.” They also noted that Handel’s predecessor, Democrat Cathy Cox, who was secretary of state from 1997 to 2007, didn’t have a single case of in-person voter fraud reported to her office, which was the supposed justification for the law.
To this day, Handel cites the voter-ID law as one of her “most important accomplishments.” She said in a TV ad for the Sixth District race: “As secretary of state, I fought President Obama to implement photo ID and won,” even though Georgia’s voter-ID law was passed in 2005 and took effect in 2007, well before President Obama assumed office.
Handel was so busy fearmongering about voter fraud that she ignored a far more serious problem: the security of Georgia’s electronic voting machines, which to this day have no verifiable paper trail. As Politico reported, she was warned as secretary of state about the system’s vulnerability, but did nothing:
In 2006, when Handel ran for secretary of state of Georgia, she made the security of the state’s voting systems one of her campaign issues. After her win, she ordered a security review of the systems and the procedures for using them.
Experts at Georgia Tech conducted the review and found a number of security concerns, which they discussed in a report submitted to Handel. But, oddly, they were prohibited from examining the center’s network or reviewing its security procedures. Richard DeMillo, who was dean of computing at Georgia Tech at the time and led the review, told Politico he and his team argued with officials from the center in Handel’s office, but they were adamant that its procedures and networks would not be included in the review.
“I thought it was very strange,” says DeMillo. “It was kind of a contentious meeting. The Kennesaw people just stamped their foot and said ‘Over our dead body.’”
Although Handel could have insisted that the center’s network be included in the security review, she didn’t. But when DeMillo’s team submitted a draft of their report, he says she sent it back instructing them to add a caveat about the center’s absence from the review. It reads: “The Election Center at Kennesaw State University fills a key role in Georgia’s statewide election procedures, which makes it a potential target of a systematic attack. We did not have sufficient information to evaluate the security safeguards protecting against a centralized compromise at the state level.”
But once they delivered the finished report to Handel, DeMillo says, “We never heard anything more about it.” It’s not clear whether Handel’s office acted on recommendations made in the report.
Handel’s failure to protect Georgia’s voting system and repeated attempts to limit access to the ballot stand in sharp contrast to Jon Ossoff’s pledge to protect the right to vote. When asked in a debate to name an issue he wouldn’t compromise on, Ossoff answered: “voting rights.”
“I am concerned by apparent inclination of the Justice Department under Attorney General Sessions to back away from strict enforcement of civil rights and voting rights legislation,” he said. “I will stand up for the right of every Georgian to exercise their right to make their voice heard at the polls. I will conduct aggressive congressional oversight to ensure that federal agencies are enforcing the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.”