It was shortly before noon on the Saturday before Election Day 2018. Polls showed Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams had a shot at becoming the governor of Georgia, which would have made her the first black woman to hold the office in US history.
My colleague Jordan Wilkie and I had already worked together on a number of articles on the race. Three days before millions of Georgians would cast their ballots, Jordan was forwarded an e-mail suggesting there was a “massive vulnerability” in the state’s online voter registration system that could allow anyone with a minimum of computer knowledge to alter the data within.
We scrambled to verify the information, contacting five widely recognized elections cybersecurity experts. The state Democratic Party had also been alerted of the vulnerability by a private citizen. By Saturday evening, they too had contacted cybersecurity experts. Then–Secretary of State and Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp also had been alerted, as well as the FBI.
We ran a story early morning Sunday, and then another account including behind-the-scenes details. Within two hours of the first story’s release, Kemp announced that the state Democratic Party was “under investigation for possible cyber crimes.” By noon, cable news outlets ran with the news; print outlets soon followed.
Eighteen months later, on March 3, the state attorney general’s office produced a report stating that there was “no foundation” to Kemp’s charges, officially closing the investigation. A long inquiry had accomplished nothing, except to distract from the issue of the voting system’s vulnerabilities and cast doubt on the opposing party. Six months later, on the day after Election Day, the state Democratic Party sued Kemp and his staff, seeking to have the state remove a press release from its website announcing the investigation.
This series of events comes to mind not because of the actual issue at center—weaknesses in Georgia’s digital election system—but thanks to the state’s “investigation.” Last week, amid the swirling carnival of lawsuits, angry tweets from the White House, Rudy Giuliani’s Covid road show stop at the state capitol, and a series of death threats aimed at election workers unfortunate enough to appear in viral videos, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced that his office was launching a new investigation. It would be focused on four nonprofit groups that allegedly committed fraud in their efforts to encourage voters to request absentee ballots for the January 5 special election, which will decide the balance of power in the US Senate.
One of the four groups was the New Georgia Project, founded by Stacey Abrams in 2013. Reached by phone at the end of the week, Nsé Ufot, chief executive officer of the project, said it was the group’s fifth go-round with the secretary of state in six years. None of the investigations have produced evidence of fraud or any other crime.
A series of organizations and individuals involved in voter registration or election integrity have gone through the same experience during a period stretching back at least a decade—the state accuses them of crimes or wrongdoing without evidence and announces “investigations”; local and occasionally national media amplify news of the investigations; and months or years later, the effort is concluded with little to no findings.
“These are thinly veiled attempts to discredit organizations from registering people to vote and carry out important civic actions,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The same strategy has been deployed in other states, including Texas and Tennessee, she added. “It has a chilling effect: The impact is felt at the time the announcements are made, and if you follow the trails, these efforts amount to nothing”—except an effective suppression of the voice of “marginalized communities and people of color.”
One of the earliest such investigations in Kemp’s first term as secretary of state targeted an organization then known as the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center. Helen Ho, an attorney who directed the organization, noticed in late October 2012 that newly naturalized citizens her group had helped to register were being turned away from the polls during early voting. She wrote Kemp a letter demanding that they be allowed to vote. Kemp’s response was to tell her his office was investigating her organization for such technical issues as photocopying voters’ registration forms without their permission.
The investigation ended in March, 2015, with no findings.
Ho said her group was determined to continue its work throughout. “The mission was always at the center—to build the political power of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders in our region.” At the same time, the state’s efforts “caused fear amongst all groups. It was a scare tactic.” Ho sees the investigation as an early attempt at voter suppression through targeting voter registration. “Voter suppression in terms of voter registration was not something people were even looking at” in 2012, she said.
The New Georgia Project was the next target. From 2014 to late 2017, the state investigated nearly 90,000 voter registration forms the project had gathered, looking for fraud. In the end, the state elections board found potential problems linked to contractors on 53 forms, and no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the organization.
“This is one way racism and white supremacy work in public policy,” Ufot said. “They can use their investigative powers to harass, for a chilling effect. And they get more traction out of it from the press,” she added.
As media coverage of the investigation dragged on, the organization found itself spending what amounted to “easily over a million dollars” on legal and other fees in response to the state’s charges, Ufot said. “We were defending ourselves in court, and in the court of public opinion,” she said.
“I’ve often thought of rebranding,” Ufot added. Years later, donors still ask her, “Are you still under investigation?”
Since last week, the answer is yes—again. Still, as of Friday evening, the state had not contacted her, or her lawyers. Ufot said she assumes the secretary of state is basing his claims this time on a packet of postcards of the sort her group sends to out-of-state volunteers, who then fill them out and send them to people in Georgia, urging them to register. She said a packet must have been sent to a wrong New York address, and the person who received the packet tweeted about it. “That tweet must be what they’re building their investigation on.”
The secretary of state’s office did not respond in time to requests for an interview about the case.
Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, is entering the second year of being under investigation. Her nonprofit organization has been suing Georgia for three years, trying to get the state to abandon its digital election system and use hand-marked paper ballots. Unlike current cases surrounding elections in court, the coalition’s suits have brought noteworthy results, including a federal judge’s 2019 order to discontinue use of the voting machines the state had used for more than a decade. The order was intensely critical of the state, but fell short of requiring hand-marked paper ballots.
A year ago this November, Marks was observing a trial of Georgia’s current voting machines and scanners during a local election. She asked election workers if she could read a sign on one of the machines. A secretary of state staffer photographed her. The state then accused her of “trying to interfere” with the election.
The ensuing investigation has stunted her ability to recruit poll watching volunteers, she said. “They say, ‘No, no; this is too scary.’”
Meanwhile, in a development that appears to be of a piece with the upside-down current state of affairs, with President Trump attacking Georgia’s GOP leaders for not reversing the state’s election results, the secretary of state announced Thursday what may be its first investigation into a Republican.
The investigation stems from a video that surfaced online showing Florida attorney Bill Price urging members of the Bay County Republican Party to follow his lead, move to Georgia for a few months, and register to vote in the January 5 election. Price apparently moved in with a brother in the state, and actually attempted to register.
Price, who is white, could wind up being charged with felony racketeering, punishable with between five and 20 years in prison. That would be quite a departure from the last decade or so of secretary of state–led investigations linked to elections in Georgia.