Nine months after President Donald Trump was forced to dissolve a panel charged with investigating voter fraud, GOP officials across the country are cracking down on what they describe as threats to voting integrity — moves that critics see as attempts to keep some Americans from casting ballots in November’s elections.
In Georgia, election officials have suspended more than 50,000 applications to register to vote, most of them for black voters, under a rigorous Republican-backed law that requires personal information to exactly match driver’s license or Social Security records.
In Texas, the state attorney general has prosecuted nearly three dozen individuals on charges of voter fraud this year, more than the previous five years combined.
And in North Carolina, a U.S. attorney and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued subpoenas last month demanding that virtually all voting records in 44 counties be turned over to immigration authorities within weeks — a move that was delayed after objections from state election officials.
Voting rights advocates said Republicans are seizing on sporadic voting problems in an effort to disenfranchise voters of color.
In Georgia, several of these groups filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to block the “exact match” registration law passed last year.
“The myth of voter fraud is used by those who wish to curtail the right to vote of specific populations, usually minority voters,” said Ezra Rosenberg, an attorney for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a participant in the suit.
“Instead of thinking up schemes to stop people from voting, we should be doing everything in our power to make it easier for people to vote,” he added.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who enforces state election laws and is also the GOP gubernatorial nominee, said the focus on the suspended voter registrations is a crisis manufactured by his Democratic opponent.
“While outside agitators disparage this office and falsely attack us, we have kept our heads down and remained focused on ensuring secure, accessible, and fair elections for all voters,” he said last week.
Numerous studies have found no evidence of large-scale voter fraud in the U.S. But the specter of fraud was raised repeatedly by Trump after the 2016 election, when he claimed without evidence that millions of undocumented immigrants voted illegally for his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Soon after entering office, Trump created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, which was charged with examining claims of voter fraud, improper registration and voter suppression.
The commission was disbanded in January after states refused to turn over requested data and filed lawsuits to block its demands, citing voter privacy. Trump blamed states for refusing to cooperate and promised to continue the effort within his administration.
Matt Dunlap, the Democratic secretary of state of Maine who served on Trump’s commission, said in an interview that he now views the effort as a sham. He accused Republicans of trying to gin up anti-immigration sentiment by falsely claiming voting by undocumented immigrants is rampant.
“It’s a dog whistle, no question about it,” Dunlap said. “Whenever we talk about illegal immigration, voter fraud, others taking something away from us — of course, it’s a dog whistle.”
In Georgia, the issue is inflaming an already hard-fought governor’s race, where Kemp is battling against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who would be the first female black governor.
The Associated Press reported last week that 53,000 voter registrations in the state are on hold under the “exact match” verification process, which requires voter application information to precisely mirror a resident’s state or federal data on file. Even a hyphen out of place could prompt an application to be flagged by local election officials and suspended.
Nearly 70 percent of the registrations that have been frozen are those of blacks, according to the AP.
The controversy in North Carolina elicited a more bipartisan uproar, with Republicans and Democrats alike decrying the efforts of Robert Higdon Jr., the U.S. attorney for Eastern District of North Carolina and a Trump appointee, to secure millions of voting records from 44 counties in the state.
The demand for documents came just days after Higdon’s office, in concert with ICE, issued indictments charging 19 foreign nationals of voting illegally in the 2016 elections.
State election officials argued that responding to the subpoenas would require compiling more than 20 million documents and would burden tiny electoral offices while they were already printing ballots and preparing for midterm elections.
A State Board of Elections spokesman said Higdon agreed to wait until January for the documents.
Prosecutions are also on the rise in Texas, where Attorney General Ken Paxton has focused on voter fraud. Paxton, who declined a request for an interview, last month touted a jail sentence and deportation his office secured of a noncitizen charged with voter impersonation.
Fueling the debate are recent problems with programs in Pennsylvania and California aimed at increasing voter registration that have produced tens of thousands of registration errors.
In California, mistakes in the state’s new “Motor Voter” program, which began automatically registering eligible voters in April, led to as many as 100,000 registration errors, Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a news conference Tuesday.
State Republicans and Democrats agree the motor-voter program may need to be suspended.
In Pennsylvania, officials realized in 2017 that a poorly designed touch-screen system for applying for driver’s licenses had prompted thousands of noncitizens to register to vote.