The GOP candidate in that Georgia special election is a pioneering vote suppressor

Voter purges, and then some.

Republican congressional candidate Karen Handel leaves an election night event CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman
Republican congressional candidate Karen Handel leaves an election night event CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

Georgia voters cannot allow Jon Ossoff, a Democrat who significantly over-performed expectations in an historically Republican district, to “steal the seat that has been held by the great leaders like Tom Price, Johnny Isakson, and Newt Gingrich.” At least that’s what Karen Handel, the Republican who now faces off against Ossoff in a run-off election, told supporters after she took a distant second in a race that determined which candidates would advance to the run-off.

Handel’s unfounded allegation — that a Democratic victory would be a kind of theft —hearkens back to similar rhetoric by her fellow Republicans. Among other things, Donald Trump sought an investigation into nonexistent voter fraud, falsely suggesting that he would have won the popular vote if not for ballots cast by undocumented immigrants.

But it is not the least bit surprising that Handel would declare Democratic electoral victories illegitimate either. Seven years ago, Handel was Georgia’s Secretary of State — its chief elections officer. In that role, she was a top advocate for a then-innovative method of voter suppression. She spearheaded an illegal purge of Georgia’s voting rolls. And she even tried to prevent Democratic candidates from appearing on the state’s ballots.

The purge

Less than two months before the 2008 presidential election, Jose Morales received an ominous letter. The letter told Morales, a Georgia college student who became a naturalized citizen in 2007, that his citizenship status was unclear and that a hearing would determine whether he was actually allowed to vote.

According to a lawsuit he filed less than a month before the election, Morales was told that his name would be removed from the state’s voter rolls unless he affirmatively proved that he was a U.S. citizen. As a result, Morales traveled to an election office half-an-hour from his home to show them his passport. Nevertheless, Morales received yet another letter after this trip informing him that if he did not contact the elections office or appear at a hearing, he would be disenfranchised.

The letter informed her that she had only one week to prove her citizenship. It was dated October 2, but postmarked October 9. So, by the time this letter arrived in her mailbox, the deadline was past.

The state eventually allowed him to vote — after Morales made the special trip to show his passport and after he filed his lawsuit against Handel’s office. But he was one of over 50,000 individuals flagged by a voter purge and over 4,500 flagged as a potential non-citizen.

The culprit, according to Morales’ suit, was a process Handel set up — ostensibly to weed out non-citizen voters. When someone applied for a Georgia driver’s license, they were required to tell the state whether or not they are a citizen. But these records are not updated when someone’s citizenship status changes. Nevertheless, Handel ordered county election officials to check voter registrants against the driver’s license database in order to weed out non-citizens.

Morales, like many other Georgia residents, applied for a driver’s license before he was naturalized. Thus, the driver’s license database still listed him as a non-citizen despite the fact that this information was inaccurate.

Though Handel’s purge was especially likely to catch naturalized citizens like Morales in its net, it also roped in eligible voters who were born in the United States. Kyla Berry, for example, is an American citizen born in Boston. Yet she received a letter stating that her local elections office “has received notification from the state of Georgia indicating that you are not a citizen of the United States and therefore, not eligible to vote.”

The letter informed her that she had only one week to prove her citizenship. It was dated October 2, but postmarked October 9. So, by the time this letter arrived in her mailbox, the deadline was past.

The good news for voters targeted by this purge is that Morales’ lawsuit was largely successful. A panel of three Republican-appointed federal judges ordered Handel to allow purged voters to cast ballots — albeit through a somewhat drawn out process — and to “reasonably ensure that no voter is permanently deleted from the voter registration list” based on the purge.

But we can never know how many of the thousands of voters who received ominous letters falsely challenging their right to vote were deterred from voting that year.

Locking Democrats out of the ballot

In the middle of an election cycle, Republican state Sen. Joe Carter decided to withdraw from his reelection race and run for a judgeship instead. Carter was slated to run unopposed, which meant that there would be no candidates for his soon-to-be-vacant seat.

According to the Atlanta-based alt-weekly Creative Loafing, Handel solved this problem by allowing new candidates to qualify to appear on the ballot — but only if they were Republicans. “Democrats,” the alt-weekly reported, “weren’t given the chance to field a candidate for the newly open seat.”

And this was not an isolated incident. On the day before a primary election for a state house race, Handel ruled that the lone Democratic candidate must be removed from the ballot because he didn’t qualify as a resident of the district. She also did not allow Democrats to submit a new candidate.

Then, when Michelle Conlon, a Democrat, gathered enough signatures to appear on the ballot as an independent, Handel tried to disqualify Conlon as well by “arguing that a page containing dozens of signatures could be thrown out if a single signer was a nonresident.” Conlon eventually prevailed in a lawsuit against Handel.

Handel similarly tried to kick Jim Powell, a Democratic candidate for the state’s Public Service Commission, off the ballot — claiming that Powell was not a resident of the district where he hoped to run because he’d claimed a property tax exemption on real estate he owned in a different district. The state supreme court unanimously concluded that Handel “committed an error of law that authorizes reversal of the Secretary’s decision.”

Fraud

Georgia was an early adopter of voter ID, a common method of voter suppression. Such laws disproportionately target young voters, students and people of color — all groups which tend to prefer Democrats to Republicans. Indeed, one study found that “Democratic turnout drops by an estimated 8.8 percentage points in general elections when strict photo identification laws are in place,” compared to 3.6 percentage points for the GOP.

Though voter ID is often justified as a way of preventing voter fraud, even GOP-led investigations discovered that the kind of fraud prevented by such laws is virtually non-existent. One investigation, by former Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz (R), uncovered exactly zero cases of impersonation fraud at the polls after two years of searching.

Nevertheless, Handel was one of her state’s leading champions of voter ID during her time as Georgia’s top elections official. Echoing the voter fraud myth, Handel told NPR’s Farai Chideya that the law will “take Georgia one step further in terms of the integrity of our elections by insuring that each individual who comes in to cast a vote is indeed who that individual says he or she is.”

Handel also encouraged individual voters to make it harder for others to vote. In an interview shortly before the 2008 election, she “took pains to remind voters that any voter can challenge another’s qualifications to cast a ballot by notifying a precinct poll manager. According to Handel, that voter then would be given a challenge ballot and would have to go before the election board.”