ATLANTA (AP) — With early and absentee voting underway ahead of the Nov. 6 election, Democrats and voting rights groups in Georgia are staging massive voter protection operations, including poll monitors and voter assistance hotlines, to ensure people can access the ballot.
"We now talk to more than 700 voters on an average day, and call volume has picked up considerably," Democratic Party of Georgia spokesman Seth Bringman said of their voter protection hotline.
At issue is Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp's run for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who would be the first black female governor in U.S. history if elected.
Voting rights groups say Kemp, the state's chief elections officer, can't impartially oversee his own election and his office has a history of voter suppression. Kemp, who has bucked calls to resign or recuse himself, says he is following the law and has made it easier to vote in Georgia.
Prominent state Republicans have called the controversy "manufactured" and said it was meant to gin up support for Democrats ahead of the election. Kemp has also swung back at Abrams by saying that she is advocating for "illegals to vote" for her, which Abrams denies.
The fight in many ways mirrors a national debate about balancing access to the polls with security at the polls. And it has similarly spilled into the partisan arena.
Republicans in Georgia, including Kemp, have pushed for strict voter ID laws, citizenship checks and aggressive voter roll maintenance in the name of protecting elections against fraud and noncitizens voting.
But Georgia Democrats, Abrams chief among them, say the policies are purposefully heavy-handed and make voting more difficult for legal citizens, especially minority voters that tend to lean Democrat.
Kemp and Abrams, a former state representative, have battled over voting rights and access for years in the Deep South state.
Tensions grew after an Associated Press report in early October that more than 53,000 voter applications — nearly 70 percent of them from black applicants — were on hold with Kemp's office ahead of the election.
Many of the applications were flagged for failing to pass the state's "exact match" verification process, which requires that identification information on voter registration applications precisely match information held by Georgia Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration.
Kemp's office says that eligible voters on the "pending" list can still vote if they bring a proper ID that substantially matches their registration information.
But critics say county officials aren't always trained to make the proper determination and the system can be particularly hard to navigate for recently naturalized citizens, because other state databases are not automatically updated.
The law is the subject of a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups currently working its way through federal courts.
A judge on Friday issued an injunction ordering the state to change its procedure to allow people flagged as noncitizens greater opportunity to prove their citizenship at the polls. She ruled that Georgia must immediately start allowing poll managers to clear flagged voters who show proof of citizenship to vote a regular ballot, when only deputy registrars could previously.
The ACLU and other groups brought legal action after reports surfaced that one metro Atlanta county was rejecting absentee ballots at a high rate over signatures not matching those on file.
Last week, a federal judge issued an injunction ordering Kemp's office to issue guidance to county officials to stop rejecting ballots because of a signature mismatch without first giving voters a chance to fix the problem.
In another incident, about 40 black seniors were ordered off a bus taking them from a senior center to early vote by county officials, who said they considered the trip improperly political.
Kemp's office said those issues involved county officials, not his office, and his office was investigating. They say that county officials run elections.
Kemp and Republicans have strongly pushed back on the assertion that, either through malice or mismanagement, his office has implemented policies and backed laws that sow confusion and make it more difficult for legal citizens to vote.
Kemp's campaign called the incidents "fake" and blamed Abrams.
"Any voter confusion in our state rests on the shoulders of Stacey Abrams — who is obviously too extreme and dishonest for Georgia," Kemp spokesman Ryan Mahoney said.
In a recent campaign statement, Kemp also said that minority participation is up and turnout records have been exceeded during his tenure as secretary of state.
"Seven million Georgians are now on our voter rolls — that's one million more than when I took office in 2010," Kemp said.
Kemp's office said voters have several ways to address questions or complaints: a dedicated call center, an online portal implemented by Kemp and an email system for addressing issues. And in many cases, county poll workers can help solve problems on the spot, Kemp's office said.
But a number of voting rights and ethics watchdog groups are concerned that, with the variety of issues voters are experiencing, those services aren't enough.
"It's like a domino effect," said Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, about the voting issues in Georgia. "We expect lots of problems at the polling places because there has been a complete lack of voter education."
For AP's complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: http://apne.ws/APPolitics