By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) - U.S. voting rights advocacy groups on Thursday sued Georgia's top election official, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, accusing him of putting more than 50,000 voter registration applications on hold to boost his gubernatorial campaign.

Kemp is the Republican nominee for governor in one of this year's highest-profile state races, in which Democrat Stacey Abrams is seeking to become the state's first black governor. The lawsuit brought by a coalition of state civil rights groups accused Kemp of attempting to depress minority turnout to improve his chances of victory.

It was the latest legal development this week involving voting rights that could influence the Nov. 6 elections in states, including North Dakota, Arkansas and Ohio.

 

In addition to governor's races, control of Congress hangs in the balance in next month's elections, when Democrats hope to claw back enough seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate to regain some power in Washington.

Backers of voter ID laws say they are intended to combat voter fraud.

But voter rights advocates say the number of documented cases of voter fraud in the United States is extremely small and that restrictions disproportionately affect poor and minority voters.

"A lot of states' laws are solutions in search of a problem," Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, said in a telephone interview.

Georgia is among several states with an "exact match" law requiring personal information on voter applications - including names, driver's license numbers and the last four digits of Social Security numbers - to match state databases.

A missed hyphen or skipped middle name can be enough to get a voter placed on a "pending" list.

Under state law, those on the list have 26 months to correct any discrepancy, and voters who provide a state-issued ID on Election Day that verifies their information are allowed to cast ballots. Critics say the law may leave some people confused as to whether they can vote.

A Reuters analysis of people on the pending list between August 2013 and February 2018 found more than two-thirds were black.

The Georgia Coalition of the People's Agenda, the local NAACP and other civil rights groups filed the lawsuit, which seeks to halt enforcement of the "exact match" rule.

The Abrams campaign called on Kemp to step down from his role overseeing state elections.

"Brian Kemp is maliciously wielding the power of his office to suppress the vote for political gain and silence the voices of thousands of eligible voters," said Abrams spokeswoman Abigail Collazo.

In response, the Kemp campaign blamed Abrams' "shady voter registration" effort for many of the applications on hold.

"Stacey Abrams... is using fear to fundraise and faking outrage over a situation she created," said Kemp spokesman Cody Hall.

In Arkansas, where Democrats aim to flip a Republican-held House seat around Little Rock, the state high court on Thursday upheld a law requiring residents to show photo identification when voting. That measure allows voters to cast provisional ballots without an ID if they sign a sworn affidavit.

In Ohio on Wednesday, a judge upheld the state's system of notifying voters who are "purged" from its rolls after failing to cast ballots for years. The state features high-profile races for the U.S. Senate and governor, as well as a few key House contests.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined this week to block a North Dakota law requiring voters to have identification showing their current residential addresses. Voter rights advocates have argued the law will harm voters without proper identification, especially Native Americans who live on reservations, where residential addresses often do not exist.

Democratic U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, facing a tough re-election fight with Republican U.S. Representative Kevin Cramer, has enjoyed broad support among Native American voters in the past.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; editing by Scott Malone and Dan Grebler)