By Tim Reid and Grant Smith
ATLANTA/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fabiola Diaz, 18, sits in the food court of her Georgia high school and meticulously fills out a voter registration form.
Driver’s license in one hand, she carefully writes her license number in the box provided, her first name, last name, address, her eyes switching from license to the paper form and back again to ensure every last detail, down to hyphens and suffixes, is absolutely correct.
Diaz, and the voting rights activists holding a voter registration drive at South Cobb High School in northern Atlanta, know why it is so important not to make an error.
A law passed by the Republican-controlled Georgia state legislature last year requires that all of the letters and numbers of the applicant's name, date of birth, driver’s license number and last four digits of their Social Security number exactly match the same letters and numbers in the motor vehicle department or Social Security databases.
The tiniest discrepancy on a registration form places them on a “pending” voter list that could deter people from voting. A Reuters analysis of Georgia's pending voter list, obtained through a public records request, found that black voters landed on the list at a far higher rate than white voters even though a majority of Georgia's voters are white.
Both voting rights activists and Georgia's state government say the reason for this is that blacks more frequently fill out paper forms than whites, who are more likely to do them online. Paper forms are more prone to human error, both sides agree. But they disagree on whether the errors are made by those filling out the forms or officials processing the forms.
Republicans say the aim of the "exact match" law is to prevent voter fraud. Voting rights groups, however, object to an inadvertent error creating an obstacle to a person’s fundamental right to vote.
Democrats and voting rights groups say the exact match law could make the difference in a tight congressional election, like the one in Georgia's 6th congressional district in November, as blacks tend to vote for the Democratic Party. If Democrats can gain 24 seats they will be able to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives and block President Donald Trump's legislative agenda.
A few thousand votes could decide the race in the 6th district. In a special election there last year, Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff by just over 9,000 votes, out of about 260,000 cast. Trump won the northern Atlanta district by 1 percent of the vote in 2016.
The Democratic Party has said that changes to voting laws in Republican-controlled states are part of a concerted effort to reduce turnout among particular groups of voters on election day. Republicans deny that the voting laws are discriminatory and say they are intended to reduce fraudulent votes.
In Georgia, exact match was state policy for several years. The state was sued over the policy and settled the case in February 2017. Later in the year the Republican-controlled statehouse made it law, with some changes. That new law will be in effect for the first time in statewide elections this November.
Under the new law, voters placed on the list do have 26 months to rectify any error, and if they present a valid ID card at a polling place, they can vote. But voting activists say many people may not realize they are on the pending list in the first place.
When a voter on a pending list checks their personal voter page on the Georgia Secretary of State’s website, it tells them to check their status with county officials. Nowhere does it inform the voter that they have been placed in pending status.
Voting groups say some minority voters don’t have access to the state’s website as they do not own computers. Additionally, based on past experiences with exact match, they say temporary poll workers sometimes do not know how to fix errors or what pending status actually means.
Ohio and Florida are the only other states to implement exact match provisions since 2008, according to the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, which advocates for voting rights and fair elections.
More than 82 percent of the roughly 56,000 voter registrants given “pending” voter status in Georgia between August 2013 and February 2018 were there because they had fallen foul of the exact match policy, according to state data reviewed by Reuters. (Graphic https://tmsnrt.rs/2H9ZFZ7)
In a state where roughly 31 percent of residents are African American, nearly 72 percent of those on that list were African American. Just under 10 percent of the people on the list were white although, according to 2016 U.S. Census data, 54 percent of Georgia's population are white non-Hispanics.
Voting rights groups say based on their experience of previous elections, the practice of exact match sows confusion, suppressing turnout, and that overstretched county workers are more likely to add a voter to a pending list to save time and meet deadlines.
Brian Kemp, Georgia's Republican secretary of state, manages the state's elections. He argues the state's exact-match law is fair. Candice Broce, a spokesperson for Kemp, said more blacks end up on the pending voter list than whites because black voters used paper registrations more often than white voters.
THE PROBLEM WITH PAPER
Georgia contends that more than twice as many black residents registered to vote by paper than did white residents, and that substantially all of the pending voters came from paper registrations.
Broce blamed voter registration groups such as the New Georgia Project, which held the registration drive at Diaz's high school, for registering voters predominately with paper forms, and then turning in "incomplete, illegible, or fraudulent forms," which skews the data.
Broce added there was no significant racial disparity in voters landing on the pending list when they registered online. She said the issue "is limited to paper applications."
Nse Ufot, executive director of New Georgia Project, called Broce's comments "ridiculous" and said the problem was most likely caused by human error during the state's transcription of the data on the paper forms to a computer. Errors occur because the counties, who record registrations, are short-staffed, workers are improperly trained, and often in a hurry to make election deadlines, she said.
Voting rights could become a flashpoint in this November’s race for governor in Georgia.
Kemp, the secretary of state, is running for office, as is Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic House minority leader in Georgia’s state assembly and the founder of the New Georgia Project. The two have clashed in the past, with Kemp accusing the group of voter fraud, and Abrams accusing Kemp of voter suppression.
(Reporting by Tim Reid and Grant Smith; Editing by Damon Darlin and Ross Colvin)