June primary data out of three Georgia counties shows how Black voters can be underrepresented among those seeking to vote by mail and yet overrepresented among those who have their mail ballots rejected.
The analysis of Chatham, Gwinnett and Cobb County — done by the Georgia chapter of All Voting Local — reinforced concerns about racial disparities in vote-by-mail as its use has surged during the pandemic. In all three counties, rejected ballots cast by Black voters made up a disproportionately large share of total rejections when compared to their share of absentee ballot requests. There were similar, though usually less extreme, trends for Hispanic and Asian voters in the counties All Voting is Local looked at.
“This is not new,” the group’s Georgia director Aklima Khondoker told TPM, comparing current ballot rejection practices to the racist poll tests of the Jim Crow-era, which in some places, included registrars asking questions like, “how many bubbles are in a bar of soap?”
“It’s the same thing as if we were to think about, counting bubbles on a bar soap arbitrarily affects people of color, arbitrarily affects a certain community over others, as a form of disenfranchisement,” she said.
In Cobb County, a suburb of Atlanta, the gap between Black voters’ share of absentee requests and their share of rejected ballots was 14 percentage points. Black voters submitted 24 percent of absentee ballots requests received by the county, but saw their ballots make up 38 percent of those that were later rejected.
Black voters made up 36 percent of those requesting to vote absentee in Chatham County — home to Savannah — but 44 percent of ballots rejected were cast by Black voters, according to All Voting Is Local’s analysis.
Black voters made up 32 percent of voters whose ballots are rejected in Gwinnett County, another county just outside of Atlanta, while only 29 percent of absentee requests came from Black voters.
For the analysis, All Voting Is Local compared state records about absentee ballot requests and rejections in the June primary to a third party vendor voter file, which allowed the group to suss out the racial breakdowns of rejection rates in Chatham, Gwinnett and Cobb County. June voters who didn’t match up with the vendor voter file or whose race was not clear were left out of the analysis. (For this reason, the percentages in the racial rejection rate breakdowns do not add up to 100.)
Hispanic voters were also overrepresented in the ballots rejected in Gwinnett County, where 4 percent of request forms were submitted by Hispanics, but their ballots made up 7 percent of those rejected. Asian voters too were over-represented in all three counties’ rejection rates, and in particularly in Gwinnett County, where the gap between their share of requests and rejections was nearly 6 percentage points.
The issue of racial disparities in Georgia’s ballot rejection practices predated the pandemic, and in 2018, Gwinnett County was the target of litigation over its high rate of ballot rejections.
How the signature match requirement is implemented drives some of these disparities. In Chatham County, ballots cast by Black voters made up about half of those rejected for signature reasons, even though Black voters made up less than a third of those requesting to vote by mail. The county’s total population is about 39 percent Black.
All Voting is Local’s analysis also broke down by race ballots rejected because they came in after the deadline — a concern that is only being exacerbated by recent slowdowns in postal delivery service.
In this case, too, ballots cast by Black voters made up a larger share of total deadline rejections than Black voters’ share of absentee requests in all three counties. In Cobb County, Black voters, who make up about 27 percent of the county’s population, submitted 24 percent of the absentee ballot requests but saw their mail ballots make up a third of those rejected for deadline reasons.
When TPM shared the data with Cobb County Director of Elections Janine Eveler, she said in an email that since her internal statistics did not include a racial breakdown, she did not want to “comment on any perceived disparity.”
She noted however that the vast majority of all the ballots that were rejected — 920 ballots of the 1081 total rejections — “were issued in May, at least nine days prior to the election.”
“Those voters had plenty of time to return their ballot or to resolve any signature issues,” she told TPM in an email.
Election officials from Chatham County and Gwinnett County did not provide comment on the data that was sent to them by TPM.
Voting rights advocates are meanwhile calling on the state to allow ballots postmarked by Election Day but are received a few days later to still be counted, which would cut down on deadline rejections. As for signature rejections, Khondoker said that signature matching should be used as a “tiebreaker” for when there are other discrepancies between the ballot and the state’s records.
“It is critical that counties make sure that they use everything within their powers … so that everyone has sufficient notice [of ballot issues], so that they have an opportunity to cast a successful ballot,” she said.