Robert Gates, a direct mail specialist in Atlanta, used his business skills to track down, analyze and eventually reverse a highly questionable voter roll purge list in Gwinnett County, Georgia.
The county is a suburb of Atlanta. The U.S. Justice Department has monitored its elections for potential voting rights violations in 2016, 2018 and 2020.
Gates, the Georgia businessman, did his own sleuthing last year by checking a list of purged voters in Gwinnett County. Bianca Keaton, the Democratic chairwoman in the county, gave it to him on Nov. 1, 2019, according to an email of the transaction. A few days later, Gates sent an email back to Keaton. His work found its way up the state Democratic Party food chain quickly. Within a month, Fair Fight Action hauled Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger into federal court. He folded fast.
“Lawyers for the state said during a court hearing Thursday afternoon that the issue was brought to their attention by lawyers for Fair Fight Action, a voting rights advocacy group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams, which had filed an emergency request earlier this week asking the court to stop part of the purge,” according to the PBS NewsHour. Significantly, the tv news program headlined the online version of their coverage, “Georgia restores 22,000 purged voter registrations.” The report is dated Dec. 19, 2019.
“Yea, those are my 22K,” replied Gates when he was emailed a copy of the PBS report. “I wasn’t really invited to the party, but I was the one that made people look harder and told them how to find it.”
His hard look raised several questions about the way the state computed information to decide which voters to purge. He also found that many of the purged Gwinnett County voters lived in predominantly Democratic or African-American neighborhoods. In his most dramatic conclusion, Gates questioned whether the state complied with its own law, which required the government to mail postcards to the targeted voters before removing them from the voter rolls.
In December 2019, state representatives cited none of these reasons when they told U.S. District Judge Steve Jones that the government would reinstate 22,000 purged voters. Rather, they said the state made a miscalculation when figuring how long voters had not voted or been in contact with a county elections office. The state “Use It or Lose It” law required people to vote or communicate with elections officials within seven years. The law now gives voters nine years.
In an email, Henry Frank Carey, a Georgia State University political science professor, observed: “The voting purges may be legal but are authoritarian, stemming from prior vote purges, gerrymandering, failing to count the entire population in the decennial census, et al. As Michael Kinsley used to say, ‘The scandal is not what is illegal. The scandal is what is legal.'”
Voting rights advocates, Secretary Brad Raffensperger and a state litigation attorney in the case, Bryan P. Tyson, did not respond to requests for comment. However, Keaton said she serves as a volunteer chairwoman of her county Democratic party, which means it is her job to pass along information to people who make decisions. DuBose Porter, who was chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party at the time, also declined to comment. He is now executive editor of a newspaper in Dublin, Ga.
Information about what Gates learned is becoming public as a federal judge rejected an early December request from voting rights groups to return 198,000 purged Georgia voters to the rolls. Judge Steve Jones ruled the lawsuit was filed too close to an upcoming special election. He said taking action now posed a “significant risk of confusion.”
The Dec. 16 decision happens as the state conducts two runoff elections for the U.S. Senate. The winners of those Jan. 5 races can determine which party controls the Senate when Joe Biden becomes president.
But the research the 60-year-old Alabama native shared a year ago surfaced weeks before Georgia agreed to fully restore voting rights for 22,000 Georgians. Gates, who calls himself ”a Bubba with a good tool box,” did more than pass along what he learned to Georgia Democrats and voting rights advocates. He also shined a light on potential mistakes state election officials can make when scrubbing the voting rolls of registered voters who usually happen to be Democrats or people of color.
His tool box led him to detail three categories of potential problems that he found with the Gwinnett County voter roll list. He began a Nov. 4, 2019, email to Keaton by noting, “This is a very interesting list. Here are the preliminary facts and they are unbelievably suspicious.”
He told Keaton about the 22,156 records he examined. The state placed 11,725 in a category it called “NCOA”, or National Change of Address.
Gates informed Keaton that “I ran NCOA going back four years, which is the limit of the postal system, and only 259 records moved, according to the postal service. That’s 2.2%.”
He also tackled a second group of problem purges, which the government called “No Contact.” His research showed that “710 or 7% of them are showing as having moved. That means that three times as many ‘No Contact’ records moved as ‘NCOA’ records.”
Finally, Gates told the Gwinnett County Democratic chairwoman that he took issue with a third category of purged voters called “Returned Mail.”
He wrote that “387 were marked as ‘Returned Mail,’ adding, “Considering that only 34 of them were matched for having moved, I would very much like to know why the other 353 were returned. I verified that all but six of the records had valid deliverable addresses so they should have been delivered.”
The questionable results led Gates to tell Keaton: “”Simply put, the claim that we just have to trust that these postcards have ever been mailed is absurd and should be challenged.”
So Gates, the owner of Dependable Mailing, schooled the chairwoman about Postal Service paperwork. He wrote, “I have attached a copy of postal form 3606 D. As we discussed on the phone, it’s harder than you would think to mail 22,000 postcards without leaving a paper trail.” Gates has been producing mailing lists and organizing mass mailings for more than 30 years.
This experience has taught him that “Normally a mailing of that size would be presented using a permit indicia and a form 3600 R. But, if they are determined to waste several thousand dollars in postage and make it impossible to track the mail by using a meter to affix the postage, you can still fill out a form 3606 D and get it stamped by the Postal Service to provide proof that the postcards were actually mailed.”
In a follow up email to Keaton, dated Nov. 20, 2019, Gates drives home the point. “My feeling is that if there is a need for people to watch the polls on election day, why do we not need someone watching the voter rolls being changed?”
The removal of 22,000 registered voters may not seem like a big deal to most Americans. But a professor who studies elections asserted otherwise in a 2018 interview with APM Reports.
Lonna Atkenson, director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico, said, “In competitive states like Georgia, even the smallest political advantage can change an election. It’s in these places that seemingly mundane issues like list maintenance or voter verification rules tend to be fiercely defended by incumbents.”
Atkenson added, “Gwinnett has become one of Georgia’s biggest political battlegrounds…The Justice Department chose Gwinnett as one of just 35 jurisdictions across the country to monitor” for voting rights compliance in 2018. The Department also monitored Gwinnett County elections in 2016 and 2020, press reports reveal.