- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - A state probe into a voter registration group that claims to have submitted nearly 86,000 applications this year has so far uncovered 28 forged documents with 26 more considered suspicious, the chief investigator with the Secretary of State’s Office said Wednesday.

Investigator Chris Harvey said the probe of the New Georgia Project is far from complete, noting his office is still seeking information through a subpoena to determine if there are any other instances of documents suspected of being forged or fraudulent. He provided the update at a special hearing of the state Election Board.

“We want those documents and need those documents,” Harvey told the board. “We need to identify counties that have not identified problems and we need to identify individuals who participated in this conduct that involves multiple felonies.”

The probe has sparked heated debate at the Capitol, with some Democrats saying they’re concerned the probe could be an attempt at voter suppression while some Republicans argue any allegations of voter fraud must be investigated.

The stakes are high in an election year as Democrats are hoping an expanded electorate will help them make gains in a state where Republicans hold every statewide office. There are also national implications with Democrats seeing Georgia Senate candidate Michelle Nunn as one of their best chances to thwart plans by Republicans to take control of the chamber for the last two years of President Barack Obama’s term.

The New Georgia Project was established earlier this year by House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, with the goal of registering minority voters ahead of the Nov. 4 elections. Abrams said she was motivated to act after learning there were an estimated 800,000 eligible Georgia voters who are black, Latino and Asian that for some reason or another are not registered.

Abrams said the group has taken numerous steps to ensure compliance with state election laws and voluntarily flagged forms that were incomplete or invalid, adding state law requires the group to turn in every form it collects.

“Essentially we are being accused of violating the law by complying with the law,” Abrams said in an interview.

Harvey said the state received complaints from 13 counties involving the group, calling it one of the larger investigations he’s been involved in over the last seven years. After tracking down the voters listed on the forms, the state determined there were 25 forged voter registration applications in seven of those counties plus three registration waivers with forged signatures, Harvey said.

“For 25 people to have their voter registration information changed without their authority or knowledge is a serious matter,” Harvey said, adding voters could have problems casting ballots absentee since their signatures would no longer match what the counties have on file or in person if another address was used.

Investigators have been unable to reach the voters listed on the 26 additional forms considered suspicious, Harvey said.

Among those questioning Harvey was board member David Worley, who said he was concerned about the way the probe was being handled.

“I just don’t think it’s helpful to call into question the group’s work ahead of the election that may have the effect of discouraging people to register to vote,” Worley said.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, said the intent of the investigation was not to keep people from registering to vote. The board voted unanimously to extend the deadline for the group’s subpoena to Sept. 26.

“When something does escalate to an individual Georgian who is having their signature forged, that is against the law. That is a felony in Georgia,” Kemp said. “I took an oath of office to protect and defend the constitution and the laws of the state.”

After the hearing, state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said the low number of “potentially problematic” applications raised question about the purpose of the probe.

“This is about Republicans retaining power in the state,” Fort said. “The only way they can win is to suppress votes.”

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Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP-Christina.

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