Ga. Secretary of State Asks DOJ to OK Discriminatory Voter Verification Procedure

Cross posted to Project Vote's Voting Matters Blog A Georgia voter list maintenance procedure that the Department of Justice shut down as “discriminatory” in May is being brought up again by Secretary of State Karen Handel, who asked the Department to reconsider its decision and grant preclearance last Wednesday. This appeal has brought the disappointment of voting rights advocates and, if successful, could result in the disenfranchisement of thousands of legitimate voters.

Georgia has been under scrutiny since October 2008, when voting rights groups sued over list checking procedures that they said “amounted to a `systematic purging' of voter rolls just weeks before the election,” the Associated Press reported on August 13. Georgia is one of several states that is required to seek “federal approval before changing election rules because of a history of discriminatory Jim Crow-era voting practices.” The “systematic purging” was a procedure to verify citizenship of voter applicants by comparing Social Security and driver's license numbers. Those who were not verified were then required to take further steps to prove citizenship.

In May 2009, however, the DOJ found that the system was not only in violation of federal law, but also “seriously flawed,” erroneously flagging a disproportionate number of African-American, Latino, and Asian-American citizens as ineligible voters. In a letter to Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division Loretta King explained that the state's citizen checking procedure was inaccurate, unreliable, and worse, discriminatory.

According to King's letter, 7,007 registrants and voters had been flagged as potential non-citizens, more than half of whom were wrongfully challenged and required to go through extra, time-sensitive hurdles to prove that they are indeed eligible to vote. “Perhaps the most telling statistic concerns the effect of the verification process on native born citizens,” she wrote. “Of those persons erroneously identified as non-citizens, 14.9 percent, more than one in seven, established eligibility with a birth certificate, showing they were born in this country. Another 45.7 percent provided proof that they were naturalized citizens, suggesting that the driver's license data base is not current for recently naturalized citizens.”

In addition to its reliance on outdated databases to verify citizenship, King pointed out Georgia's system could also have been thwarted by even a transposition of one digit in a driver's license number, leading “to an erroneous notation of a non-match across all compared fields.”

In a press release, Secretary Handel said she “strongly disagreed” with the Justice Department's decision and does “not believe there is anything discriminatory in verifying voter information and citizenship.” Handel, who is also a candidate for governor in 2010,  has long supported controversial election reform measures in the state, including the current photo voter ID law and a newly enacted proof-of-citizenship measure.

The Mexican Legal Defense Educational Fund is one of the groups that sued the state last fall, protecting “thousands of Georgia voters from incorrectly being flagged as ineligible to cast a ballot,” according to the group's Web site.  In an Associated Press report, MALDEF regional counsel Elise Shore denounced Secretary Handel's appeal.

“We are disappointed that the Secretary of State has chosen to defend a flawed, unreliable database system that creates barriers to voting,” she said.