Federal Court Intervenes in Handel’s Voter Purge
(APN) ATLANTA — A three-judge federal panel ruled October 27, 2008, that Georgia should have sought approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before using Social Security and driver’s license information to check the citizenship status of thousands of voters.
The ruling, handed down by the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia, ordered Secretary of State Karen Handel to immediately notify any voters whose registrations remain “flagged” that they can vote November 4, 2008, with “challenge” ballots, which are generally cast on paper, put aside, and not counted until the discrepancies are sorted out.
Judges also ruled that no voters can be removed from voter rolls unless a voter admits in writing that he or she is not eligible to vote.
In March 2007, Georgia implemented a new system whereby the state verifies voter registration information against databases maintained by the Georgia Department of Driver Services and the federal Social Security Administration.
Handel’s office had questioned citizenship of about 4,500 new voters through this system while an additional 50,000 had been “flagged” because some of the voter registration information does not match other government databases.
The issue emerged when the Social Security Administration sent a letter to Handel on October 03, 2008, asking why her office had requested checks on around two million Georgia voters.
“Such a volume appears to be much greater than one would expect, given that states of comparable or larger populations have a significantly lower number of verification requests,” the letter stated.
“I ask that you look into this matter to ensure that your election officials are verifying only those newly-registered voters who do not have suitable state-issued identification. If your state’s election officials are requesting verifications not covered by the verification agreement, we ask that you bring your procedures into conformance with your legal obligations.”
On October 8, 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker noting the state failed to submit its changes in verification methods to the federal government for judicial or administrative review as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
“It is necessary that [these changes] be brought before the United States District Court of Columbia or submitted to the [U.S.] attorney general for a determination that they do not have the purpose and will not have the effect of discriminating on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group,” the letter reads.
“Changes that affect voting are legally unenforceable unless and until pre-clearance under Section 5 has been obtained.”
A coalition of voting rights groups brought a lawsuit against Handel on October 09, 2008, on behalf of Cherokee County resident Jose Morales, a Kennesaw State University student and naturalized citizen who received a letter in September questioning his citizenship.
The lawsuit argued Handel not only violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 but also the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, specifically by using the results of the records checks to challenge voters within 90 days of an election.
“Eligible citizens should not be required to jump through impossible hoops to perform the basic right of voting,” Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a press release. “These requirements are in clear violation of election law and present a systematic bias against naturalized citizens.”
The next day, Handel issued a statement arguing her office has a job to make sure only U.S. citizens and Georgians vote in Georgia and that her office has “followed the law.”
“The lawsuit filed in Georgia appears to be an orchestrated and well organized effort to dismantle our state’s identification laws and verification process,” Handel said. “The safeguards we have in place help to ensure that only those applicants and voters who meet all eligibility factors are permitted to cast a ballot in our elections.”
“I have a sworn duty to protect the integrity and security of our state’s elections, and will fight any attempt to breach Georgians’ trust in our electoral process.”
The October 27 court ruling also imposes a temporary injunction to put the verification system on hold while the Justice Department reviews the system. The department has 60 days to make a decision. Should they approve the system, the injunction will end.
The court held that the Secretary of State must provide additional guidance to all elections officials in all 159 Georgia counties explaining the verification and challenge ballot processes.
Handel issued a statement Monday expressing her gratitude for the decision.
“The verification process is an important tool to ensure the integrity of our elections,” she said. “The ruling is a total rejection of the plaintiff’s proposed remedy, which would have stopped the verification process and required that all potentially ineligible voters cast a regular ballot in this year’s elections.”
The plaintiffs are pleased the court found the state violated the Voting Rights Act but expressed less confidence in the court’s remedy, Greenbaum told Atlanta Progressive News.
“We have really mixed feelings about the remedy the court created because it is going to require people whose names showed up on this list to provide proof of citizenship,” he said. “We think there are a lot of problems with the list. It would have been our preference not to have voters provide this extra proof.”
Greenbaum noted challenge ballots are better than provisional ballots in this situation because “there’s more due process” with challenge ballots, meaning voters have a better chance for a hearing to prove they are in fact legally able to cast a vote.
Despite this, Greenbaum said he is confident these voters will get a chance to cast a ballot but questioned whether or not those votes will actually count.
“We’ll see,” he said. “Well be monitoring the situation.”
Some believe Handel will run for Governor in 2010. She previously served as chair of the Fulton County Commission–the seat currently held by John Eaves–where she was the sole vote against expressing support for renewing the Voting Rights Act.
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