With court approval, state continues to verify voters

Thousands of Georgians were recently told they need to provide proof of citizenship before their votes can be counted in next Tuesday’s primaries.

More than 4,200 were flagged by Georgia’s voter verification process, which is under legal attack and continues to await approval by the U.S. Justice Department or the federal courts. A recent court order allows the secretary of state’s office to continue the process, even though some of the people being flagged are citizens and eligible to vote.

As in 2008, flagged voters may cast "challenged ballots" in the upcoming primaries and have the opportunity to prove their citizenship.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp said the verification system is required by law and prevents voter fraud.

“My job is to ensure a fair, secure and accessible elections process for every Georgia citizen who is eligible to vote,” he said. “Every ballot cast by a noncitizen erases a ballot cast by an eligible Georgia voter.”

But voting rights groups say the state cannot justify a system that has been found to have a disparate impact on minorities.

The system will disenfranchise voters who are African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian-Americans and “erroneously flags people who are citizens,” said Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “It’s a flawed system.”

The verification process became mandated in 2002 with the passage of the Help America Vote Act. It requires the state to match its voter registration database against databases maintained by the state Department of Driver Services and the Social Security Administration. The law requires states to verify a voter's identity, but not necessarily citizenship.

Two years ago, according to court records, the secretary of state’s office questioned the citizenship of more than 4,500 prospective voters.

About a month before the 2008 presidential election, voting rights advocates sued the state on behalf of a Kennesaw State University student who had been flagged by the system even though he was a naturalized citizen and eligible to vote. The groups contended the state was using the process to systematically purge minority voters, a charge state officials vehemently denied.

A week before the 2008 elections, a panel of three federal judges in Atlanta ruled that Georgians whose eligibility to vote had been questioned could vote by a "challenged ballot." Under this procedure, a flagged voter could cast a paper ballot and have until the following Friday to provide proof of citizenship to their local registrar.

The three-judge panel also found that Georgia should have sought federal approval before implementing its verification system. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, states with a history of discrimination must get changes in voting procedures "pre-cleared" by the Justice Department or by the U.S. District Court in Washington.

The state then sought approval from the Justice Department, but it declined to sign off on Georgia's verification system. The department called the process "seriously flawed" because it subjected minority voters to "additional, and more importantly, erroneous burdens on the right to register or vote."

After the Justice Department objected, the voting rights groups asked the three-judge panel to bar the state from using the system. But last month, the same panel of judges allowed Georgia to continue asking prospective voters who have been flagged to prove their citizenship. This prevents "both eligible voters from being denied the right to vote and ineligible voters from casting votes that cannot be discounted later," the judges said in a June 15 order.

Shortly after that ruling, the secretary of state's office mailed out letters to more than 4,200 flagged voters. Affected voters should have received notification by now.

Flagged voters have been trickling in just about every day at the DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections office, its director, Maxine Daniels, said.

"They don't seem to be upset about it," she said, noting flagged voters can verify their citizenship in person or by sending the necessary documentation by fax or e-mail.

The secretary of state's office said 671 letters were delivered in Gwinnett County. In recent weeks, the county has cleared more than a third of the letters received by prospective voters in Gwinnett, either by using information the county already had on its books or through information provided by voters, said Lynn Ledford, the county's elections director.

"The people who are eligible, by all means, we want them to vote," she said.

According to the secretary of state's office, 512 letters were sent to prospective voters in Fulton County, 426 in DeKalb County, 491 in Cobb County and 95 in Clayton County.

John Lin, a 26-year-old consultant from Lilburn, fits the profile of many eligible voters who were flagged.

In recent weeks, Lin said in a telephone interview, he found it confusing that the secretary of state's office notified him that he had to prove his citizenship. Lin, who was born in Taiwan, noted that he got his driver's license about nine years ago -- three years before he became a naturalized citizen. When he became a citizen, Lin said, he did not inform the Department of Driver Services, so it is unlikely his noncitizen status in the agency's database was updated and it would be a reason he was flagged as a possible noncitizen.

This has become a fairly common problem, Ledford said. Qualified voters are also being flagged because they may have mistakenly provided voter registration offices with the wrong numbers for their driver's licenses or Social Security numbers or because of clerical errors when information was entered into county or state databases, she said.

In Lin's case, his problem was cleared up before he responded to the secretary of state's letter. His county registrar sent him a letter saying it already had proof Lin was a citizen and cleared him to vote. He said he plans to vote in Tuesday's primaries.