DeKalb illegally canceled dozens of voter registrations, lawsuit says

DeKalb County Elections Board members Samuel Tillman and (from left) Anthony Lewis, elections director Erica Hamilton, and Baoky Vu at a November 2018 meeting. Curtis Compton/

DeKalb County Elections Board members Samuel Tillman and (from left) Anthony Lewis, elections director Erica Hamilton, and Baoky Vu at a November 2018 meeting. Curtis Compton/

DeKalb County is illegally removing voters from its rolls in a discriminatory way, a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court alleges.

The lawsuit argues that the DeKalb County Board of Registration and Elections illegally “purged” more than 50 registered voters between December 2018 and November 2019. It denounces DeKalb’s procedures that allow residents to challenge the registration of a voter if they believe they are no longer living at their registered address.

The issue is separate from discussions happening on the state level over the mass cancellation of Georgia voters who have been "inactive" for several years.

County officials, the lawsuit states, have “encouraged, solicited, and acted on extraordinary voter challenges that extend beyond the routine list maintenance activities that are required by state and federal law.” It also claims DeKalb removes voters “in a non-uniform and discriminatory manner.”

The National Voter Registration Act law states that voters can be taken off the rolls if they provide written confirmation that they have moved. They can also be removed if the voter fails to respond to a notice and does not vote during two federal election cycles, the lawsuit states.

But DeKalb has immediately removed voters — without waiting for the two election cycles to pass — solely because their residency was challenged and a notice mailed to them was returned as undeliverable or not returned at all, the lawsuit states.

The county has allegedly received or considered challenges to 129 voter registrations. About 100 of those were initiated by a single resident who said he researched voters who may have moved, the suit claims.

DeKalb County voters line up for early voting at the Voter Registration and Elections office in Stone Mountain, Monday, October 17, 2016. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

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The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the ACLU filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for Northern District of Georgia on behalf of the Georgia NAACP and the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda.

“Our democracy does not function when eligible voters lose their fundamental right to vote as a result of improper challenges and purges of voters from the registration rolls,” Kristen Clarke, the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement. “With the upcoming 2020 presidential primary looming, it is imperative that DeKalb County and other Georgia counties comply with the requirements of federal law and permit all eligible voters to cast their ballot and have their voice heard.”

Lawyers representing the voter rights advocates sent several letters to the elections board last year asking them to stop the practice. Aaron Ross, a division chief in DeKalb’s law department, responded to the allegations in a Jan. 24 letter.

“In short, we disagree with both your general premise that Georgia’s challenge procedures violate the National Voter Registration Act and your specific contentions that the County Board of Registration and Elections removed the identified individuals from the list of eligible voters in violation of applicable law or otherwise discriminated against them,” Ross wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

County officials could not be immediately reached for further comment Tuesday.

The lawsuit also charges that the county unfairly targets voters who live in cities rather than unincorporated parts of DeKalb. It mentions the cancellation of seven voters who used the address of a mental health center in Decatur when they registered to vote, claiming that DeKalb is discriminated against voters residing in transitional housing or non-traditional residences.

The county elections board, elections director and the five members of the board were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The suit requests that a judge declare the county in violation of the NVRA, and says DeKalb should restore the registration of voters who were removed via challenges and revise its procedures. It also asks for attorneys’ fees.

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