Georgia election officials seek access to immigration database

State officials on Tuesday welcomed the news that the federal government is granting states access to an immigration database they could use to confirm the U.S. citizenship of those seeking to vote.

Yet, it was still unclear Tuesday when Georgia will be able to start using the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program. A spokesman for the U.S. Homeland Security Department said his agency was aware of Georgia's request and "will handle it consistent with its usual process for requests to access the SAVE program."

Meanwhile, the head of the League of Women Voters of Georgia expressed concerns that Georgia officials are about to embark on a "wild-goose chase" with the online database just months before the presidential election.

The Associated Press reported Monday that the federal government is expanding access to the SAVE program so states can use it to check their voter rolls of noncitizens. The Republican election leaders in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio and Utah have requested access to the program, the AP reported.

Georgia officials do not plan to use the database to check for noncitizens on the state's voter rolls, according to the Secretary of State's office. Rather, they want to use it to verify whether people registering to vote are U.S. citizens. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp issued a prepared statement Tuesday, saying he was "cautiously optimistic" about this week's news from the federal government.

"Georgia should have access to this critical database," Kemp said.

Georgia lawmakers passed legislation in 2009, requiring voter registration applicants on Jan. 1, 2010 and therefter to prove their U.S. citizenship. Senate Bill 86 says applicants may submit their alien registration numbers as proof. Georgia officials say they need access to the SAVE database to check those numbers. They have been applying to the federal government for access for more than a year, public records show. Kemp repeated Georgia's request in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano last month.

Asked if there is any evidence of noncitizens registering to vote in Georgia, a spokesman for Kemp's office said: "Our charge is to provide the most safe and secure elections as possible and the SAVE database certainly would be a piece of that puzzle and would help us get further down the road." The author of SB 86 — state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon — said he has heard reports of noncitizens registering to vote in Georgia, though he referred the AJC to the Secretary of State's office for specifics.

Elizabeth Poythress, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, is concerned about the state government's plans to start using SAVE. She said she plans to contact Kemp and ask how his office would use it. There is no such evidence to substantiate that voter fraud is widespread," she said. "I kind of look at it as a wild-goose chase."

Officials from the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund told the AJC they also are concerned with Georgia's plans.