Georgia’s biennial effort to clean up the state’s voter rolls got underway weeks ago, with address confirmation notices going out to hundreds of thousands of residents across metro Atlanta and the state.
The action in many ways is routine, while also an important part of the elections process. It ensures an accurate and current voter registration list, a central goal for every state in the nation and required under federal law.
But this year, the stakes somehow seem higher. The mailing of the notices unintentionally coincides with a request from the U.S. Justice Department to 44 states including Georgia asking how they remove voters from the rolls who should no longer be eligible to vote.
At the same time, a separate federal commission created by President Donald Trump to investigate unsubstantiated claims of “millions” of illegal votes cast in last year’s presidential election has also raised concerns over a query seeking personal information on voters themselves, such as their addresses, dates of birth, party affiliations and voting histories.
“Yes, there’s an amount of fear there,” said Rene Gordon, a 33-year-old Cobb County resident who recently received the notice in the mail and immediately froze, despite knowing she is a registered voter and had just voted in suburban Atlanta’s 6th Congressional District runoff. “That it’s all happening in the same time period is alarming.”
The notices, however, are a central part of what’s often referred to as voter registration list maintenance. They are used across the country to confirm whether a voter has moved outside a registrar’s jurisdiction.
Every other year, Georgia uses information received from the U.S. Postal Service and compares the list of people who submitted a change of address form (often called a National Change of Address or NCOA notice) with the state’s overall list of registered voters.
It then creates a list of voters in each county of those who haven’t updated their registration record to reflect a new address. It also pre-prints mailers such as the one received by Gordon. The county then pays for postage and sends those mailers to people on the list asking them to confirm their address or where they live now.
It is a massive undertaking, with the mailing taking place on the same day throughout the state. DeKalb County alone this year mailed 33,467 notices. Cobb County mailed 29,588 of them. Fulton County, more than 48,900. And so it went for every county. Officials with the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office said a total of 383,487 notices went out.
Voters who receive them are told they have 30 days to respond, either to confirm their address or to indicate their new one, and risk being moved to the state’s “inactive” registration list if they don’t. What the mailers don’t say is that so-called “inactive” voters are still legally registered to vote in Georgia, have full access to the ballot and can vote as usual.
Some advocates have decried the process as a calculated attempt to weed voters out of the process. But election officials say they have absolutely no intent of doing that and are following the law.
“It’s not a purge,” DeKalb Elections Director Maxine Daniels said.
In fact, it takes years for voters to actually be removed from the state’s roll: Voters must remain on the “inactive” list for at least two federal election cycles, meaning they have not voted or had any contact with election officials for at least an additional four years after the notice was mailed, before they can be dropped.
Georgia sent out more than 1 million confirmation notices between 2014 and 2016, according to a recent report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Only about 6 percent of them were accepted as returned by voters, according to that data. Two-thirds were categorized as “status unknown,” meaning they were neither sent back by the voter nor returned as undeliverable.
Over the same time period, the report notes that the state removed almost 732,800 people from the rolls — about 12 percent of registered voters. Three-quarters of these voters were dropped because they had moved out of their local county, although state officials said it was possible that these voters might have moved to another Georgia county and re-registered. Less than 2 percent were dropped because they had failed to return a confirmation notice.
“Accurate voter rolls are critical to election security,” said Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office. “We have a statutory obligation to keep the rolls up to date, and regular list maintenance works to preserve the integrity of our electoral system.”
Still, that hasn’t tempered concerns by some civil rights groups over Georgia’s method. A federal judge in March dismissed a lawsuit from the Georgia NAACP and government watchdog group Common Cause over one of the state’s triggers for sending a notice: Voters who hadn’t cast a ballot or contacted officials for three consecutive years. The groups are appealing the ruling.
Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia threatened legal action over the notice’s course of action — declaring someone “inactive” if they didn’t respond within 30 days — as it related to voters such as Gordon who had moved within the same county they were already registered in.
State law doesn’t mandate such an action for that particular group of voters, and the ACLU said it believes it goes beyond what’s federally allowed.
“The right to vote is precious, and elections officials tread on holy ground when they attempt to handle or affect it any way,” said Sean Young, the state ACLU’s legal director. “That is why the prohibitions on voter purges under the National Voter Registration Act are so stringent and why strict compliance is required.”
Gordon, meanwhile, decided to return the notice with information noting her correct address. The notice had been mailed to her former Cobb home, and it was forwarded by the Postal Service. She said she didn’t want to take any chances and called its wording “scary.”
“I was like, ‘What if this gets lost in the mail, do I not get to vote now?’” she said. “I’ve moved countless times in my life and never received this kind of notice.”
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