Georgia judge sides with state in ‘missing’ voters case

A Georgia judge declined Tuesday to monitor the state’s voter registration process, saying advocacy groups had not made a case proving insurmountable problems as much as “set out suspicions and fears.”

The decision amounts to a victory for Secretary of State Brian Kemp and three Georgia counties — Clayton, Fulton and Muscogee — ahead of the Nov. 4 election. But it may also prompt questions that linger past Election Day.

Diamond Walton, 18, is a bubbly freshman at Columbus State University who is eager to vote for the first time. She applied in August to join Georgia’s voter rolls. She had no idea it would take until this week — three days after she submitted an affidavit in court — to finally get an official state registration card.

The question now is whether her experience is a sign Georgia’s voter registration system works or an exception to a flawed and complicated process.

The judge sided Tuesday with the system, letting stand existing measures by state and local election officials that include the use of provisional ballots. The decision came in response to a lawsuit citing errors in the information being supplied to local counties by the Secretary of State’s Office.

Brought by the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights on behalf of the Democratic-backed New Georgia Project and the state NAACP, the suit alleged the problems have caused tens of thousands of applications from eligible Georgians to be flagged and canceled despite meeting all legal requirements.

But “there has been no failure of a clear legal duty,” Fulton County Superior Court Judge Christopher Brasher wrote in his ruling. State and local election officials, he added, have been meeting “a standard of substantial compliance.”

That legal language, however, seems a world away for Walton and other would-be voters caught up in the case.

Alexander Lakocy moved to Atlanta on Aug. 5 for graduate school. The next day, he ran into a canvasser for the New Georgia Project and filled out an application to be eligible to vote Nov. 4. It wasn’t until he called Fulton County last week that he discovered he’d been flagged as “pending,” according to a written statement.

Pending voters have to provide more information to confirm their identity. State law also requires first-time Georgia voters such as Lakocy to show identification when they first cast a ballot here — which might be hard since, he said, a county representative suggested she mail him a form so he could request an absentee ballot.

“It’s actually been really shocking to me,” Lakocy said Tuesday. “It’s easy to imagine most of the people who register are not able to be as proactive as I am to verify their registration.”

Fulton officials, meanwhile, said they have no record of receiving an application from Lakocy. They also wouldn’t be able to generate an absentee ballot for him even if he requested one, since he would be rejected as being unregistered.

Brasher noted in his ruling that many of the more than 40,000 applicants affected by the suit are underrepresented voters,” including young people such as Walton and people of color. Many are also first-time registrants who are intimidated by the system.

And the system itself, by its nature, is a bureaucracy.

Local county election offices collect the applications and type them into the computerized system. The system then “pings” different databases, such as the state’s Department of Driver Services’ and the federal Social Security Administration’s to find matches confirming someone’s identify.

If everything goes right, a match comes back and the voter’s name is sent to the Secretary of State’s Office. But it sometimes does not go right. County officials must also ping the state Department of Corrections database, which may lag by up to several months in its information.

The Social Security Administration database only comes back as a “yes” or “no” match, giving county officials no help in determining what further information may need to be provided by the applicant. A hyphenated last name can cause hiccups with the state’s identification database, as can unintentional data entry errors by county clerks, said former North Carolina election director Gary Bartlett, who submitted an affidavit on behalf of the voter groups in the case.

Kemp has defended the system as necessary to meet state requirements about voter identification. “From the time this lawsuit was filed, I have made it very clear that it was frivolous and totally without merit,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “Today, the court validated this.”

By all accounts, local officials are doing all they can to ensure voters who met the state’s Oct. 6 registration deadline get on the rolls. All have also asserted they have processed all eligible forms and that there are no “missing” voters in Georgia.

State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, who founded the New Georgia Project, said Tuesday’s ruling is not likely the last legal effort by her group.

New voters such as Walton, in the meantime, may wonder what they got into.

“I just wanted to vote,” she said. “I didn’t think it would take all this work.”