Georgia stalls voter registrations, from Jesus to new U.S. citizens

People lined up Thursday at the Cobb County West Park Government Center in Marietta for early voting. The Secretary of State’s Office said nearly 47,000 voter registrations are still pending because they were flagged as not complying with the state’s “exact match” law. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

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People lined up Thursday at the Cobb County West Park Government Center in Marietta for early voting. The Secretary of State’s Office said nearly 47,000 voter registrations are still pending because they were flagged as not complying with the state’s “exact match” law. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

When a Georgia voter registration form is filled out with the name “Jesus Christ” or “Badeye,” it’s pretty obvious why it wouldn’t be processed.

Other registration applications stalled by state election officials might well be legitimate, such as those submitted by new U.S. citizens whose citizenship status hasn't been updated in government computers.

There are nearly 47,000 voter registrations pending in Georgia because of the state’s “exact match” law that flags a wide range of potential voters until they prove their eligibility, according to data the Secretary of State’s Office provided Wednesday. The number of pending registrations decreased from 53,000 last week after accounting for duplicate records.

The list captures registration applications for hyphenated names, nicknames, typos, citizenship status, incorrect addresses and other information that doesn’t match government records.

Georgia residents whose voting registrations are caught in the state government’s “exact match” system can still cast ballots this year if they show photo ID for verification. Those who do so immediately become active voters.

Several civil rights groups are suing the state, saying the broad net of Georgia's strict matching process sweeps up too many people, especially African-Americans, who should have been registered without a holdup. About 70 percent of Georgia's pending registrations came from African-American voters when just 32 percent of the state's population is black.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican running for governor, said the pending voter list isn't discriminatory. He said the problem was created by his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, who founded a voter registration effort called the New Georgia Project that submitted many incomplete registration applications, mostly from African-Americans.

"This farce about voter suppression and people being held up from being on the rolls and (not) being able to vote is absolutely not true," Kemp said in Tuesday's Atlanta Press Club debate. "Anyone who meets the requirements that's on the pending list, all they have to do is do the same thing that you and I at home have to do: go to your polling location, show your government ID and you can vote."

Voter registration applications from the New Georgia Project account for at least half of the 12,500 people on the pending list from 2014, according to the Secretary of State's Office. The New Georgia Project submitted a total of more than 75,000 registration forms in 2014. Voting laws require registration organizations to turn in all registration forms they gather, even if they're incomplete.

Abrams responded that the rights of eligible voters shouldn’t be hindered.

“Under Secretary of State Kemp, more people have lost the right to vote in Georgia. They’ve been purged, they’ve been suppressed and they’ve been scared,” Abrams said. “Voter suppression isn’t only about blocking the vote, it’s also about creating an atmosphere of fear, making people worry that their votes won’t count.”

The most common reason for potential voters to land on the pending list is that their registration information couldn’t be verified against Social Security records.

There were 39,585 registration forms where the last four digits of their Social Security numbers didn’t match their names or birth dates.

At least 3,667 registrations were flagged because their citizenship couldn’t be verified by Georgia driver’s license records. Many of the rest of pending registrations had discrepancies with addresses or birth dates.

Noncitizens aren’t allowed to vote, but residents who become U.S. citizens after they obtained their driver’s licenses are eligible. Driver’s license records aren’t automatically updated when someone becomes a citizen, and new citizens have to show election officials their citizenship papers or a U.S. passport to verify their registrations.

That requirement created a hurdle for Maria Palacios, who submitted her voter registration application and her naturalization certificate on the same day she became a U.S. citizen, on June 23, 2017. But she still found herself on the state’s list of pending voters until she again submitted proof of citizenship.

"It definitely wasn't easy. I don't think it's something that everyone else knows how to do or has the access to do," said Palacios, a Democrat who attempted to run for the state House this year but was disqualified because the Georgia Constitution requires candidates to be citizens of the state for two years. "Frustration discourages people. They might say, 'Well, I'm not registered to vote.' "

Government records on driver’s licenses and citizenship aren’t integrated, creating confusion among new citizens and election officials about their status, Atlanta immigration attorney Zulma Lopez said.

Inconsistencies appear to be common among voting records, creating the possibility that discrepancies could result in registrations being placed on hold, said Burrell Ellis, the political director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

When Ellis checked his own registration, he found his name listed differently online and on his precinct card: One source listed his name as “W. Burrell Ellis,” and the other showed his name as “W. Burrell Ellis Jr.” Ellis wasn’t placed on the list of pending voters even though his name wasn’t an “exact match.” Suffixes such as “Jr.” and “Sr.” shouldn’t cause someone to land on the pending voter list, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

“It’s not necessary to require the name to appear exactly the same in order to identify someone as a voter,” Ellis said. “Why is exact match being required of anybody when there’s a risk that you might prevent somebody from voting because the names don’t exactly line up?”

The pending list contains registrations held up for discrepancies among people with two last names, hard-to-spell names, hyphenated names, mismatched dates of birth, incomplete addresses and missing signatures.

One voter, 74-year-old Willie Hubbard of Valdosta, said he found himself on the pending list because of an “exact match” error: His legal name is “Willie,” but government records changed his name to “William.” He declined to further discuss the issue.

Even Kemp’s daughter found herself on the pending list because she was underage, though her registration became active when she turned 18 last week.

Those on Georgia’s pending list were mailed notifications from their county election offices if they they had an accurate postal address. Registrations can usually be verified by presenting a Georgia driver’s license, state ID card or other form of photo ID to election officials on Election Day or beforehand.

Georgia’s pending voter list

46,946: Voter registrations whose names, birth dates, Social Security numbers, citizenship or driver's license information didn't match state records

70 percent: Percentage of pending registration forms submitted by people who identified themselves as African-Americans

39,585: Registrations with Social Security numbers that couldn't be matched to the name or birth date submitted

3,667: Registrations flagged because citizenship couldn't be verified

Source: Georgia Secretary of State’s Office

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is participating in Electionland, a ProPublica project that will cover access to the ballot and problems that prevent people from exercising their right to vote during the 2018 election. This story is part of that project. 

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