Newly sworn in citizens cheer and wave flags after taking their oath of citizenship. An official with ProGeorgia, a nonprofit organization that helps register voters, said “approximately 426” people who attempted to register at Georgia naturalization ceremonies have been flagged as potential noncitizens and placed into pending status. A federal judge considered their case Monday and said she will deliver a decision in time for next week’s election. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Judge considers new citizens held up from voting in Georgia

A federal judge is considering ordering Georgia election officials to ensure that hundreds of new U.S. citizens can vote in next week’s election.

U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross heard testimony Monday from voting rights groups who say many newly naturalized Americans have registered to vote but are being turned away at early-voting locations because their citizenship status hasn’t been updated in government computers. Ross said she’ll rule quickly before Election Day on Nov. 6.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit asked Ross to order county election workers to put voters who have proved their citizenship on the state’s list of active registered voters.

At least 3,667 voter registration applications are on hold in Georgia because their citizenship couldn’t be verified by state driver’s license records. But those records aren’t often updated until Georgians renew their licenses, so those who became citizens after receiving their licenses are being flagged by the state until they show naturalization papers or a U.S. passport.

“This is insane,” said Julie Houk, an attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, which is representing the plaintiffs. “These people should be able to vote. They shouldn’t have these hurdles.”

Many new U.S. citizens register to vote immediately after their naturalization ceremonies, and voter registration groups send copies of their citizenship papers to election officials with their registration applications.

But some county election officials are still putting these citizens on the state’s list of pending voters, which prevents them from voting until they verify their information. Local election officials are supposed to check their records for citizenship verification before flagging their registrations, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Stephanie Ali of New American Pathways, left, registers newly sworn in citizens to vote. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In all, there are nearly 47,000 pending voter registrations in Georgia because of the state’s “exact match” law that flags people until they prove citizenship, names, addresses, birth dates and Social Security numbers.

An attorney defending the state of Georgia acknowledged that county election officials need to do a better job of ensuring new U.S. citizens can vote.

“Clearly, mistakes are made,” said Cris Correia, a senior assistant attorney general representing Secretary of State Brian Kemp. “Nobody here is trying to suggest we should make it harder for new U.S. citizens to vote — quite the opposite.”

“Approximately 426” people who attempted to register at Georgia naturalization ceremonies have been flagged as potential noncitizens and placed into pending status, said Nick Marshall, the director of data and analytics for ProGeorgia, a nonprofit organization that helps register voters.

One of them is Yotam Oren, an Israeli who became a citizen Dec. 18 and included a copy of his naturalization certificate with his voter registration form, according to an affidavit filed last week.

He then brought his U.S. passport when he went to vote early in Fulton County on Oct. 16, but a poll worker told him she couldn’t reach a superior election official who could clear his registration. Oren got frustrated with the wait and left, and he was only allowed to vote after returning to vote the next day and talking to a different election official.

“This entire experience was unnecessarily time-consuming, confusing and frustrating,” Oren said. “I imagine that many ‘pending’ voters would give up and not vote when faced with the same barrier I encountered when I tried to vote the first time as a United States citizen.”

Georgia already has a process for allowing people to vote when an election official can’t be reached, Correia said. Once they show proof of citizenship, a poll worker is supposed to issue a provisional ballot and include a note that verification was provided.

That process isn’t working, the plaintiffs said. Voters should be able to cast normal ballots on touchscreen voting machines if their citizenship is verified in advance or when voting by a deputy registrar; or they should be issued provisional ballots on paper if a deputy registrar is unavailable.

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