Judge orders Georgia to lift voting barriers for new US citizens

New citizens take their oath of allegiance at Turner Field. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

New citizens take their oath of allegiance at Turner Field. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

A federal judge ordered Georgia election officials to end the “severe burden” facing some new U.S. citizens trying to vote for the first time, deciding Friday that they must be allowed to cast regular ballots if they show proof of citizenship at the polls.

U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross ruled against Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor who faces Democrat Stacey Abrams in Tuesday's election. Kemp, who oversees Georgia's elections, had argued that state law already provides a process for new citizens to vote.

Ross wrote in her order that the state's process wasn't working because some new citizens who signed up to register to vote have been turned away at early-voting locations.

Her injunction, coming just four days before Election Day, orders that anyone whose voter registration has been put on hold because of his or her citizenship status can vote on a regular ballot after showing proof to a poll manager or deputy registrar. Previously, only deputy registrars could verify citizenship, and they weren't always available when voters tried to cast their ballots.

“Allowing poll managers to verify proof of citizenship would alleviate the severe burden on individuals who have been flagged and placed in pending status for citizenship while still serving the state’s interest of ensuring that only United States’ citizens are voting,” Ross wrote.

The ruling could affect more than 3,000 people whose registrations have been placed on hold because their citizenship couldn’t be verified by state driver’s license records. Noncitizens who establish residency in Georgia can obtain driver’s licenses, but those records often aren’t updated when they become citizens, leading to their voting registrations being flagged until they show naturalization papers or a U.S. passport.

Kemp’s office minimized the impact of Ross’ order, saying she modified the state’s existing process for checking citizenship at the polls.

“She decided to allow poll managers to participate in the verification process,” said Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for Kemp. “It is a minor change to the current system.”

Voting rights groups who had sued Kemp said the court order protects the ability of new citizens to participate in this year’s election.

“It should be the role of the Secretary of State’s Office to make it easier to participate in our democracy, not to erect additional hurdles,” said Nse Ufot, the executive director for the New Georgia Project, a voting registration organization founded by Abrams and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Ross’ ruling relied on the case of Yotam Oren, who migrated to the United States from Israel in 2008 on a student visa, obtained his Georgia driver’s license in 2010 and became a naturalized citizen Dec. 18, 2017. He registered to vote immediately after he became a citizen and included a copy of his naturalization certificate.

When Oren tried to vote early in Fulton County on Oct. 16, he brought his U.S. passport as proof of citizenship, but a poll worker told him she couldn’t reach a deputy registrar to clear his registration. Oren got frustrated with the wait and left, and he was only allowed to vote after complaining, being given the name of a different election official to call, and returning to vote the next day.

“As shown at least by Mr. Oren’s experience, it was not a nominal effort for him to vote; it was a burdensome process requiring two trips to the polls, his own research, and his hunting down the name and telephone number to give to election officials so that his citizenship status could be verified, all after he had already submitted proof of citizenship with his voter registration application,” Ross wrote. “This is beyond merely inconvenient.”

The decision undercuts parts of Georgia's "exact match" law, which puts voter registration applications in pending status if there's a mismatch with driver's license or Social Security records, often because of hyphenated last names or typos.

The law has stalled  nearly 47,000 voter registrations in Georgia until applicants prove their citizenship, names, addresses, birth dates and Social Security numbers. Of those pending registrations, at least 3,667 were put on hold because their citizenship couldn't be verified by driver's license records, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of the state's list of pending voters as of September.

ProGeorgia, a nonprofit organization that helps register voters, identified at least 426 people who attempted to register at Georgia naturalization ceremonies but have been flagged as potential noncitizens and placed into pending status. ProGeorgia is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“This ruling really gives some confidence in the system again,” said Stephanie Cho, the executive director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “It gives people a sense of hope that their votes will be counted. This is good news to share to anyone who is worried about voter suppression in Georgia.”

Ross also ordered the Secretary of State's Office to communicate her order to local election officials, update its website with clear instructions to voters whose registrations are pending because of citizenship, issue a press release describing how they can vote and direct local election officials to post a list of acceptable documentation to prove citizenship.

The story so far

Previously: The Georgia General Assembly passed the state's "exact match" law in 2017 that puts on hold voter registration applications that don't match driver's license or Social Security records.

Last month: Several voting rights groups sued to overturn the law, alleging it's inaccurate and disproportionately targets racial minorities.

Now: A federal judge ordered that U.S. citizens whose voting registrations were put on hold because of the "exact match" law must be allowed to vote on normal ballots after they show proof of citizenship.