National group sues Georgia over missing voter applications

The national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights filed suit against Secretary of State Brian Kemp and five Georgia counties late Friday, asking a state judge to make sure more than 55,000 people will be able to vote in the Nov. 4 general election.

The lawsuit comes in direct response to the handling of voter registration applications by the state and Chatham, Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton and Muscogee counties as the forms were submitted by the New Georgia Project, a Democratic-backed group under investigation by Kemp over accusations of voter registration fraud. The suit also covers forms submitted by the state NAACP.

“The state is following the law and it always has, and any lawsuit to the contrary is frivolous,” said Kemp spokesman Jared Thomas, who declined to comment further because the Secretary of State’s Office had not yet received a copy of the suit.

Still, the case puts Georgia squarely in a national spotlight on voting rights issues, raising the question of how it gives voting-eligible residents access to the polls. It comes the same week courts blocked restrictive voter ID laws in Texas and Wisconsin.

In Georgia, more than 50,000 of the paper forms submitted by the group seem to be lost in the state’s voting system, Lawyers’ Committee attorney Julie Houk said. They neither appear on voter rolls nor do they show up on lists of “pending” voters who have been asked to provide more information to verify who they are.

An additional 5,000 of the forms do appear on pending lists, but Houk said some of the forms show the information originally submitted — such as the last four digits of a person’s Social Security number — to be accurate. In other words, the Lawyers’ Committee is questioning why these voters must provide additional proof of identification.

The applications were part of an overall registration drive that resulted in more than 85,000 new applications to the state's voter system.

“We’re not asking for money damages,” Houk said, but instead the group wants “the court to order a remedy to ensure the applications are processed in a timely way.”

That could include mandating either the state or counties to hire more staff to process the applications or investigate where they went. It could also include a court-appointed monitor to issue recommendations.

“We want the court to figure out what the problem is so those people don’t become disenfranchised,” Houk said. The group is urging a decision as soon as possible, since early voting starts Monday across Georgia ahead of Election Day.

The lawsuit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, came after Kemp declined Thursday to meet with the group about its concerns. In a letter Friday to the Lawyers' Committee — sent before the group had filed its suit — Secretary of State's Office attorney Ryan Germany grew testy about the group's assertions.

He repeated statements made earlier this week that no county has expressed concerns it could not process pending applications as long as it received necessary information from a voter.

He also noted that the group gave the office an electronic database Friday morning to help track applications said to be lost. Germany, however, said the spreadsheet did not appear complete and contained no “alleged” registration date, specific identifying information or contact information.

“For all we know, this information could have been taken from the phone book,” Germany said. “The information you sent makes it difficult, if not impossible, for any of our investigators to determine any specific voter’s registration status.”

Election-year scrutiny is not new to Georgia. A federal lawsuit forced the state this year to move up its election primaries in order to give overseas voters more time to return their ballots. Many here also remember the 2012 election chaos in Fulton that included missed deadlines, registered residents told they couldn’t vote and the casting of 9,600 provisional ballots — more than half of such ballots used across the state.

The Lawyers’ Committee made specific note of the Fulton debacle two years ago as it filed its suit, saying it may be worse this year because of the number of provisional ballots that could be expected. The committee, too, has a history here: It was part of a successful 2008 federal lawsuit against then-Secretary of State Karen Handel to stop her practice of requiring additional identification to register to vote in Georgia.

In Georgia, it is up to local election offices to actually process individual registration forms. That includes pending voters, whose applications can be held up for a number of reasons, including the need to verify Social Security numbers, citizenship status and home addresses, or to reconcile a clash with information kept by the state’s Department of Driver Services.

It is also often a paperwork nightmare, since a vast majority of the pending applications involve paper forms on which writing may be illegible or which may be incomplete or missing crucial information such as a signature or date of birth. By law, local officials must mail a letter to the prospective voter if there’s a problem in processing an application, and that person has 30 days to respond. In some cases, however, the forms may also be missing an address, or the intended recipient may have moved with no forwarding address.