New citizens hit roadblock trying to vote in Georgia

Hundreds of new Georgia voters are either missing from voting rolls or have been required to prove they are citizens before their vote will be counted, according to a legal advocacy group that asked Wednesday for state intervention.

The call for help came less than a week before Election Day, when many of these voters — newly naturalized American citizens — wanted to cast their first ballots in a U.S. election.

A spokesman for Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp verified the secretary received the request for intervention from the group, the Atlanta-based Asian American Legal Advocacy Center. An inquiry has begun. “Any allegations like this we take very seriously,” Kemp spokesman Jared Thomas said.

It’s not clear whether all counties met a state deadline late last week to process registration applications. Doing so gets a voter onto state rolls, allowing elections officials to confirm they can vote. A second issue involves voters who got flagged in the application process or while trying to vote. Whether the problem goes beyond those registered by the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center is uncertain.

State law allows “challenged” voters to cast provisional ballots, although they must present documents proving citizenship either at the polls or at a separate hearing before those ballots officially count.

“This is my first election I wanted to vote in because a lot of my college is riding on it,” said Sherane Barnett, a 19-year-old University of West Georgia student.

Barnett, who lives in Gwinnett County, is from Canada but became a U.S. citizen in September.

“I haven’t been told anything except that I’m challenged,” she said.

Barnett is among more than 1,430 voters registered recently by the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the civic participation of Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Asian-ethnic refugees in Georgia and the Southeast. The center’s executive director, Helen Kim Ho, said Wednesday that 574 of those voters were either being challenged or their registrations had apparently not been processed .

In the letter to Kemp, Ho said the center had received a large number of calls from people who had not received registration cards or any other notice from the Secretary of State’s Office or county elections offices.

“That prompted our office to check on the registration status of every single new voter registrant whose information we had on file,” Ho said in the letter. The center then conducted a form-by-form review, discovering that 292 applicants had not been processed as of Tuesday. Center staff then confirmed its numbers by checking the secretary of state’s My Voter Page website and by calling different county election offices

“These are people who want to vote,” Ho told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There seems to be a lack of commitment in getting new people and new citizens through the system.”

Ho said a majority of unprocessed applications involved Fulton County, where 139 voters did not appear in the rolls, with others in Gwinnett (47 voters), DeKalb (24 voters) and Cobb (19 voters) counties. She asked Kemp on Wednesday to find out what happened and to clear the way.

She also asked that local officials be given clear instructions about how challenged voters may cast ballots, given contradictory information received by the center when it called local elections offices to verify the provisional ballot process. Ho said 282 voters registered by her group were being challenged.

Thomas said Kemp sent a memo last week to local officials outlining how they should handle provisional ballots.

While voter ID laws have raised concerns among voting advocates across the nation that some eligible voters would not be allowed to cast ballots, Georgia’s version of the ID law had no role in the problems identified by Ho.

Officials from Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett were not sure Wednesday what happened. The Fulton County elections office did not respond to written questions.

Beth Kish, the registration manager for Cobb, said there may have been data-entry problems, such as workers misreading applicants’ handwriting and misspelling names. Since Ho’s group initially sent the voter applications in bulk to Kemp’s office, the problem could also be that the state didn’t forward all the applications to the counties.

Elections officials said anyone who can’t verify their registration should call their county elections office. If they can’t work out the issue by Tuesday, they may still go to a polling site.

“If they’ve got reason to believe they should be in the database, and they can’t get anything else worked out, they need to vote provisionally,” Gwinnett spokesman Joe Sorenson said. Those ballots, however, won’t be counted if their application does not turn up immediately after the election.

The state verifies citizenship by checking voter registration applications against records held by the Georgia Department of Driver Services or the federal Social Security Administration.

Four years ago, the state told at least 4,770 Georgia voters to use provisional ballots in the November presidential election because their citizenship was in question. Of those, more than 200 ballots were not counted. Still, more than 3.9 million ballots were cast in that election.

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