Justice Department Blocks Discriminatory Voting Practices In Georgia

June 1, 2009 12:00 am

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A Coalition Of Voting Rights Advocates Challenged Illegal Voter Registration Procedures

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WASHINGTON – A coalition of voting rights groups and attorneys today praised a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to block the use of flawed and racially discriminatory voter registration practices by Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel. In a letter sent this past Friday from Civil Rights Division Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King to Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, the DOJ informed the state that it had failed to establish that two new voter verification procedures did not have a discriminatory effect on minority voters. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Georgia is required to submit new voting procedures for federal review before they are implemented.

The voting rights coalition, which includes the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project, Georgia attorney Brian Spears and the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, represents Cherokee County resident Jose Morales, the Georgia NAACP, the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and the Center for Pan Asian Community Services in a federal lawsuit against Secretary Handel. That lawsuit, which was filed last October in Atlanta, forced Secretary Handel to submit the contested voter registration procedures for Section 5 review, which Handel had refused to do despite the federal requirement.

“We are pleased that the Department of Justice correctly found that Secretary Handel’s verification procedures are inaccurate and discriminatory,” said Jon Greenbaum, legal director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Preventing these procedures from going into effect will prevent Secretary Handel from keeping many thousands of eligible Georgia voters off the rolls.”

The Justice Department’s decision prevents Secretary Handel from using two types of procedures. One procedure flags voter registration applicants and some types of existing registered voters as non-citizens according to information obtained by the Secretary of State (SOS) from records of the Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS). Persons flagged by this process are then required to provide additional proof of their citizenship before they are allowed to vote. The second procedure is a so-called “no match, no vote” rule, under which the SOS would attempt to match personal information provided by voter registration applicants with records from the DDS database or a Social Security Administration database. If a registration applicant’s personal information did not exactly match the information in those databases, the applicant’s registration would be rejected until the county registrar obtained more information.

Shortly before last fall’s election, the Georgia Election Protection coalition learned of the non-citizen flagging procedure from local election officials. The coalition then learned that a number of U.S. citizens, including Jose Morales, had been incorrectly flagged as non-citizens by the SOS and were subject to being denied the right to vote. Because the new procedure had not been submitted for Section 5 preclearance, the coalition filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Georgia, Morales v. Handel, to stop the SOS from using the procedure unless and until it was precleared. The federal court found that the SOS had violated Section 5 by failing to seek preclearance and issued a preliminary injunction pending the outcome of a Section 5 submission by the SOS.

“The Department of Justice’s objection recognizes that the state of Georgia has attempted to disenfranchise not only Latino citizens but Asian-American and African-American citizens as well. The Department’s letter reaffirms the importance of the Voting Rights Act and rejects the discriminatory voter identification measures that primarily affect minorities and other underserved communities,” said Elise Sandra Shore, MALDEF regional counsel.

During the Justice Department’s Section 5 review, the plaintiff coalition submitted two lengthy comment letters opposing preclearance. The comments demonstrated that the SOS’s own data showed that the non-citizen flagging process was deeply flawed and resulted in thousands of citizens – hundreds of whom were born in the United States – being falsely identified as non-citizens. In addition, the SOS’s data showed that this procedure placed a much greater burden on minority citizens than on white citizens. Similarly, the coalition’s comments showed how the proposed “no match, no vote” rule was not required by federal law and would weigh disproportionately on African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic residents of the state. The Justice Department’s objection letter noted these facts in finding that Georgia’s submission did not meet its burden of showing that the changes would not have a retrogressive effect on the ability of minority voters to participate in the political process. As a result of the Justice Department’s objection, the SOS may not use either the non-citizen flagging procedure or the “no match, no vote” procedure.

“The objection shows the continuing need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Absent the preclearance requirement, there is no doubt that racial and language minorities in Georgia and other covered jurisdictions would be subject to new forms of discrimination in voting,” said Laughlin McDonald, Director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project.

The coalition’s complaint can be found online at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/access/39714lgl20090310.html

Civil Rights Division Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King’s letter can be found online at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/access/39715res20090529.html

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