Georgia's voter-registration process violates the Voting Rights Act and has prevented tens of thousands of residents, mostly minorities, from registering to vote, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.
Under a policy implemented in 2010, people aren't added to the voter rolls if identifying information on their applications doesn't exactly match information in databases maintained by the Georgia Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration, the lawsuit says.
"What Georgia is doing is denying people the ability to make it onto the registration rolls at the outset, which is what's so problematic about this matching program," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The organization said it filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Gainesville, in north Georgia, along with other legal organizations on behalf of a coalition of civil rights groups.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the state's top elections official, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit. His office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday.
The state told the U.S. Justice Department in 2010 that the verification process is "designed to assure the identity and eligibility of voters and to prevent fraudulent or erroneous registrations," according to a letter included as an exhibit to the lawsuit.
Georgia is among a small and shrinking number of states with such policies, said Julie Houk, one of the lawyers who filed the suit. Some other states that had similar policies have made changes to give people more time to fix the problems, or they flag an applicant's name so that when the person shows up to vote he or she is asked for identification to remedy the problem.
Federal law requires Georgia to keep an electronic statewide voter-registration database that includes information collected by local election officials. The state must also verify the information against databases kept by the Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration.
Georgia law requires the secretary of state's office to match voter-registration information with the Department of Driver Services database to verify its accuracy.
For multiple reasons, the records may not match, including many that aren't the fault of the potential voter, the lawsuit says. For example, data entry errors, typos or misread handwriting can cause mismatches. Hyphenated and maiden names or initials, as well as transposed digits in a driver's license or Social Security number, can also cause problems.
These issues disproportionately affect African American, Latino and Asian American applicants, in part because they are more likely to have hyphens or other symbols in their names or to have multiple or compound last names, Houk said.
Federal and state laws do not require that the information fields match exactly, nor do they require mismatched applications to be canceled, the lawsuit says.
Under the Georgia policy, if any of the information is found not to match, a letter notifies the applicant of the problem. If the applicant doesn't respond within 40 days, the application is automatically canceled and the person must start over.
Minorities generally have higher poverty rates and less education, Houk said, meaning they may not understand what must be done if they get a letter or they may not have a flexible work schedule or access to transportation allowing them to fix the problems.
"This exact match program should be viewed alongside photo ID laws and burdensome documentary proof of citizenship requirements which are all, at the end of the day, efforts aimed at making access to the ballot box more difficult," Clarke said.
The lawsuit asks a judge to rule that Georgia's voter-registration protocol violates the Voting Rights Act, as well as the constitutional rights to free speech and association, equal protection and due process. It asks a judge to order the state to stop canceling the applications of those who don't respond to a notification letter within 40 days and to allow those whose applications haven't been processed or were canceled to cast a ballot if they present the appropriate identification.
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