by Project Vote, Fri Aug 27, 2010 at 07:48:23 PM EDT
A two-year battle in the courts concluded this week when the Department of Justice approved Georgia’s controversial voter verification system that was originally struck down in 2009 as inaccurate, unreliable, and worst of all, discriminatory against people of color and naturalized citizens. The decision leaves voting rights advocates dismayed as to why the DOJ would allow the state to implement this arguably overzealous and potentially disenfranchising procedure.
“Systematic Purging” of Voters in 2008 Without Preclearance
The story of Georgia’s “citizen-check” procedure goes back to October 2008, when the state was sued by voting rights groups who claimed the procedure not only violated the Voting Rights Act, but inappropriately amounted to a systematic purging of voters just before the presidential election.
Due to its history of Jim Crow-era discriminatory voting practices, Georgia is one of 10 states required to seek federal approval or “preclearance” under the Voting Rights Act before changing election rules. In 2009, the DOJ refused to grant preclearance to Georgia’s flawed system of matching Social Security and driver’s license numbers that erroneously flagged thousands of otherwise eligible voters as “potential non-citizens.”
Typographical errors and an outdated driver’s license database were named the primary causes of systematic failure, though the DOJ further criticized the time-sensitive hurdles that “potential non-citizens” had to go through in order to prove their eligibility to vote. The DOJ also noted the system’s discriminatory impact on a disproportionate number of African American, Latino, and Asian American citizens.
In June, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp sued the DOJ to grant the state preclearance for the "citizen checking" procedure, citing partisan politics as the reason the system was shut down, despite the fact that the Bush Administration’s DOJ was first to question the system in 2008.
Why Did the DOJ Approve a System that Exceeds Federal Law?
Under the Help America Vote Act, states are required to verify voter identity by checking voter registration information against Social Security and driver’s license databases. But, as Bush’s DOJ determined in 2008, HAVA only requires states to verify a voter’s identity, not his or her citizenship.
The approval of a law that not only exceeds HAVA, but, in its former version, had a discriminatory impact on voters, “came as something of a shock," said Laughlin McDonald, the voting rights project director for the American Civil Liberties Union in a recent Atlanta Journal Constitution report.
The original procedure applied to all first-time voter registration applicants and anyone who made a change on his or her driver's license, including a name change through marriage or moving. The approved system now "includes all first-time voter registration applicants, including those who register by mail or in person at their county registrar. It does not, however include voters already registered who make changes to their information."
"It was the pool that changed," Kemp’s spokesperson, Matt Carrothers told the AJC. "Again, the process that has been granted preclearance by the DOJ is actually broader than that that was denied previously."
McDonald speculates that the DOJ precleared the Georgia system “to avoid a worse fate in court,” The AJC reports.
“The state's lawsuit said if the court found its system allowable under the Voting Rights Act, that it should also rule all of Section 5 unconstitutional. The Obama administration probably didn't want to take the chance of that happening, he said.”
Though the true reasons why the DOJ precleared this law are unknown, ultimately, the Georgia decision exemplifies how the specter of voter fraud only continues to encourage the erosion of voting rights through overextending measures. Looking at Georgia’s history in election policies, including a long fight to implement photo voter ID, the state shows no sympathy for the potentially discriminatory impact of its laws on its voters. Time will tell if the new version of the “citizen-check” procedure will provide evidence needed to challenge this pervasive misconception. And with the approaching election, that time may be very soon.