Lawsuit: Georgia voter registration process violates the law

ATLANTA (AP) " 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 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, one of the organizations that filed the lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp called the lawsuit "an effort by liberal groups to disrupt voter registration just weeks before November's important election."

"The verification process Georgia currently uses was pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010," spokeswoman Candice Broce said in an email. Kemp, a Republican, is the state's top elections official.

The state told the Department of Justice 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 number of states with such policies, said Julie Houk, one of the lawyers who filed the suit. Some other states with similar policies have made changes to give people more time to fix problems, or they flag an applicant's name so that when the person shows up to vote he or she is asked for ID to remedy the problem.

Federal law requires Georgia to keep an electronic statewide voter registration database of information collected by local election officials. The state must 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 exactly match, including many that aren't the fault of the potential voter, the lawsuit says. 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 don't require that the information fields match exactly, nor do they require mismatched applications to be canceled, the lawsuit says.

Under the Georgia policy, a mismatch triggers a letter notifying the applicant of the problem. If the applicant doesn't respond within 40 days, the application is automatically canceled.

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 have less flexible work schedules or lack access to transportation.

"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 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 ID.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta and the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda.

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Follow Kate Brumback on Twitter: http://twitter.com/katebrumback. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/kate-brumback.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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