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Panel: Ga. checks should have been cleared by feds

Resource type: News

The Associated Press |



Georgia should have sought U.S. Justice Department approval before implementing a new process of using Social Security numbers and driver’s license data to check voters’ immigration status, a three-judge federal panel ruled Monday.

The 27-page ruling ordered Georgia election officials to make “diligent and immediate” efforts to notify voters flagged as ineligible because of the checks that they can still cast paper ballots on Nov. 4. The paper ballots can later be challenged by state officials if a voter is believed to be ineligible.

The state also is not allowed to remove names from lists unless voters say in writing that they are ineligible.

Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel said her office will continue to screen voters, which she said was crucial to verify that applicants are eligible to “ensure the integrity of our elections.” The Justice Department is still considering the case and the panel’s list of directives did not include an order to immediately stop the checks.

State attorney Dennis Dunn said at a hearing last week that the checks have flagged 4,538 applicants as non-citizens, 3,821 of them newly registered. The state has about 5.6 million registered voters.

Monday’s ruling was a result of a challenge filed this month by voting rights groups that claimed using the data to verify voters’ citizenship amounts to a “systematic purging” of rolls that must first be approved by the Justice Department. Georgia is one of several states that needs federal approval before changing election policy because of a history of discriminatory voting practices.

Handel said state attorneys, not her employees, decided against sending the election changes to Washington.

Georgia is not alone in dealing with voting questions a week before the election.

Virginia’s attorney general told state election officials Monday that they must count hundreds and possibly thousands of federal absentee ballots despite a state law ordering many to be cast aside.

A dispute arose last week after Fairfax County’s registrar said state law bars him from counting more than 250 federal absentee ballots because the witnesses failed to include their address on the application, as required by a 2002 state law.

But Republican Virginia Attorney General Robert McDonnell said federal law calls for the ballots to be counted and trumps state law on the issue.

In Georgia’s dispute, voting rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, filed a lawsuit this month seeking to immediately halt the voter checks.

A federal judge denied the request last week on grounds that halting the screenings could lead to “significant voter confusion” before the election. But he left the door open for the three-judge panel, which issued its order “as a temporary remedy” until the Justice Department makes a decision.
Handel, a Republican who oversees Georgia elections, said her office was already implementing many of the panel’s directives.

“I welcome the decision,” she said. “What they directed us to do mirrors what we had been doing.”

Laughlin McDonald, a voting rights attorney with the ACLU, said he was pleased the panel offered a “strong remedy” to clarify what had been a cloudy issue.

“The court went out of its way to balance the interests of the state and the voters, and I think it did a good job of doing that,” he said.

The panel seemed focused on treading a fine line between the competing interests just days before the Nov. 4 election. It concluded that its directives are the best way to forge a compromise between the election officials and advocate groups.

“This remedy is designed and intended to reasonably ensure that no eligible voter is denied the right to cast a vote that can be counted later, and that no ineligible voter is allowed to cast a ballot that cannot be discounted later,” it stated.

Associated Press Writer Matthew Barakat in McLean, Va., contributed to this report.

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