ATLANTA - The Justice Department has rejected Georgia's system of checking whether prospective voters are citizens, a process that became the subject of a federal lawsuit in the weeks leading up to November's election. In a letter released on Monday, the Justice Department said the state's voter verification program is frequently inaccurate and has a "discriminatory effect" on minority voters in Georgia.
"This flawed system frequently subjects a disproportionate number of African-American, Asian and/or Hispanic voters to additional, and more importantly, erroneous burdens on the right to register to vote," Loretta King, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said. King's letter was sent to Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker on Friday.
The decision means Georgia must halt the voter verification checks, although the state can still ask the Justice Department to reconsider, according to the letter and to the Georgia secretary of state's office.
Secretary of State Karen Handel on Monday blasted DOJ's decision, saying it opens the floodgates for non-citizens to vote in the state.
"Clearly, politics took priority over common sense and good public policy," said Handel, a Republican candidate for governor in 2010.
At issue is a system that had been used by Georgia elections officials to verify the identities and citizenship of newly registering voters by matching their applications with driver's license and Social Security data.
Justice Department officials said that the citizenship match has flagged 7,007 individuals as non-citizens but that many of those matches have been shown to be in error.
"Thousands of citizens who are in fact eligible to vote under Georgia law have been flagged," the Justice Department letter said.
But Handel said that more than 2,100 people who attempted to register in Georgia still have not resolved questions regarding their citizenship. Her office's inspector general is investigating more than 30 cases of non-citizens casting ballots in Georgia elections, including the case of a Henry County non-citizen who said she registered to vote and cast ballots in 2004 and 2006.
Handel said the checks were designed to follow federal guidelines to ensure the integrity of the vote and that those eligible are casting ballots.
But the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued, saying the efforts amounted to a "systematic purging" of rolls just weeks before the election.
A three-judge federal panel last October ordered the state to seek Justice Department preclearance for the checks under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Georgia is one of several states that need federal approval before changing election rules because of a history of discriminatory Jim Crow-era voting practices.
The Justice Department decision marks the first time the new Democratic Obama administration has weighed in on Georgia's election laws. It is the first time the Justice Department has rejected a change in election procedures by Georgia since the 1990s, according to a spokesman for the Georgia attorney general.
"We are pleased with this decision," Elise Shore, Southeastern Regional Counsel of MALDEF, said Monday. "It vindicates our filing of the lawsuit."
Georgia is still awaiting word on whether a new law that requires newly-registering voters to show proof of citizenship will pass muster with DOJ.
Separately, the U.S., Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the portion of the Voting Rights Act requiring Georgia and select other states to seek approval before tinkering with election law.