Georgia's Hispanics watch voter eligibility lawsuit

Georgia's Hispanics watch voter eligibility lawsuit

August 7th, 2010 by Perla Trevizo in Politics Local

Advocates for Hispanics and others have asked to intervene in a lawsuit by the state of Georgia against the U.S. attorney general over procedures to verify voter eligibility during voter registration.

Georgia filed suit in June after it couldn't get the U.S. Justice Department's OK to change requirements for voter registration. Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Georgia is among several states with a history of discriminating against minority voters that must get federal approval to change its election system.

The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and other groups don't dispute that Georgia has the authority to determine voter verification rules, GALEO Executive Director Jerry Gonzalez said.

"But they do have the burden, because of (Georgia's) history of discrimination when it comes to voting, to prove that any procedures that they implement are nondiscriminatory," he said.

A 2007 Georgia law requires people to provide citizenship status along with identifying information when they register to vote.

The U.S. Justice Department said the move required federal government approval, and several advocacy groups filed suit because the state didn't get what's known as "preclearance" to institute the law.

Georgia Secretary of State spokesman Matt Carrothers said the state has applied several times for preclearance but was denied each time.

"In fact, the state of Georgia right now is the only state in the country currently prohibited from complying with (the Help America Vote Act of 2002) verification process due to repeated denials from Department of Justice," he said.

Georgia's lawsuit against the U.S. attorney general argues that the preclearance requirement is an unconstitutional imposition on the state's sovereignty.

But the Justice Department says the Help America Vote Act doesn't require states to check citizenship, as Georgia law does.

The department's Civil Rights Division wrote to Georgia's attorney general last year, saying the proposed changes could disproportionately affect minorities.

"Between May 2008 and March 2009, more than 60 percent more African-Americans voters who registered during this period are currently flagged - which means some of the information they provided such as name or driver's license couldn't be verified by the state - than whites," the Civil Rights Division letter states.

HOW VERIFICATION WORKS

Under Georgia's HAVA Verification Process, from June 2007 to March 2009:

* 7,007 individuals were flagged as potential noncitizens

* 14.9 percent, more than one in seven, were U.S.-born citizens

* 45.7 percent provided proof they were naturalized citizens

Source: U.S. Department of Justice

"Hispanic and Asian individuals are more than twice as likely to appear on the list (as potential noncitizens) as are white applicants," it adds.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said the result is to treat citizens differently.

"A citizen who is wrongly flagged as a noncitizen should not have to make a personal trip down to the registrar to show they are a U.S. citizen; that is discriminatory," said the fund's Nina Perales, lead lawyer in the intervention.

But Kay Staten, Whitfield County's chief registrar and elections supervisor, doesn't see a problem.

"(Those who are flagged) bring their papers with them and we take care of them," she said.

"We would not disenfranchise anybody for no cause," added Staten, who has worked in the election's office since 1979.

To add to Georgia's legal struggles, the Legislature passed a bill in 2009 that would require proof of citizenship when initially registering to vote. The new legislation, SB 86, has not been submitted for preclearance and has not been implemented.

Georgia is considering filing a separate lawsuit to get preclearance for SB 86, Carrothers said.