Cross-posted at Project Vote's Voting Matters Blog
By Erin Ferns
A currently challenged provision of the Voting Rights Act requires several states with a history of discriminatory election practices to seek federal approval before changing election rules. Under this provision, the Department of Justice this week rejected a Georgia voter list maintenance procedure that it deemed both discriminatory and inaccurate, according to the Associated Press.
The decision will require Georgia to halt its controversial "citizenship check" procedure, whereby Social Security and driver’s license numbers were used to check if voter applicants were citizens. Explaining the decision in a letter sent Monday to Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, Loretta King, the acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said Georgia’s procedure was "seriously flawed," and "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."
Immigrant and voting rights groups lauded the Justice Department’s objection to what U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) called "an attempt to take us back to another dark period in our history when people were denied access to the ballot box simply because of their race or nationality," according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
The Justice Department’s decision "recognizes that the state of Georgia has attempted to disenfranchise not only Latino citizens, but Asian-American and African-American citizens as well," said Elise Shore, regional counsel for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Despite the high error rate and potential disenfranchisement of thousands of eligible voters, Secretary of State Karen Handel (a vocal supporter of the newly enacted proof of citizenship law and a candidate for governor for 2010) cried partisan politics upon hearing the Justice Department’s decision to halt the state’s efforts to weed out alleged noncitizens, which she called "good public policy."
"Handel’s office said she is still considering options, including suing the Justice Department in federal court," according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "In a post to her Twitter account Monday morning, Handel was direct: ‘If they think that we’re not going to fight for this, they’re wrong.’"
Unfortunately, Georgia wasn’t the only state that viewed excessive citizenship screening procedures to asses voting rights - despite discriminatory implications - as "good public policy." Proof of citizenship requirements at registration is a growing threat among the states, affecting potentially 13 million Americans that do not readily posses documentary proof of citizenship, according to a 2006 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, which notes that low-income citizens are "more than twice as likely to lack ready documentation of their citizenship as those earning more than $25,000." Currently, Arizona and Georgia are the only states to have enacted proof of citizenship requirements in a supposed effort to prevent so-called "voter fraud" by non-citizens, but this year at least 10 other states introduced multiple bills to require proof of citizenship from voter registrants.
Voting rights experts argue that the supposed crime these laws are designed to combat don’t exist. "We are not aware of any documented cases in which individual noncitizens have either intentionally registered to vote or voted while knowing that they were ineligible," wrote the Brennan Center’s Justin Levitt, counsel for the Democracy Program, in The Truth About Voter Fraud. "Given that the penalty (not only criminal prosecution, but deportation) is so severe, and the payoff (one incremental vote) is so minimal for any individual voter, it makes sense that extremely few noncitizens would attempt to vote, knowing that doing so is illegal."
In his report, Levitt continues to say that allegations of noncitizen voting are commonly (and faultily) derived not from actual instances of voter fraud, but from questionable list maintenance procedures, similar to Georgia’s citizen checking procedure. "The interpretation may be flawed, as when two list entries under the same name indicate different individuals," he wrote. "Or the lists themselves may be flawed, with an individual marked due to a clerical error as voting when she did not in fact cast a ballot."
Even as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a challenge to the VRA’s Section 5 pre-clearance requirements, Georgia is currently awaiting the DOJ’s approval of another citizenship check. The state recently passed a law to require new voter applicants to prove citizenship before being registered to vote, a measure that has been called the most "devastating" of election reforms for its disenfranchising impact on American citizens as well as its perpetuation of anti-immigrant hysteria in public policy.
Although Georgia’s law will not come into effect until January - depending on the Justice Department’s response - the law’s effect may prove ultimately harmful to future voters. Since it’s inception in 2004, Arizona’s proof of citizenship law has already rejected 38,000 voter applicants, 70 percent of which stated under oath that they were U.S. citizens, according to the New York Times last year.
To monitor proof of citizenship and other election bills, visit www.electionlegislation.org or subscribe to the weekly Election Legislation digest, featuring election bills in all 50 states, by emailing Erin Ferns at eferns [at] projectvote.org.