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Officials react to rejection of voter checks

By Valerie Baldowski

vbaldowski@henryherald.com

On the heels of the passage of Senate Bill 86, the U.S. Department of Justice has denied pre-clearance to Georgia's voter citizenship checks.

Senate Bill 86, which was signed into state law by Gov. Sonny Perdue last month, requires individuals applying to register to vote to provide evidence of United States citizenship prior to the acceptance of their registration. The law does not take effect until next year, but a system to verify the citizenship of individuals registering to vote was already in place. The state had been checking the eligibility of new applicants to register and vote against the Georgia Department of Driver Services and Social Security Administration databases.

The newly-passed voter legislation is not in jeopardy, said Matt Carrothers, director of media relations for Secretary of State Karen Handel. "SB 86 is not at issue here," he said.

Janet Shellnutt director of elections and registration for Henry County said she was disappointed the federal government did not approve of the state's effort to tighten the election process by requiring a more stringent proof of citizenship.

"I'm disappointed that the Justice Department didn't pre-clear it," Shellnutt said. "With the program we already have (SB 86), it might help spot people who do not have a Social Security number."

Looking ahead to the local elections in November, Shellnutt said she does not anticipate any short-term complications, because voter turnout is expected to be low.

"I don't have as many non-citizen problems with city elections as with county, and state elections," she explained.

Senate Bill 86 takes effect Jan. 1, 2010, and Shellnutt hopes the situation will be resolved before then.

If not, she added, she will follow the lead set forth by Handel's office.

Annie C. Bright, director of elections and registration for Clayton County, said she has not received any communications from Handel's office on the issue.

"Whatever guidelines the Department of Justice sets for us, that's what we will follow," she said.

Handel said the Department of Justice's decision brings into question the integrity of future state elections.

In a prepared statement, she spoke out strongly against Justice's move.

"The decision by the Department of Justice to deny pre-clearance of Georgia's already implemented citizenship verification process shows a shocking disregard for the integrity of our elections," said Handel. "With this decision, the DOJ has now barred Georgia from continuing the citizenship verification program that DOJ lawyers helped to craft."

Before the November 2008 general elections, Handel said she sent out letters to 4,771 voter registration applicants whose records at the state's Department of Driver Services indicated they were not United States citizens.

The letters, she said, asked the recipients to provide documentation of their citizenship.

As of March 2009, continued Handel, 2,148 of the applicants still had not resolved their citizenship status.

In the November elections, she said, county election officials reported the ballots of 599 voters were challenged, because those individuals previously indicated to the DDS they were not U.S. citizens. Of those ballots, she said, 230 were rejected because the voters chose not to confirm their citizenship status.

Without some form of verification, warned Carrothers, individuals not qualified to cast ballots are able to participate in the election process.

"This is extremely troublesome," he said. "What's very disappointing, and frankly, outrageous, is that we have clear evidence that non-citizens have registered, and even voted, in Georgia elections."

Opposition to requirements came from more than one source.

On Oct. 10, said Handel, organizations including the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit attempting to block the requirements from being implemented. Six days later, she said, U.S. District Court Judge Jack Camp denied the motions, and directed the state to continue the verification process.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.