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Election Board’s full steam ahead on citizenship checks for new voters
Once again, Georgia is about to require that new voters prove their citizenship before casting a ballot.
The State Election Board voted 3-1 today to approve a process for citizenship checks, which were mandated by the Georgia Legislature this year. Board member David Worley tried unsuccessfully to amend the new rules, or table them for further refinement, based on objections raised by immigrant and minority groups.
Hispanic and African-American activists complained about several provisions that they said were inconsistent with federal law or imposed an unfair burden on new voters.
The new requirements, one said, are comparable to the poll tax used to keep blacks from voting in the South decades ago. Critics said a citizen might be required to pay as little as $10, for a copy of his or her birth certificate, or as much as $210, for replacement of naturalization papers, before they could vote.
“The state of Georgia seems to be retreating from the hard-fought progress to ensure voting rights for all of its citizens,” said Helen Butler, executive director of the Coalition for the People’s Agenda, founded by Dr. Joseph Lowery. “We’ve had many civil rights activists who died for the right to vote, and we really think this is an imposition on that right to vote.”
After the meeting, Republican members of the election board said the rules are fine the way they are.
“It was clearly the sense of the board that the rules as they were written were acceptable,” said Secretary of State Karen Handel, the board’s chairman.
Vice Chairman Tex McIver said the board had already dealt with critics’ concerns. “In my view, we’ve done all that,” he said. “I was satisfied as the representative of the [state] Senate that those issues have been addressed.”
Perhaps the biggest complaint: The state will continue to check voter registration applications against the state’s database of driver’s licenses and will flag those for which names or other information do not match.
The U.S. Justice Department last spring rejected Georgia’s earlier process for verifying voters’ citizenship, which also used the driver database, because more than half of the people that it flagged were actually U.S. citizens. A disproportionate number of the errors concerned minority voters, the Justice Department said.
The new rules identify a variety of documents with which prospective voters can prove citizenship.
But some of those listed items do not currently exist, such as “methods of proof that are established pursuant to the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.” No such methods have ever been established, said Nina Perales, southwest regional counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Similarly, she said, the rules say registrars may accept a driver’s license that states on its face “that the applicant has provided satisfactory evidence of United States citizenship.” Georgia licenses don’t do that.
State elections supervisor Wesley B. Tailor said the descriptions of those items were inserted in state law as “placeholders” in case such documents are eventually created.
Critics also complained that prospective voters could submit naturalization certificates issued by the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, created in 2003, but not those issued by its predecessor agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Officials said it was unnecessary to amend that language because the Election Board could simply instruct local registrars to accept INS certificates as well.
In fact, amending that language would have required that election officials readvertise the proposed rules and vote again after another 30 days had elapsed. They said there’s no time to do that because the state law requires that citizenship checks begin Jan. 1. (Anyone who is registered to vote by Dec. 31 will be deemed to have proven their citizenship.)
The rules could not be considered sooner, Tailor said, because of a vacancy on the five-member Election Board.. Officials wanted a full board to vote on the new rules, Tailor said.
They may also have wanted a board that had a three-vote majority in support of citizenship checks. Worley and a second member, Randy Evans, have repeatedly criticized the push for citizenship checks. Evans was not present for today’s vote.