The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Project Vote, Campaign Legal Center, Voting Rights Institute of the Georgetown University School of Law, along with the New York City office of Hughes Hubbard and Reed LLP and Atlanta-based firm of Caplan Cobb LLP, acting as pro bono counsel, filed suit on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP (GA NAACP), Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta.
The suit alleges that Georgia’s exact-match voter registration verification scheme violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and denies eligible Georgians their fundamental right to vote under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
The complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, concerns Georgia’s voter registration verification process, which requires all of the letters and numbers comprising the applicant’s name, date of birth, driver’s license number or last four digits of the Social Security number to exactly match the same letters and numbers for the applicant in the state’s Department of Drivers Service (DDS) or Social Security Administration (SSA) databases. If even a single letter or number, or a hyphen, space or apostrophe, does not exactly match the database information, and the applicant fails to correct the mismatch in 40 days, the application is automatically “cancelled”, i.e. rejected, and the applicant is not placed on the registration rolls even if they are eligible to vote. For those who attempt to re-register, there is no guarantee that the application will not be cancelled again if the information supplied in the original application was correct and the matching failure was due to a data entry error by the election clerk or when the information was originally entered into the DDS or SSA databases.
Worse, this process is resulting in the cancellation of applications submitted by African American, Latino, and Asian American applicants at rates significantly higher than White applicants. For example, of the approximately 34,874 voter registration applicants whose applications were cancelled between July 2013 and July 15, 2016, with a status reason of “Not Verified,” approximately 22,189 (63.6 percent) identified as Black, 2,752 (7.9 percent) identified as Latino, 1,665 (4.8 percent) identified as Asian-American, and 4,748 (13.6 percent) identified as White.
What makes this process so unpredictable and unduly burdensome for applicants is that even perfect applications can fail the matching process, through no fault of the applicant, because of data entry errors in the creation of the database records, inherent limitations in the matching software and algorithms that are used to compare the data, system glitches, and other problems that applicants have no ability themselves to discern or to correct.
The Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General issued a report in June 2009 admitting that the flaws and errors in the SSA’s voter registration verification system were preventing eligible applicants to register to vote. Despite this, Georgia has continued to maintain an error-prone system that disenfranchises thousands of applicants each year.
“Georgia, like many states across the country, has erected another burdensome and unnecessary obstacle for those seeking to register and vote,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “The Secretary of State’s exact-match program penalizes those seeking to register and vote because of errors contained in databases maintained by the state. This seemingly innocuous rule has rendered null and void the registration efforts of tens of thousands of otherwise eligible voters across the state “Georgia has been at the forefront of efforts to make voting more difficult for African American and other minority communities. We seek relief that will help ensure that all eligible people are able to participate this election cycle.”
“We are bringing this suit under the Constitution, and under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language-minority group,” explained Michelle Kanter Cohen, election counsel with Project Vote. “The staggering disproportion in Georgia’s rejection rates makes it clear that Georgians of color are being unfairly disenfranchised by this flawed and unfair process.”
“Young people, senior citizens and Georgians who are new to the state are being unnecessarily disenfranchised by Georgia’s voter registration verification process,” said Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, one of the plaintiffs in the action. “While it is gratifying to see young people taking an interest in participating in our democracy, I worry about how this process may discourage them from voting in their first presidential election only to learn that they have been denied the right to vote because of an error-prone and flawed process.”
Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta, which is also a plaintiff in the case, is concerned that the exact match protocol is making it unnecessarily difficult for Asian American applicants to successfully complete the registration process. “Many Asian Americans have traditional names which may be unfamiliar to election clerks responsible for entering their registration data into the statewide registration system,” she noted. “Therefore, they may omit a space between an applicant’s first name and middle name, or include a hyphen that the applicant does not use or even transpose a single letter or number. Failures to match can occur when Asian American applicants use their surname as the first name, which is a common practice for traditional Korean-American applicants. There is no legitimate reason to cancel applications for the failure to match the databases under these circumstances or on such a short timeline when this practice prevents eligible applicants from being able to vote.”
“Georgia is one of the few states that continues to disenfranchise eligible citizens based upon a strict database matching protocol that is not mandated by HAVA or by state law,” said Francys Johnson, president of the GA NAACP, a plaintiff in this matter. “This litigation against Secretary Kemp is part of our ongoing post-Shelby election administration monitoring program in Georgia,” Johnson said. “This case illustrates why the NAACP will mortgage every asset we have to defend the unfettered access to the ballot. It was paid for with the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors – voting is sacred.”