Politics

Georgia County Admits To Illegally Disenfranchising Voters

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Fulton County, Georgia admitted to illegally disenfranchising and misleading voters in the 2008 and 2012 elections in a settlement this month. For more than two dozen violations of state law — including improperly rejecting eligible ballots and sending voters to the wrong precincts — the county will pay a fine of $180,000. To make sure the problems do not continue in the future, the county has promised to spend an additional $200,000 on new training software for their poll workers.

Voting rights advocates who focus on the region, including Julie Houk with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, praised the Secretary of State for investigating the violations but questioned whether the punishment fits the crime.

“What’s going to happen to that money?” she asked ThinkProgress. “How is the state going to use it? Is it wise to make the county pay a very large civil penalty in light of the economic crunch many of these counties are in? I wonder why a settlement couldn’t have been reached to set aside the money for remedial training to make sure the issues don’t happen again.”

The county, which includes Atlanta, has a heavily African American voting population and leans progressive, voting overwhelmingly for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. As detailed in the new settlement, county elections officials misinformed the precincts of who was coming to vote and when, failed to provide absentee ballots to voters who requested them, and failed to put voters who registered on time on the rolls, among other violations. The head of Fulton County’s elections office was fired last year, which she credits to her refusal to cover up the improper purging of voters in 2012.

“We’re happy that the [settlement] is over and we’re able to move forward,” Erica Pines with the Fulton County Democratic Party told ThinkProgress. “We want our voters, many of whom are minorities who’ve experienced a history of disenfranchisement, to remain confident in our elections system and not fear there’s going to be some type of issue when they go to the polls.”

Yet the problems facing voters of color in Georgia are not confined to Fulton County. When neighboring DeKalb County, another stronghold of African American Democrats, opened an early voting location in a popular mall, Georgia State Senator Fran Millar (R) publicly lamented that “this location is dominated by African American shoppers and it is near several large African American mega churches.” He later added, “I would prefer more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters.”

Last year, during a tight race for an open Senate seat, more than 40,000 newly registered voters — most of them young, low-income, and black — vanished from the rolls. When voting rights groups sued the state and several counties to force them to process the registrations, the Secretary of State instead accused the groups of committing voter fraud — a move the NAACP and other civil rights groups saw as an attempt to scare them away from future voter registration drives.

A subsequent investigation found just 25 confirmed forgeries out of more than 85,000 forms—a fraud rate of about 3/100ths of 1 percent.

At the same time, the state has enacted policies that disproportionately burden voters of color. In 2006, Georgia enacted one of the country’s earliest and strictest voter ID laws. In 2012, the Secretary of State purged thousands of voters from the rolls a few months before the presidential election, and this year the state’s Director of Elections resigned after her office mistakenly canceled the registrations of hundreds of thousands of voters.

“There’s no question there were significant problems in Fulton County, but they’re being singled out,” said Houk. “The Secretary of State seems to have an inconsistent way of handling these issues.”

Over the past few years, the state has also cut the number of days of early voting from 45 to 21. Lawmakers unsuccessfully attempted earlier this year to further slash the available days to 12.

“Our state legislature is so far to the right that they’re introducing legislation every year to reduce early voting, which hurts in particular the minority community,” said Pines. “We always encourage early voting because if there’s a glitch or problem, we can take care of it prior to Election Day.”

Investigations by the Lawyers Committee and other groups say those glitches and problems are likely to continue. Georgia is one of a small handful of states to have a “exact match” system in which even a minor difference between the information on someone’s voter registration form and their DMV or Social Security records can result in their form being thrown out.

“People were rejected because there was a hyphen in their last name on their form, but not in the state records,” said Houk. “They were rejected for applying using their common name, like Tom versus Thomas. This happened to quite a few people in 2014.”

The state is also implementing a controversial policy that requires voters to provide proof of citizenship in order to register for state elections. A similar proposal in Kansas that would give voters 90 days to prove their citizenship is being challenged by lawmakers and civil rights groups. The Georgia law gives voters only 30 days.

“It’s an unnecessary deadline that prejudices people who may not have access to the proof they need,” Houk said.