Secretary of State Brian Kemp said Monday that the Justice Department has given final preclearance to a controversial state system of verifying voters’ identification and citizenship.
The voter verification system has been tied up in federal court since 2008 and the Justice Department has repeatedly refused to approve the process by which the state checks voter registration information against drivers license and Social Security databases.
But Kemp said Monday the federal government had signed off on the program, two months after he sued the Justice Department in federal court in search of approval. The Justice Department in 2008, then under Republican President George W. Bush, first questioned the system and said federal law required the state to verify a voter’s identity, but not his or her citizenship.
Kemp indicated in a statement that the Justice Department approved the project in response to the lawsuit. Both the state and the DOJ have filed paperwork with the court to dismiss the lawsuit.
“When we filed the lawsuit, I was criticized by some because they believed it would be too time-consuming and expensive,” Kemp said in the statement. “However, after waiting for nearly a year-and-a-half for a final administrative decision from the DOJ, I was certain that litigation was the only way to put Georgia in a position to obtain final approval from the federal government of our voter verification procedures. After the litigation was filed, it took less than two months for the DOJ to consent to preclearance of the verification process.”
It was not immediately clear how much the state has spent on the lawsuit and efforts to reach a Department of Justice spokesman were not immediately successful. Check back for updates.
Update 1:53 p.m.: Kemp spokesman Matt Carrothers said the full cost of the lawsuit isn’t known yet. He also would not say if Kemp was implying that the Justice Department approved the system specifically because of the lawsuit.
“Georgia waited a year-and-a-half for the DOJ to administratively preclear the voter verification process,” Carrothers said. “Secretary of State Kemp pursued litigation in federal district court to allow a third party to review our voter verification procedures, and allow us to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act. We’re glad the DOJ ultimately recognized the importance of ensuring a secure elections process in Georgia.”
The verification process became mandated in 2002 with the passage of the Help America Vote Act. It requires the state to match its voter registration database against databases maintained by the state Department of Driver Services and the Social Security Administration. The law requires states to verify a voter’s identity, but not necessarily citizenship.
Two years ago, according to court records, the secretary of state’s office, then controlled run by Secretary of State Karen Handel, questioned the citizenship of more than 4,500 prospective voters.
About a month before the 2008 presidential election, voting rights advocates sued the state on behalf of a Kennesaw State University student who had been flagged by the system even though he was a naturalized citizen and eligible to vote. The groups contended the state was using the process to systematically purge minority voters, a charge state officials vehemently denied.
A week before the 2008 election, a panel of three federal judges in Atlanta ruled that Georgians whose eligibility to vote had been questioned could vote by a “challenged ballot.” Under this procedure, a flagged voter could cast a paper ballot and have until the following Friday to provide proof of citizenship to their local registrar.
The three-judge panel also found that Georgia should have sought federal approval before implementing its verification system. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, states with a history of discrimination must get changes in voting procedures “pre-cleared” by the Justice Department or by the U.S. District Court in Washington.
The state then sought approval from the Justice Department, but it declined to sign off on Georgia’s verification system. The department called the process “seriously flawed” because it subjected minority voters to “additional, and more importantly, erroneous burdens on the right to register or vote.”
After the Justice Department objected, the voting rights groups asked the three-judge panel to bar the state from using the system. But last month, the same panel of judges allowed Georgia to continue asking prospective voters who have been flagged to prove their citizenship. This prevents “both eligible voters from being denied the right to vote and ineligible voters from casting votes that cannot be discounted later, ” the judges said in a June 15 order.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in July that an additional 4,200 voters were flagged by the verification process just prior to the July 20 primaries, even though some of the people being flagged are citizens and eligible to vote.
As in 2008, flagged voters were allowed to cast “challenged ballots” in the primary and have the opportunity to prove their citizenship.