ATLANTA -- The Justice Department has rejected Georgia's system of using Social Security numbers and driver's license data to check whether prospective voters are citizens, a process that was a subject of a federal lawsuit in the weeks leading up to November's election.
In a letter released on Monday, the Justice Department said the state's voter verification program is frequently inaccurate and has a "discriminatory effect" on minority voters. The decision means Georgia must halt the citizenship checks, although the state can still ask the Justice Department to reconsider, according to the letter and to the Georgia secretary of state's office.
"This flawed system frequently subjects a disproportionate number of African-American, Asian and/or Hispanic voters to additional, and more importantly, erroneous burdens on the right to register to vote," Loretta King, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said. King's letter was sent to Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker on Friday.
The decision comes as Georgia awaits word on whether a law passed in the spring that requires newly registering voters to show proof of citizenship will pass muster with DOJ. Under the law that takes effect in January, people must show their proof up front compared to doing checks through databases.
A three-judge federal panel in October ordered the state to seek Justice Department preclearance for the checks under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the same reason the federal agency must sign off on the new law that made Georgia only the second state after Arizona to require such proof. Georgia is one of several states that need federal approval before changing election rules because of a history of discriminatory Jim Crow-era voting practices.
Secretary of State Karen Handel blasted DOJ's decision, saying it opens the floodgates for non-citizens to vote in the state.
"Clearly, politics took priority over common sense and good public policy," said Handel, a Republican candidate for governor in 2010.
Justice Department officials said the citizenship match through driver's license and Social Security data has flagged 7,007 individuals as non-citizens but that many have been shown to be in error.
"Thousands of citizens who are in fact eligible to vote under Georgia law have been flagged," the Justice Department letter said.
The Justice Department decision marks the first time the new Democratic Obama administration has weighed in on Georgia's election laws. It is also the first time the Justice Department has rejected a change in election procedures by Georgia since the 1990s, according to a spokesman for the Georgia attorney general.
"We are pleased with this decision," said Elise Shore, Southeastern Regional Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "It vindicates our filing of the lawsuit."
But Handel said that more than 2,100 people who attempted to register in Georgia still have not resolved questions regarding their citizenship. Her office's inspector general is investigating more than 30 cases of non-citizens casting ballots in Georgia elections, including the case of a Henry County non-citizen who said she registered to vote and cast ballots in 2004 and 2006.
Handel said the checks were designed to follow federal guidelines to ensure the integrity of the vote and that those eligible are casting ballots.
But the ACLU and the Mexican American defense fund sued, saying the efforts amounted to a "systematic purging" of rolls just weeks before the election.
Separately, the U.S., Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the portion of the Voting Rights Act requiring Georgia and select other states to seek approval before tinkering with election law.