House to vote on bill that groups say hurts minority voters

By Atlanta Journal-Constitution February 22, 2017

by Kristina Torres, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

An elections bill up for consideration in the state House Wednesday has raised the ire of voter advocacy groups, who say it could disproportionately hurt minority Georgians trying to join the state’s voter rolls.

House Bill 268, which is scheduled to be considered by the state House, would create a 26-month deadline for voting applicants to correct discrepancies in what they submit to the state when they register.

It is being opposed by the same groups who sued Secretary of State Brian Kemp last year, alleging the system disenfranchised minority voters because the requirement blocked tens of thousands of them from voter rolls. That suit was settled two weeks ago.

“We just think it’s really outrageous the state would try to codify a practice that’s known to be discriminatory,” said Michelle Kanter Cohen, the election counsel for the Washington-based nonprofit Project Vote, a national group involved with the lawsuit. “We keep going back to the idea that a person’s fundamental right to vote should not be dependent on typos and bureaucratic mistakes.”

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, said, however, that the 26-month deadline to correct any problems should not be a burden on anyone. He said the bill does not conflict with federal voting rights laws.

“We’re not going to stop anybody from voting,” Fleming said. “If the situation is not corrected immediately at the polls, they can vote a provisional ballot” and address questions after casting that vote.

“I think it is fair,” Fleming said. “Twenty-six months reflects a full election cycle plus two months.” To say it’s discriminatory, he added, “just doesn’t pass the smell test.”

The state used to give flagged voter registration applicants just 30 days to correct discrepancies that did not exactly match personal identification information in state and federal databases. In the settlement, the state agreed to no longer reject those applications and said applicants would not be under any time limitation to correct a mismatch or confirm their identity “unless mandated by a future statutory requirement.”

That future requirement is now in HB 268.

Fleming said he did not sponsor the legislation on behalf of the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections. The office by policy does not generally comment on pending legislation, and declined to do so in this case. Ryan Germany, the office’s general counsel, addressed questions about the bill in a committee hearing but was not asked about the time-limit provision.

Voter advocacy groups, however, said the provision violates the spirit of their legal settlement and will likely lead to more litigation over a system known to disproportionately flag minority voters.

The suit alleged that black, Latino and Asian-American applicants were far more likely than whites to be rejected due to database mismatches. In all, the state denied 34,874 registration applications from 2013 to 2016 due to mismatched information. Of those, black applicants were eight times more likely to fail the state’s verification process than white applicants, and Latinos and Asian-Americans were six times more likely to fail, according to the suit.

The accusations in the lawsuit had been strongly denied by Kemp, who traveled across the state to tout the accessibility of Georgia’s elections ahead of last year’s presidential election.

The verification process Georgia had been using was cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010.

The advocacy groups have also taken issue with other provisions in Fleming’s bill. One would no longer allow Georgians to use federal tribal identification cards as a valid form of identification to prove citizenship when registering.

Another would set new limits on where groups could set up voter information or assistance tables, saying they must be at least 25 feet from any voter standing in line to vote and at least 150 feet from the polling location itself.

The bill also explicitly says polling location managers have final say about who is allowed into the building “to prevent confusion, congestion, and inconvenience to voters.”

During Tuesday’s meeting of the House Rules Committee, Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, objected, asking Fleming for a legal definition of “confusion.”

Fleming said there were instances last year where sheriff’s deputies had to be called to control overcrowded polling places. He did not provide specific examples.

Abrams asked again, “What constitutes confusion?” Fleming responded: “It’s in the mind of the poll manager.”