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End sought to citizenship checks for Ga. voters

Greg Bluestein

Voting rights groups in Georgia again tried Wednesday to stop election officials from using Social Security numbers and driver's license data to check voters' immigration status.

The advocacy groups told a federal three-judge panel that using the data to verify whether voters are citizens amounts to a "systematic purging" of voting rolls that must be approved by the Justice Department.

Georgia is one of several states that needs federal approval before changing election policy because of a history of discriminatory voting practices.

Three Justice Department lawyers joined the debate Wednesday, arguing that Georgia officials should have cleared the checks with them first. But they cautioned against making sweeping changes less than two weeks before the Nov. 4 election.

Secretary of State Karen Handel's attorneys argued that the checks were required by federal law and were an attempt to guarantee the integrity of the vote.

The judges did not rule Wednesday but said they will do so as soon as possible.

State attorney Dennis Dunn said the checks have so far flagged 4,538 voters, 3,821 of them newly registered, as non-citizens. The state has about 5.6 million registered voters.

The fight centers on Jose Morales, a college student who became a U.S. citizen in November 2007 and registered to vote last month. Morales has twice received letters that warn him his name could be removed from the voter rolls if he does not verify his citizenship.

The voting rights groups, including the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, say the letters are a form of intimidation. They filed a lawsuit this month seeking to halt the checks immediately. It's unclear when the checks started, but the groups say they learned about them just weeks ago.

U.S. District Judge Jack Camp denied the request last week on grounds that halting the screenings could lead to "significant voter confusion" before the election. But he left the door open for the three-judge panel.

On Wednesday, ACLU attorney Laughlin McDonald said elections officials should send notices to all voters who received the letters to let them know they can still cast ballots. If the Justice Department fails to approve the checks before the election, he said, then the votes of those flagged as non-citizens should be counted.

Handel's attorneys rejected the claims that the checks purged voters.

"I do not believe it's a systematic removal of voters," Dunn said. "If anything it's a piece of evidence that goes to the registrars to help them resolve it."

Chris Herren, a Justice Department attorney, proposed allowing any voter to cast a paper ballot. Local registrars would then have a few days to make sure the voter is eligible before counting it.

The judges also seemed eager for advice on how to craft a temporary solution that will last until the Justice Department decides whether to approve the checks. But U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Stanley Birch said he would tread lightly, as one minor change to election procedures could unravel other policies.

"We don't want to throw out the baby with the bath water," he said.

Similar issues have cropped up in Florida and Ohio.

Florida has a "no match, no vote" law requiring driver's license and Social Security numbers on voter registration applications to be verified against state databases. If they don't match, applicants get a chance to verify their identities.

An attorney advising election supervisors issued an opinion Tuesday saying they can do that at polling places on Election Day. But Secretary of State Kurt Browning said they must present their driver's licenses or other documents at elections offices before or up to two days after Election Day.

And in Ohio, the Supreme Court last week overruled a lower court order requiring the state to provide local officials with names of newly registered voters whose driver's license numbers or Social Security numbers didn't match government records.

The ruling didn't address whether Ohio is complying with federal voting requirements, but said the law doesn't allow private entities to file a lawsuit to enforce the provision. The suit was brought by Ohio's Republican party.

The Associated Press