Civil rights groups are questioning a law in Georgia aimed at making sure only those who are eligible to vote actually cast ballots. The Justice Department recently approved Georgia's voter verification law, which requires voters to prove they are U.S. citizens. Federal officials had blocked the law since 2008 but suddenly they accepted the policy. Now, other states are also mulling tough voter rules, as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.
KATHY LOHR: Since 2008, the Justice Department and many civil rights groups opposed Georgia's voter verification law, saying it disproportionally affected the elderly, the poor and minorities. So it was a surprise when federal officials dropped their opposition.
Ms. KRISTEN CLARKE (Legal Defense Fund, NAACP): What Georgia has done is essentially created a new barrier where none existed before.
LOHR: Kristen Clarke is with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Thousands of Georgians who tried to register to vote in the past two years were flagged by the system as problematic. In Georgia, voter records are checked with driver's license and Social Security data to make sure they match. But Clarke says the system prevents many legal voters from casting ballots.
Ms. CLARKE: The analysis showed that this database-matching process is incredibly error-laden and unreliable. And because of those mistakes, many eligible voters are finding themselves locked out of the political process.
LOHR: Unlike most states, Georgia's system also requires first-time voter registration applicants to prove they are U.S. citizens. State officials have argued they need to protect the voter rolls. But Jerry Gonzalez, with the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, says illegal immigrants are not trying to vote.
Mr. JERRY GONZALEZ (Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials): That's the most asinine assumption that people have been making whatsoever. I mean, the last thing an undocumented immigrant would do is to register to vote and be subject to further scrutiny. It just doesn't make any sense, and it's really a ridiculous claim.
LOHR: Under the Voting Rights Act, states including Georgia that have a history of discrimination are required by federal law to get any changes pre-cleared by the federal government or the courts. The Justice Department would not comment on its decision to approve Georgia's policy. But Secretary of State Brian Kemp says the verification system is warranted.
Mr. BRIAN KEMP (Secretary of State, Georgia): I don't think we're asking anything that's unreasonable. I think if it was, the Justice Department wouldn't have gone ahead and approved it.
LOHR: Kemp says politics in the both the Bush and Obama Justice Departments caused the delay in getting approval, and he says once the state narrowed its requirements and filed its own lawsuit, federal officials finally agreed.
Mr. KEMP: Our victory was that we are doing exactly what we want to do, is making sure we are verifying who somebody is and that they are citizen before we register them to vote and making our voter rolls in Georgia just as secure as we can possibly make them.
LOHR: Legal experts say only Georgia and Arizona have such restrictive laws. But Professor at Loyola Law School in California Justin Levitt says there are problems. Databases often contain simple errors: For example, if a person is listed as William in one record and Bill in another, his registration would be flagged. But Levitt says instances of real voter fraud are rare.
Mr. JUSTIN LEVITT (Professor, Loyola Law School): It happens, but it's not frequent at all. In fact, it happens about as often as lightning striking.
LOHR: Levitt says fines of up to $10,000 and the possibility of going to jail or being deported prevent most voter fraud. But in several states, illegal immigration has become a key issue, and some suggest that's what's fueling efforts to pass voter registration laws.
Mr. TOBY MOORE (Elections Researcher, Research Triangle Institute): This is really driven by partisanship.
LOHR: Toby Moore is an elections researcher at the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina.
Mr. MOORE: I think a lot of states are going to look at this and see this as giving them legal and perhaps political cover to introduce similar laws.
LOHR: Moore says these laws affect a small number of people, but he says in more and more elections, those numbers can make a difference in the outcome.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.