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 accepted the policy last month.
The department, along with many civil rights groups, had opposed the 2008 Georgia law, saying it disproportionally affected the elderly, the poor and minorities. So it was a surprise when federal officials dropped their opposition.
"What Georgia has done is essentially created a new barrier where none existed before," says Kristen Clarke 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.
"The analysis shows 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," Clarke says.
Unlike those in most other 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.
"That's the most asinine assumption that people have been making whatsoever," he says. "The last thing an undocumented immigrant would do is register to vote and be subject to further scrutiny. It just doesn't make any sense and it's a really ridiculous claim."
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 Brian Kemp, Georgia's secretary of state, says the verification system is warranted.
"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," he says.
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.
"Our victory was that we are doing exactly what we want to do. [We are] making sure we are verifying who somebody is and that they are a citizen before we register them to vote and making our voter rolls in Georgia just as secure as we can possibly make them," Kemp says.
'As Often As Lightning Striking'
Legal experts say only Georgia and Arizona have such restrictive laws. But Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in California, 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.
"It happens, but it's not frequent at all. In fact, it happens about as often as lightning striking," he says.
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.
"This is really driven by partisanship," says Toby Moore, an elections researcher at the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina. "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."
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.