GA SoS Cox Violated Voter Rights, Judge Rules
Resolution Reached, But Work Still Needs to be Done
By Sarah Epting, Staff Writer and Development Director
Atlanta Progressive News (March 10, 2006)
(APN) ATLANTA - A Senior US District Judge found that Georgia Secretary of State (SOS), Cathy Cox, violated voter rights by undermining voter registration drives, Atlanta Progressive News has learned. Cox, a Democrat who is currently running for Georgia Governor, is already under criticism for her stewardship of the state's electronic voting contract with Diebold.
"The Court finds and hereby DECLARES that the rejection of voter registration applications on the ground that they were submitted in a bundle, or by someone who was not a registrar or deputy registrar, violated the NVRA [National Voter Registration Act]," the Consent Decree states.
Meanwhile, a new Georgia Senate Bill 590 introduced by Democratic Minority Leader Gloria Butler would further codify the rights of private groups to conduct voter registration throughout the state. However, private groups always had that right, the courts have recently found.
"These volunteers drive our voter registration in this state and we should make it easier, not harder, on them to help Georgia citizens complete the voter registration process," Butler said during a Feburary 24, 2006, press conference on voter rights sponsored by US Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA).
"Strong voter registration rolls are the very foundation of our democracy and I will continue to fight for the rights of registered Georgians throughout the state," Butler told Atlanta Progressive News in a recent phone interview.
Cox's erstwhile restrictions on voter registration may have had a disproportionate impact on outreach efforts to low-income individuals, working families, and the homeless, who often need advice about, and assistance with, registering to vote.
Senior U.S. District Judge William C. O'Kelley approved a Consent Decree on Thursday, March 2, 2006, resolving a lawsuit brought by The Wesley Foundation, the Georgia nonprofit charitable affiliate of The Nu Mu Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., against Georgia SOS, Cathy Cox.
The Wesley Foundation filed the lawsuit after Nu Mu Lambda held a voter registration drive on June 12, 2004. Georgia SOS Cathy Cox rejected all 63 voter registration applications submitted to her office from the drive. Cox had claimed the fraternity did not follow correct procedures, including obtaining specific pre-clearance from the state to conduct their drive.
The judgment upheld earlier federal court decisions in the case, which also found private entities have a right under the NVRA, nicknamed the Motor Voter Act, to engage in organized voter registration activity in Georgia at times and locations of their choosing, without the presence or permission of state or local election officials.
As part of the Consent Decree, the Secretary of State's policy has been declared invalid and unenforceable, and the Secretary of State's Office has been permanently enjoined from enforcing the policy in the future.
In addition, Judge O'Kelley's order requires Secretary Cox to notify all 159 of Georgia's County Boards of Registrars they are not authorized to reject applications submitted by private voter registration organizers in the future solely for the reasons stated in the Secretary's previous policy.
The decree also requires Secretary Cox to provide written acknowledgment to the Wesley Foundation and to the 63 voter registration applicants whose applications her office rejected that the Foundation, Nu Mu Lambda, and its volunteers and members did not engage in any improper conduct or violate any law in connection with their voter registration drives.
"We are very pleased to conclude this matter," Secretary Cox's Office said in a written statement prepared for Atlanta Progressive News. "As we look to the upcoming 2006 election cycle, we will be putting policies and regulations in place to assure that Georgians are able to conveniently register to vote and that their personal information is kept secure."
Yet, the matter is far from over. The Georgia State Election Board (SEB), of which Cox is an influential member, is creating new obstacles to the voter registration process.
While the federal case upholding an organization's right to conduct voter registration drives has been resolved, other local and state issues are still pending.
For instance, The Wesley Foundation also filed a proposal to the Georgia SEB in August 2005 to help ensure the confidentiality and timely submission of voter registration forms, without unnecessarily interfering with private groups' ability to assist citizens with voter registration.
By law, the SEB must consider the proposal and affirm or deny it within a 30 day period, Bradley Heard, board member of The Wesley Foundation and Acting Attorney on the case, told Atlanta Progressive News. Yet in March 2006, nearly 6 months later, "the SEB refused to even consider the Wesley Foundation's proposal," Heard said.
Some of the issues still looming in the case now in accord with the Georgia SEB are the Board's stipulations (1) to require voter registration applications submitted by private groups be sealed, (2) to not allow private groups to photocopy applications, and (3) to require all applications be submitted 3 days after the application was completed.
First, these stipulations prevent volunteers from being able to help someone fill out the form. Second, it keeps groups from being able to contact voters again for get-out-the-vote drives. Third, it places an undue burden on groups to turn the forms in during an arbitrary three-day limit.
Some headway was made at the March 8, 2006, SEB Meeting, when the SEB agreed to amend their rule and comply to the NVRA, which only requires a 10-day period to submit completed applications.
"Our primary focus has always been to ensure that Georgians who take the time to fill out voter registration forms are in fact added to the registration system and that their personal information does not fall into the wrong hands," Cox's statement said.
Heard claims that Cox's privacy concerns are unfounded in this case. "By law, all the information on a voter registration application is public information except for an applicant's Social Security Number (SSN). However, the 11th Circuit has just ruled that the SOS is prohibited by Federal law from requiring the SSN on a voter registration application anyhow," Heard said.
Georgia State Senator Gloria Butler is not waiting on the SEB, however.
Her Senate Bill 590 would codify The Wesley Foundation's proposals. The bill is in direct response to the rules adopted by the SEB that restrict the ability of individuals and private groups to easily register new voters, Butler advised.
Butler said there was a hearing on the bill on Tuesday, March 7, 2006, but the committee failed to take a vote. Butler is now trying to find a bill that is within the same Georgia Code to attach her bill to. She hopes that, one way or another, the content of her proposals will at least go to the floor so they will have a chance to be discussed.
This article may be reprinted in full at no cost where Atlanta Progressive News is credited.