The ACLU of Georgia is raising alarms about how counties and the state maintain voter rolls. The group thinks the way some voter addresses are verified may violate federal law.
Earlier this month, Fulton County resident Stacey Hopkins got a notice from her local registrar.
"Saying that if she did not respond in 30 days, she would be moved to the inactive voter list," said ACLU of Georgia Legal Director Sean Young, who says they're prepared to sue the county and the Secretary of State's office.
Hopkins, an activist and highly engaged voter according to Young, posted the letter on Twitter. She had moved in the last year, relocating within Fulton County. The ACLU argued that, under both federal and state law, the county should just automatically update addresses for voters like Hopkins.
"The jurisdiction should be automatically updating their voter registration information, not sending them intimidating notices threatening to purge them from the rolls," Young said.
He pointed to the history that lead to the National Voter Registration Act, which seeks to limit states’ ability to remove people from voter rolls.
“Voter registration lists have been manipulated by elections officials over the decades to try to make it harder, to confuse people, to intimidate people and to disenfranchise people, especially African Americans,” Young said.
Richard Barron, director of Fulton's Department of Registration and Elections, disagreed that that's what's going on.
"All it's asking you to do is mail back a postcard that confirms you’re at that address," Barron said.
He said notices like this went out to almost 50,000 Fulton County voters, adding that the state requires all counties to make sure its voter rolls match with U.S. Post Office's National Change of Address database.
"If we don't have an accurate voting roll, we have voters tied to an address and it could put them in the incorrect voting districts," Barron said.
He said being on the inactive list doesn't stop you from voting, or doesn't require additional identification to vote. When do someone does vote, they are added back to the active list. But, Barron said, if you stay inactive for two federal election cycles, your registration could be canceled.
“Keeping a list accurate is thought of as removing what people call ‘dead wood,’ meaning records that are no longer accurate,” said political science professor Doug Hess, who specializes in federal voter registration law at Grinnell College in Iowa. But he said states should be interested in minimizing any procedure that could risk removing eligible voters from the rolls.
"This letter could be confusing if it causes someone to think inactive status means you can't vote," Hess said.
Hess said it’s not clear whether the county notices violate federal law, in part because the law’s language can be vague.
He said the NVRA could be read to recommend streamlining the process of updating an address if a voter has moved “within the same registrar’s jurisdiction.”
A related lawsuit on Ohio's policy of removing registered voters after two years may soon come before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office says they’re reviewing the ACLU’s letter, but disagrees with characterizing the verification process as a “purge.”
“This is not the first time that our processes have been challenged, and I doubt that it will be the last – but it is our duty to keep the voter rolls up-to-date, and we will vigorously defend this duty in the face of opposition. We are in compliance with the NVRA,” Secretary of State spokeswoman Candice Broce said in an emailed statement.