Georgia’s Secretary of State Promotes Voter Challenges and Refuses to Extend Early Voting Hours

November 1, 2008 5:04 p.m.

Add Georgia to the list of states where Republican officials are actively engaged in voter suppression efforts.

In the midst of a record turnout for early voting in Georgia, that has led to long lines, discouraged voters and exhausted poll workers, Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Republican, has claimed federal law ties her hands, preventing her from extending early voting hours.

With just days to go to the election, Democratic politicians demanded yesterday that Handel step in and extend early voting hours — as has been done in both North Carolina and Florida.

But in an opinion piece published in the AJC on Thursday, Handel blamed her inaction on the issue on federal law which requires Justice Department approval to change voting law.

Ironically, it is Georgia’s history of discriminatory voting practices that puts it on a federal “pre-clearance” list, mentioned in Section 5 of the Voter Rights Act of 1965.

While the DOJ can take up to 60 days to review any change that is submitted, it has the power to grant expedited review in emergency situations — and Georgia’s situation would certainly seem to qualify, Gerry Hebert, a former acting head of DOJ’s voting-rights section, told TPMmuckraker.

“Georgia has asked and been granted expedited review by the DOJ in the past, so to say because of the voting act, we can’t do this — that’s not really accurate,” Hebert said. “The DOJ has done this in as little as 24 hours. . . so to use Section 5 as an excuse that this isn’t possible, that’s someone that really doesn’t want to make the change.”

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat, issued a statement yesterday that he was writing Attorney General Michael Mukasey urging him to grant expedited review, when — or if — it was asked for by Handel.

This isn’t Handel’s first brush with voter suppression charges. Early last month, voter rights groups brought a suit against Handel after she threatened to purge over 4,500 voters from the rolls because their citizenship had been questioned.

This Tuesday, a panel of federal judges said the 4,500 plus flagged voters must be given ballots — and that Handel must “make diligent and immediate efforts” to inform those voters that had been challenged.

In compliance with the decision, Handel sent out letters to flagged voters yesterday, telling them they could still vote on election day but with a “challenged” paper ballot.

Handel, however, has reacted to the judges’ decision by turning to ordinary Georgians to continue her voter suppression campaign by proxy.

As first noted by the blog, Facing South, in an interview Wednesday with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Handel took pains to remind voters that any voter can challenge another’s qualifications to cast a ballot by notifying a precinct poll manager. According to Handel, that voter then would be given a challenge ballot and would have to go before the election board.

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