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Democrats fight Karen Handel to stay on ballot

For the time being, put aside concerns about Georgia's voter ID law and electronic ballot machines — and start worrying about a whole new set of election shenanigans perpetrated by Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel.

At least that's what the state's Democrats say you ought to worry about.

Over the past year, they argue, Handel has been engaged in partisan maneuvers to keep Democratic candidates off the ballot, block new citizens from registering to vote and trim likely Democratic voters from voter rolls.

Earlier this month, her office was rapped by the Department of Justice for submitting nearly 2 million requests for ID verification to the Social Security Administration – a staggering number that's far more than any other state and represents about 40 percent of all registered voters in Georgia. Her office has disputed that figure but hasn't said yet what the correct number is.

"The GOP is using every tactic to try to suppress votes," says Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon. "Voter ID is just one part of that effort."

Handel's other actions involve challenging Democratic candidates for office and looking for ways to purge registered voters, Brown says.

Consider the example of state Senate District 13. Joe Carter, the Republican incumbent from Tifton, drew no opposition – either from Democrats or within his own party – in his bid for re-election. After the July 15 primary, however, Carter alerted Handel's office that he was withdrawing from the Senate race in favor of running for a local judgeship. That left District 13 with no candidates on the ballot.

So Handel decided to reopen qualifying – but only for Republicans. Democrats weren't given the chance to field a candidate for the newly open seat.

Handel made what seems a contradictory decision regarding House District 80 in DeKalb County. There, businessman Keith Gross was the only Democrat to qualify against Republican incumbent Mike Jacobs. A day before the primary, Handel ruled that Gross didn't live in the district. But she didn't reopen qualifying for Democrats, who suddenly found themselves without a candidate.

And when would-be Democrat Michelle Conlon opted to run as an independent, Handel initially tried to disallow hundreds of petitions she'd gathered, arguing that a page containing dozens of signatures could be thrown out if a single signer was a nonresident. Handel backed down after the candidate challenged the ruling; Conlon will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Handel's spokesman, Matt Carrothers, says his boss reopened only GOP qualifying in Senate District 13 because there hadn't been a Democratic primary for the seat. And, although both parties had held primaries in House District 80, the Democratic candidate didn't step aside, but was removed.

There are small distinctions between these similar cases, but state law didn't dictate Handel's decisions. Former Gov. Roy Barnes recalls that in his first state Senate race, the Republican incumbent was killed in a car wreck shortly after the primary. The then-secretary of state, a Democrat, reopened qualifying for both parties.

"I wasn't happy about that situation," Barnes says, "but I respected the decision because it was fair and inclusive. The secretary of state has discretion that should be used fairly and impartially. The matters of ballot access and the right to vote should not be subject to partisanship."

As of press time, Handel's office was still locked in a legal battle over her attempts to bar Public Service Commission candidate Jim Powell from the ballot. Days before the primary, Handel argued before a judge that Powell, a Democrat, didn't meet the residency requirement because his homestead exemption was for a house outside the district. The judge disagreed on the grounds that Powell had attempted to change his exemption in 2007 and all other evidence confirms he lives within the district.

Handel took the unusual stance of ignoring the judge's determination and had notices posted at polls announcing that votes for Powell would be void. But Powell won the Democratic primary and Handel's decision was subsequently overturned in Fulton County Superior Court. Still, she's refused to give up. The Georgia Supreme Court heard her appeal on Monday and is expected to issue a final ruling before the Nov. 4 election.

But the broadest impact of Handel's actions could come in the area of voter registration. Under the Help America to Vote Act of 2002, new voters are supposed to be checked against state and federal databases. If the voter applicant puts down his driver's license number, explains Carrothers, then the Department of Driver Services database is used; if the applicant instead notes the last four digits of his Social Security number, then that information is used to check citizenship.

In cases where either database didn't match the information the applicant had provided, he says, Handel's office asked counties to verify the eligibility of the questionable voters.

But critics – including the ACLU, Democrats and the Barack Obama campaign – say Handel's approach has resulted in hundreds of legitimate voters being flagged. Database matches aren't a reliable indicator of voter eligibility, in part because data-entry errors are common, says Elise Shore, Atlanta regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Shore is suing Handel's office on behalf of Cherokee County resident Jose Morales, a recently naturalized citizen who registered to vote last month. He received a letter from the county telling him he'd be taken off voter rolls unless he verified his citizenship. He did so, but the county sent him another letter saying he might not be a citizen.

The county's confusion with Morales likely stemmed from the fact that the state driver's license database isn't updated when a license-holder gains citizenship, says Shore.

Cobb, Gwinnett and other counties have suspended voter verification efforts until the lawsuit is resolved, although some local registrars have reported that about half the people contacted had already proved their citizenship. But the Morales lawsuit doesn't attack the sky-high error rate in the verification process; it charges that Handel's actions are a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was aimed at preventing continued disenfranchisement of minority voters in Southern states, including Georgia.

"Before the state can remove current voters from the rolls, it needs to pre-clear this type of database-matching system with the U.S. Department of Justice and it hadn't done that," Shore explains. Also, she says, federal law prohibits the systematic voter purges within 90 days of an election.

Insisting her actions are intended to guard against voter fraud, Handel praised a federal court for ordering Ohio's Democratic secretary of state to share with counties a list of registered voters flagged in database matches. This past Friday, however, the Supreme Court reversed that decision, saying Ohio didn't need to send the list to counties.

This week, a three-judge panel in Atlanta is scheduled to hear the Morales case.

Since it's widely assumed that Handel is planning to run for governor in 2010, Democrats are concerned that even if she's thwarted in her efforts to challenge voters in next month's election, she will continue to look for ways to give Republicans an advantage at the polls.

Says former Gov. Barnes: "Karen Handel seems like a nice lady, but I believe her partisanship has tarnished her office."