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Another sorry attempt to deny voting rights
ajc.com. By LAUGHLIN McDONALD 11/09/07
Prior to this week's election, a group in Statesboro, Ga., styling itself Statesboro Citizens for Good Government challenged 909 registered voters on the grounds that as students at Georgia Southern University, they were not residents entitled to vote in city elections. State law requires such challenges to "specify distinctly the grounds of the challenge." Far from being distinct, the 909 challenges used an identical form, with a blank space for filling in the names of individual voters, and identical language that "the elector has come to Statesboro, Georgia, only for the temporary purpose of attending Georgia Southern University."

This kind of tactic is nothing new.

After a federal court invalidated the white primary in the 1940s, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Eugene Talmadge challenged blacks en masse in more than 30 counties, and an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 were purged from the voter rolls. Far from specific, the challenges were forms with blank spaces for the names of the voter and county of residence, and alleged an identical list of disqualification. There was no way Talmadge could have known the qualifications of the thousands of voters he challenged, but that was irrelevant. What he did know was that they were black - and that was enough.

Similarly, the challengers looking to disqualify voters in Statesboro could not have known the qualifications of the hundreds of voters they disputed, but they did know they were students - and that was also enough. A compliant county board of registrars issued a finding of probable cause to sustain the challenges, and ruled the students had to vote by provisional ballot. A hearing on the validity of the challenges is pending.

This is not the first time students have been challenged in Georgia. In 1980, a similar challenge was made to student voters at Young Harris College. In dismissing the challenges, the court ruled it was unconstitutional to apply a presumption of nonresidence because a voter was a student. Other such challenges have been made, and rejected, in other states.

Although contrary to the beliefs of the ironically-named Statesboro Citizens for Good Government, the right to vote occupies a special place in our constitutional system. There are more constitutional amendments the 1st, 14th, 15th, 19th, and 26th guaranteeing the right to vote than any other civil right we posses as Americans, not to mention a myriad of state and federal laws protecting voting. Decisions of the Supreme Court are also filed with declarations that the right to vote is fundamental and protective of all rights.

Unfortunately, our nation has a long and shameful history of targeting various groups and denying or suppressing their right to vote. The South disfranchised blacks in the aftermath of Reconstruction through such devices as literacy tests, poll taxes and durational residency requirements.

When they were finally struck down as unconstitutional or banned by modern voting rights laws, Southerners resorted to other measures to curb the black vote, such as voter challenges, stringent registration processes, and so-called "ballot security" initiatives.

In the last several years we have seen a wave of laws passed by states requiring voters to present a photo ID at the polls on Election Day. The laws were enacted ostensibly to redress the nonexistent problem of fraudulent in-person voting. Georgia enacted such a law in 2005, in a vote sharply divided on racial and partisan lines.

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to review a photo ID case from Indiana, and hopefully will conclude that such laws impermissibly burden the right to vote, and are not justified by a compelling, or even rational, state interest.

As for Statesboro, the public must see this maneuver for what it is - another shameless attempt at undermining voting rights in this country. The board of registrars should reconsider its ill-determined finding of probable cause and dismiss the pending challenges.

That would actually bring good government to Statesboro's citizens.

Laughlin McDonald is director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project.

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