Black voters wrongly stricken from voter rolls in Hancock County
MACON, Ga., November 3, 2015 – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda announced a federal lawsuit filed today against Hancock County, Georgia and the Hancock County Board of Elections and Registration (BOER) in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia for improperly removing black voters from the Hancock County voter registration list.
Ahead of the hotly contested November 3, 2015 municipal elections, the BOER held approximately 12 voter challenging hearings between August and October 2015, where they challenged an estimated 174 of the 988 registered voters in Sparta, representing close to 17 percent of all eligible voters. Nearly all of those who were challenged were black. In some of those challenge hearings, the BOER used data from the Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS) and the Georgia Voter Registration System (Enet) to challenge registered voters whose physical addresses did not match the address on their voting registration forms. Although the BOER was aware that not all of the DDS data was reliable or that this data established voters were not eligible to vote in Hancock County, it nevertheless purged black voters from the registration rolls whose addresses were not the same on the DDS and Enet databases.
“Eligible black voters in Sparta have been unfairly targeted by the Hancock County Board of Elections, denying them their constitutional right to vote,” said Julie Houk, senior special counsel with the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project. “The board has relied at the challenge hearings on hearsay, speculation and baseless allegations to disenfranchise black voters. These racially biased challenges have allowed a majority-white board to purge black residents from the Hancock County registration rolls ahead of the Sparta municipal election and the fall-out from these purges will impact the ability of purged voters to cast ballots in the 2016 presidential primary and general election.”
The fairness of the BOER challenge hearings was put into question when Vice Chair Nancy Stephens brought some of the challenges forward and voted on those same challenges. After concerns were raised about Ms. Stephens’ failure to recuse herself, a white non-board member brought more than 100 challenges against mostly against black voters in Sparta. In many cases, voters were removed from the list of eligible voters with no proof that they were ineligible to vote in Hancock County. Other black residents, who were wrongly accused of being ineligible to vote in the County, had to shoulder the burden of appearing at hearings with proof of their residency in order to ensure their names remained on the voter registration rolls.
“Demanding that eligible, registered black voters bring proof of residency to the Board of Elections and Registration to avoid being disenfranchised was a significant burden to many of the challenged voters in Sparta,” said Helen Butler of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda. “The BOER held many of these hearings at 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. during the week on very short notice with no regard to whether these voters had to be at work, school or had other commitments. The BOER also sent notices by non-forwardable mail so that if voters had moved to other addresses within the county or were temporarily living away from home while attending college or for other reasons, it was unlikely they would even know their right to vote had been challenged.”
Hancock County has a history of discrimination that is still prevalent today. There are still significant racial disparities between races in Sparta and Hancock County, including income disparities, education disparities and homeownership disparities. The effects of the socioeconomic inequalities and voter turnout between the different races are still felt today.
Plaintiffs in this case include brothers Merritt and Taurus Hubert, whose eligibility to vote in Sparta was challenged even though both brothers have lived their entire lives in Sparta and had never lived outside of Hancock County. Merritt Hubert was forced to attend a challenge hearing on October 5, 2015, when both his name and his brother’s name appeared on the BOER’s voter challenge agenda. Because his brother, Taurus, had to work, Merritt submitted a letter to the BOER and testified on his brother’s behalf at the hearing. No explanation was given to Merritt by the BOER at the hearing about why his name was included on the challenge agenda, nor did the BOER explain how it came to conclude there was probable cause to believe his brother resided outside of the County. In the face of Merritt’s testimony, the BOER had no choice but to drop the challenge.
“This is a part of our ongoing post-Shelby election administration monitoring across Georgia,” said Francys Johnson, Statesboro civil rights attorney and Georgia NAACP state president. “This case is illustrious of the insidious attacks eviscerating the gains achieved under the VRA and the NVRA. The NAACP will mortgage every asset we have to defend the unfettered access to the ballot. It was paid for with the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors – it’s sacred.”
To read the full complaint and hear all of the plaintiff’s stories, click here.
The complaint was filed by the Lawyers’ Committee and William V. Custer and Jennifer B. Dempsey of Bryan Cave LLP, who will be prosecuting the litigation.
About the Lawyers’ Committee
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. We celebrated our 50th anniversary in 2013 and continue our quest of “Moving America Toward Justice.” The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law, particularly in the areas of fair housing and community development; employment; voting; education; environmental justice; and criminal justice. For more information about the Lawyers’ Committee, visit www.lawyerscommittee.org.
About Bryan Cave LLP
Bryan Cave LLP (www.bryancave.com) has a diversified international legal practice. The firm represents a wide variety of business, financial, institutional and individual clients, including publicly held multinational corporations, large and mid-sized privately held companies, partnerships and emerging companies. Aided by extensive investments in technology, Bryan Cave’s more than 1,000 attorneys across the United States, the United Kingdom, Continental Europe and Asia serve clients’ needs in the world’s key business and financial markets.