Judge Eleanor Ross, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia Judge Eleanor Ross, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia

On the final day of early voting in Georgia, a federal judge in Atlanta has granted an emergency injunction ordering Secretary of State Brian Kemp to allow more than 3,000 people whose voter registrations are on hold because they were flagged as noncitizens to vote, if they can furnish proof of citizenship.

“To be clear, once an individual’s citizenship has been verified by a deputy registrar or a poll manager, that individual may cast a regular ballot and the vote counts,” Judge Eleanor Ross of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, said in a 36-page order filed Friday afternoon.

The order granting emergency relief is part of a larger pending voter rights lawsuit against Kemp that seeks to rehabilitate more than 51,000 voter registrations that Kemp’s office has not approved, many of which were submitted by minority voters. Those approvals have been withheld because of the state’s exact match law that requires voter registrations exactly match information in the state’s driver’s license and federal Social Security databases.

Kemp, a Republican, is in statistical tie for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams.

The suit claims that, under Kemp’s “exact match” protocol, “the transposition of a single letter or number, deletion or addition of a hyphen or apostrophe, the accidental entry of an extra character or space, and the use of a familiar name like ‘Tom’ instead of ‘Thomas’ will cause a no match result.”

Civil rights lawyers said the matching process can also falsely flag U.S. citizens as noncitizens, even where the applicants submit a copy of their U.S. naturalization certificate or other evidence of their U.S. citizenship with their registration applications.

Voter registration applications marked as failed matches are placed in “pending” status. The 2017 law gives an applicant 26 months to resolve the issue or the application will be canceled. But civil rights lawyers contend that notices sent by county election officials are often vague and easily confused with junk mail.

Ross did not order specific relief for those voters whose registrations remain in limbo because of the exact match policy.

Instead, she highlighted a memo that Chris Harvey, Kemp’s elections division director, posted to an online bulletin board on Oct. 23 explaining how individuals whose registrations are pending because of a mismatch may still vote Tuesday.

In her order, Ross instructed Kemp how to handle registrations placed on hold because of citizenship questions:

  • Allow county election officials to permit eligible voters inaccurately flagged as noncitizens to vote a regular ballot by furnishing proof of citizenship to poll managers or deputy registrars;
  • Update “Information for Pending Voters” on Kemp’s website so that it provides “clear instructions and guidance to voters in pending status due to citizenship” and a contact name and phone number that people may call with questions about their pending status due to citizenship questions;
  • Direct all county election officials and poll managers on how to verify proof of citizenship to ensure they can properly confirm citizenship status;
  • Issue a press release accurately describing how an individual flagged and placed in pending status due to citizenship may vote in the upcoming election that includes a contact name and phone number for people to call with questions; and
  • Direct the county boards of elections to post a list of acceptable documentation to prove citizenship, which includes a naturalization certificate, birth certificate issued by a state or territory within the United States, U.S. passport and other documents or affidavits explicitly identified by Georgia law at polling places on Election Day.

In her order, Ross also highlighted Harvey’s online instructions  for the other 48,000 voters with pending registrations over identification mismatches. Voters may present proof of their identity to a poll worker who can check their identification and create a voter access card, the judge said.

Pending applicants flagged because of mismatches “must be allowed to vote a regular ballot,” if they present one of the following identifications and there are no other issues that would require a provisional ballot:

  • A Georgia driver’s license (including an expired one);
  • A valid voter identification card or a valid photo ID issued by any state, including Georgia, or the U.S. government;
  • A valid student photo ID card issued by a Georgia public college, university or technical school;
  • A valid out-of-state driver’s license;
  • A public transit-issued photo ID card;
  • A valid U.S. passport;
  • A valid employee photo identification card issued by any branch, department, agency or entity of the federal government, the state of Georgia or any county, municipality, board, authority or other entity in Georgia; or
  • A valid United States military photo identification card.

Once a poll worker verifies the applicant’s identity, the individual is “given credit for voting,” and their status should be updated from “pending” to “active,” Ross said.

Ross said the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a nonprofit organization that has focused on voter registration in Georgia, showed “a substantial likelihood of success” on claims that Kemp was “violating the right to vote” for all potential voters whose registrations were flagged over citizenship questions and that the steps required to confirm citizenship were too onerous.

“These individuals will suffer irreparable harm, if they lose the right to vote,” she said.