Election officials in Georgia's sparsely populated, overwhelmingly black Hancock County agreed Wednesday to settle a lawsuit alleging denial of voting rights to dozens of African-American registered voters just ahead of a racially divided local election.
About three-quarters of the people they removed from the voting rolls — nearly all of them black — remain eligible and will be restored to the county's registered voter list under the agreement.
"We want to make sure that a purge program like the one that played out in the fall of 2015 never happens again," said Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.
Hancock County Board of Elections members maintain that they weren't targeting or trying to intimidate black voters by sending sheriff's deputies to summon people to appear before them and prove they lived in the county.
Board members said they were complying with Georgia law, which allows any voter to challenge another's eligibility, and requires that a sheriff or deputy deliver documents in a voter registration challenge, said their lawyer, Mike O'Quinn.
"Nobody in Hancock County is trying to turn the clock back and discriminate against African-Americans contrary to what some news media has reported in this case," O'Quinn said.
The methods they used would have required federal pre-approval if the Supreme Court hadn't struck down provisions of the Voting Rights Act two years earlier. The justices ruled that federal oversight is no longer necessary, but advocates say purges of voter registration lists remain common across the South, particularly in rural and poor areas.
"As we contend with discriminatory photo ID laws or proof of citizenship requirements, we must remember efforts to purge voters from the rolls sadly remain a crude process we are contending with," Clarke said. "It's one that is often used to strip that right away from African-Americans and other minority voters."
O'Quinn acknowledged that the board failed to consider the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which applies to Georgia and 43 other states. Both state and federal law allow the removal of registered voters who move away from the voting district. But federal law requires authorities to wait until the voter hasn't voted in two federal elections and either confirms moving or fails to respond to mailed requests.
Instead, the suit said, Hancock County officials took immediate action to remove voters whose eligibility was challenged.
"In those instances where federal law goes further, then federal law has to apply because it is supreme," O'Quinn said. "And that took some figuring out in this case."
The lawsuit said board members and people close to them challenged the status of 187 people, just before a slate of white candidates sought to unseat black incumbents in Sparta, the county seat. It said the board deemed ineligible more than 5 percent of the city's 988 registered voters, and "nearly all of those voters" are black.
The white mayoral candidate, R. Allen Haywood, won that November, defeating incumbent Mayor Williams Evans Jr., who is black. But a judge ruled Haywood ineligible to take office due to a felony conviction, and ordered a new election that Evans won.
Hancock County is nearly 75 percent black, according to the latest U.S. Census, and about 83 percent of Sparta's residents are black.
A few Victorian homes remain from the city's heyday as a center of slave-produced cotton before the Civil War, but its prosperity ended long ago. Trees grown for pulp now cover the old plantations, Hancock State Prison is a top employer, and the county's unemployment rate is three points higher than Georgia's, forcing more than half the county's residents to travel elsewhere for work.
The settlement lays out a process for handling voter registration challenges. Hancock County officials admit no wrongdoing, but do acknowledge "the supremacy of federal law where it conflicts with state law." It broadly prohibits local election officials from denying "equal opportunity" to vote based on race, and requires "clear and convincing evidence" before ruling a voter ineligible.
It also says that sheriff's employees should deliver voter registration-related documents "only as a matter of last resort," after a challenged voter doesn't respond to phone calls, emails or mail.
"We see all across the country that relationships are sometimes strained between law enforcement and minority communities," Clarke said. "We don't need to import that tension into the voting environment."
O'Quinn said he hopes state officials do more to help local boards comply with both state and federal voting laws, which don't always align perfectly.
The Georgia NAACP and a voting-rights group called the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda also signed onto the suit.
The settlement awaits review by Judge C. Ashley Royal of Georgia's Middle District Court.