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Our Views: Citizens group should withdraw challenges to voter registrations

    Two years ago, a Georgia Southern professor and several students came before the Statesboro City Council to present evidence of serious abuses of alcohol at a local club. The group challenged the elected officials to do something about the problem.
    But instead of focusing on stopping real abuses of alcohol at some clubs, the council chose to penalize every restaurant in town that sells liquor. We editorialized then and believe today the council overreacted to the issue and unfairly targeted the legitimate business practices of Statesboro restaurants.
    More than 500 students from GSU came to a public hearing to protest the council's actions, so, in what should be a surprise to no one, a student group formed and found two youthful candidates to oppose incumbent council members in Districts 2 and 5. And incumbent Councilman Will Britt is using his youth and former ownership of a club to gain sway with by far the largest voting bloc in Statesboro: Georgia Southern students.
    The candidates supported dozens of registration drives and basically signed up every GSU student willing to vote. Final voter registration numbers showed 2,500 new voters signed up to participate in the three contested elections. Almost all new voters are Georgia Southern students 18 to 24 years old.
    Last week, recognizing a desperate political situation, four Statesboro citizens, who said they are members of the Statesboro Citizens for Good Government, brought petitions disputing the veracity of 909 of the new registrations. To put this in perspective, Deputy Voter Registrar Shontay Jones said not a single complaint has ever been filed contesting a voter registration application in her five-year tenure. Further, the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office said it had never seen so many registration disputes. No one we talked with in that office could recall anything remotely close.
    The reason the huge participation from GSU upsets some longtime Statesboro residents is clear and understandable. Most of the students who registered and who will vote will only live in the city for the few years they are students. Whatever actions taken by the council may not impact them like it will citizens who choose to make this their home for decades and, indeed, lifetimes.
    While we respect the right of the four citizens to present their complaints as allowed by law, we think the unprecedented protesting of the fundamental right to vote of so many people is reckless. We believe the students do have a right to vote for whatever reason they choose. Why somebody registers or why he or she votes must never be a reason to deny their franchise.
    The four, and many others, may not like the fact that the alcohol issue has fired up the political interests of students. But challenging the rights of 909 people to vote in Statesboro treads dangerous territory.
    The group argues that they are questioning registrations based on Georgia codes that set out residency requirements for voter eligibility. They say they are not trying to deny people their right to vote – just that they shouldn't vote in Statesboro.
    Sarah Hines, one of the four who filed the challenges, said: “I feel like young college students are here just to go to college ... It’s important for them to vote at home, when they’re only going to be here for a short while.”
Without going into much detail, the codes are vague and legislators will tell you it was done intentionally to protect people's ultimate right to vote. Also, we would remind Hines and her group that Georgia Southern students are considered residents of Statesboro for the purposes of the U.S. Census.
    We believe the true motive behind the effort of citizens' group is completely transparent – they don't want the 909 students to vote because they don't like who they will vote for. No matter what they say, it's that simple. And it's wrong.
    Also, the challenges may invite a civil rights lawsuit. The process of registering to vote and voting are made relatively easy because of a long history in the South and other parts of the country of denying people, specifically minorities, the right to vote. While we don't know the races of the students whose registrations are being challenged, the specter of a civil rights case in Statesboro would do serious damage to our community.
    Election officials said that of the 396 ballots cast Monday and Tuesday in advance voting, 101 were cast by voters whose registrations are being challenged. We hope all voters come out to vote and we hope the Statesboro Citizens for Good Government reconsiders its petitions and withdraws all complaints. It's the right thing to do.

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