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Election board addresses concerns about letter sent to certain Bulloch voters

Will I receive a letter?
Bulloch County election officials are mailing letters to certain voters to request they update their registration as part of the county's effort to create an electronic database of scanned voter signatures.
You may receive a letter if any of the following applies to your original voter registration application:
    No current signature
    No current legal name without any prefix (i.e., "Jane Doe," not "Mrs. John Doe")
    Application completed in pencil instead of ink
    No signature
    No current residence address (not route numbers)
    Original card is in a format that cannot be scanned

    Bulloch County election officials have replaced a letter asking certain voters to update their registration after some who received it expressed discomfort and local Democratic Party members warned it might be seen in terms of vote suppression.
    But officials explained the letters are part of work to create an electronic database that includes scanned voter signatures.
    "Dear voter," the original letter began, "Our office is in the process of updating our voter files; it has come to our attention that the application you have on file is missing one or more of the following items listed below."
    The possible items were "Current Signature," "Current Legal Name (No Mrs.)," "Original Application in PENCIL, not INK as Required," "No Signature" and "Current Residence Address (No Route #'s)."
    The letter did not explain which of these reasons applied to the particular voter. Below the reasons, the letter asked voters to fill out an enclosed, postage-paid voter registration application and return it in order to be mailed a new precinct card.
    One of the first voters to raise a concern was Joan Ellen "JoEllen" Broome, who received a letter July 19. A Democrat, she has been a registered voter in Bulloch County for about 20 years.
    "I read it and felt uncomfortable because I didn't think any of these were problematic as far as what I did on my original card, and they didn't circle one as to a reason or rationale of why I got this," Broome said.
    Bulloch County Democratic Party leaders asked the Elections and Registration Board for answers.
    "If you are a Democrat, as I am, you experience the media constantly reminding you that your party is subject, at all levels, to what has become known as voter suppression. As a result, sometimes an action by a government employee can have differing interpretations," Bulloch County Democratic Party Chairman Bill Herring said in a prepared statement to the board.

A new form
    By the time the board held its regular meeting Monday, officials had composed a new, more specific form letter. It includes boxes for the election official who signs to check that indicate the problem that applies to the particular voter's registration. An explanation is given for each possible reason.
    For example, the concern with the use of a name with "Mrs." is that it could reflect the voter's "spouse's legal name (e.g., ‘Mrs. John Doe')." Today, voting officials want everyone's own first name, "without any prefix (e.g., ‘Jane Doe')."
    As for "Current Address," the new letter explains either that the address in the registration card does not match the address in the computer system or it is listed as a route number or post office box. Election officials need current street addresses.
    The new letter also adds two possible reasons that were not in the original letter: "Scanning Registration Card" and "Other."
    The explanation that a registration card is in an older format that will not scan relates directly to officials' stated reason for the letters. Beside the "Other" checkbox are lines for voting officials to write in another reason for an update, in case one is encountered.
    Signatures records are used to verify that the voter who signs an absentee ballot is the person to whom it was issued, Deputy Registrar Shontay Jones explained. Signatures also are verified on petitions that independent candidates use to win a place on the ballot.
    The state Elections Division recommended counties obtain scanners and use them to scan registration cards into the state database, and Bulloch County election officials are doing that now.
    "An important reason to have the signatures stored is, God forbid, the courthouse catches on fire," Jones said, explaining that the cards, now in a filing cabinet, could be lost, leaving no way to verify signatures.

    Clerks did the scanning, and sent letters when problems arose, without reference to party, Jones said.
    "Everybody knows in the state of Georgia, you're not registered by party. There's nowhere on the application to indicate a party," she said. "We had one of our clerks to start at one beginning of the alphabet and another clerk, who is here, to start at the end of the alphabet."
    No voters will be removed from the roll for not returning a new application, assured both Shontay Jones and Election Supervisor Patricia Lanier Jones. A separate process, initiated by the state, removes voters who remain inactive.
    The Democrats had obtained a list of people receiving the letters, and Herring acknowledged it contained names of Republicans as well as Democrats.
    Although Georgia does not maintain registration by party, officials and the public have access to voter histories that show which voters, by registration number and potentially by name, participate in each party's primaries.
    Patricia Lanier Jones reported that, in an effort to address concerns, she had checked voting histories of 257 residents who were mailed letters and found that 107 of them voted Republican, 45 voted Democrat, and 34 sometimes voted in Democratic primaries and sometimes in Republican ones. Of the remainder, 49 voted only in general elections, 17 never had voted, and five were deceased.
    Deceased voters' names are removed after verification of death.
Broome sees the new letter as an improvement.
    "Oh, yes, the wording is much better," she said. "There's more clarity, and it reinforces the fact that this is not a way that they're going to purge you from the files."
    Herring said staff members should have informed board members about the letter, because they had not been aware of the letter's exact purpose when asked.
    "I am convinced that your office is operating in a nonpartisan fashion," he said. "However, this letter did generate some questions, and I hope that two things we've learned from this meeting today are, one, that we've come up with a better letter that addresses some of my concerns ... and secondly, that you should continue to keep the election board more informed than they perhaps were on this project."

    Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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