Fulton County elections officials suspect they received as many as 3,000 bogus voter registration applications collected illegally in exchange for money.
The applications were submitted to the Georgia secretary of state’s office in September by Unity ‘04, a national group working in Atlanta with civil rights leader the Rev. Joseph Lowery to register African-American voters.
A state lawyer forwarded two boxes of the applications to Fulton officials, with a letter warning that some of the applications appeared to have been filled out in the same handwriting and contained numerous errors, including incorrect Social Security numbers and addresses.
It is a misdemeanor in Georgia to provide false information on a voter registration application.
The chief of voter registration for Fulton County, John Sullivan, said he suspects the group might have been paying workers per application to register voters, which also is a misdemeanor.
In an Oct. 11 memo to his supervisor, Sullivan said the “fraudulent applications I believe were a product of greed, not an effort to affect the outcome of the election.”
In an interview this week, Sullivan said: “I don’t think the organization had the intent for fraud, but the net effect was that we got in thousands of them that were bogus.” Sullivan worried that some legitimate voters could get lost in the sea of fake applications.
“I’m just afraid there’s a potential we have messed up. There are teams of lawyers out there watching us,” Sullivan said, his voice trailing off. “I don’t know. Here I am wanting a perfect election. I don’t need this.”
In the final weeks leading to the Nov. 2 general election, the two major political parties have deployed teams of lawyers across the country, eager to uncover voting irregularities in a number of issues, from electronic voting and provisional ballots to identification checks and minority voter suppression.
Instances of improper voter registration have been reported across the nation. For example, anOhio man was arrested for submitting 100 phony applications, and authorities are looking into allegations that he was compensated with cocaine.
In Georgia, paying people on a per-application basis to register voters is against the law. But it is legal to compensate workers for time spent registering voters, said Cliff Tatum, an attorney in the secretary of state’s office.
Workers in Atlanta were being paid $5 to $8 an hour to register voters, Lowery said.
The applications were submitted by Felicia Davis, the Georgia director of Unity ‘04, a Washington-based group working with the Joseph Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights in Atlanta. Davis, contacted by telephone Wednesday, declined to comment on the charges of bogus registration.
Organizers of the registration drive became suspicious of some of the workers, Lowery said, because they repeatedly made excuses for not turning in completed applications in a timely manner. But because the applications are sealed in an envelope, organizers could not confirm their suspicions, he said.
Lowery said he eventually fired a team of about seven workers. Lowery speculated that some of the workers might have been tempted to “cheat” because they were being offered a bonus for reaching certain goals.
“That, maybe, was the mistake we made in trying to build up competitive teams and things like that,” Lowery said.
Such illegal activity makes a mockery of the struggles of the civil rights movement, he said.
“I’m really outraged that a few bad apples would seek to contaminate the work of a lot of diligent, hard-working, honest people who did marvelous work in registering people,” said Lowery, who estimated that his organization registered more than 30,000 Georgians for this election.
“There’s no benefit to us to have fraudulent voter registration forms,” he said. “That person ain’t ever going to vote.”
Sullivan said the Fulton elections office is trying to contact people listed on the suspicious applications. If no one responds to a letter sent to the listed address, the applicant will not be registered. Sullivan said he thinks the vast majority of applications in the two boxes are phony.
DeKalb County officials received a box of about 100 suspect applications flagged by the secretary of state’s office. But elections chief Linda Lattimore said her staff determined that only about 10 of the forms, also collected by Unity ‘04, were not legitimate.
Tatum, the lawyer for the secretary of state, advised both counties they should contact local prosecutors if they think laws have been broken.
Lowery said he would cooperate with any criminal investigation into the applications.
Sullivan said it is “premature” to say whether Fulton County will seek a criminal investigation. Elections officials are still gathering information, he said.
“It looks real bad to me,” Sullivan said. “But just because it smells doesn’t mean it’s really rotten.”