Political confusion: Removal letter confuses law-abiding voters

Alan Riquelmy // Published April 3, 2008 in Ledger-Enquirer
Hundreds of letters telling people they are convicted felons and can no longer vote were received by Columbus residents last week -- letters that many people say aren't correct.

The calls started coming in around Friday, city officials said. Muscogee County Superior Clerk of Court Linda Pierce has received about 20 calls. Nancy Boren, executive director of the county's elections and registrations office, has gotten around 100 queries about the letter that begins, "This office has been notified by the Clerk of Superior Court that you have been convicted of a felony. State law requires that our office remove you from the registered voters' list..."

Boren sent out around 700 letters provided by the Georgia Secretary of State's Office, though, as of Wednesday, only some 550 had reached their intended destination. One of those recipients, a woman more than 80 years old, called Pierce's office concerned when she opened her mail.

"The ones calling here have not been felons," Pierce said. "I don't think she's even had a traffic ticket."

How did it happen?

Pierce regularly sends information on felons to the Georgia Secretary of State's office, as required by law. She includes as much information as she can, including dates of birth, Social Security numbers, names and their sentences.

In the past, a Secretary of State employee would typically write an identification number on Pierce's information and send it to Boren's office, which would then verify it and delete the person from the voting rolls. Boren would get about 20 such names to be deleted each month.

That changed in January, when her office got about 1,200 names -- potentially every felon in Muscogee County. The Secretary of State's office had changed its procedures from manually handling felons' information to using computers to compare the information with records from the state Department of Corrections and a statewide voter registration list.

That program produced the list with 1,200 names, which was sent to Boren's office with form letters. Boren sent the letters to 724 people whose personal information indicated they may be felons.

"In retrospect, I would not do so again," Boren said of sending out the letters. "I think we should have done a different letter that we did ourselves."

The list Boren received is divided into different categories based on how much information matches. The highest ranking contains perfect matches -- every piece of information, such as dates of birth and names, matches. The lower rankings don't have as many matches. Two people may be listed with the same name, but their birth dates could be different. One is a felon, and the other isn't.

For example, someone may have registered in 1996 with his or her correct Social Security number. However, when registering again in 2000, the person inverted two numbers in their Social Security number, which matched that of a felon.

That person's name would have then appeared on the list of 1,200 names, and he or she may have received a letter telling the person he or she is a convicted felon.

Correcting the error

While the letters have caused many to call Pierce's and Boren's offices with concern, the calls are helping Boren correct her voter registration list. With every call she gets, she can correct faulty information in her system.

That means January's list of 1,200 names should be greatly reduced the next time the Secretary of State's Office contacts Boren with felon information.

Boren encourages those who received letters stating they are felons, which they believe to be incorrect, to call her at 706-653-4392.

Contact reporter at ariquelmy@ledger-enquirer.comc