Voting Rights Watch: Georgia tells 4,770 voters their votes 'challenged,' encourages voters to contest citizenship of other voters on Election Day

NOTE: Today this became a top-rated diary at DailyKos and generated lots of good discussion. Check it out here.

In a bold move this week, Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (R) announced she was sending letters to 4,770 registered voters that they may have to cast "challenge" ballots that won't be counted on election day.

In a striking announcement, she also declared that regular citizens could respond to the problem of non-citizen voting by contesting the citizenship of fellow voters at the polls -- forcing them to also cast challenged ballots that won't be included in election day tallies.

The surprising announcement is the latest in a winding saga between Handel, voters, the Department of Justice and a panel of federal judges over a new and aggressive Georgia policy to flag voters whose citizenship is in question.

Earlier this month, the ACLU sued the state of Georgia on behalf of Jose Morales, a Cherokee County voter who was wrongfully targeted to be purged from the roles despite having become a citizen in November 2007. Earlier, the Department of Justice had argued that Georgia's citizenship purge violated the Voting Rights Act because it had not be pre-cleared with the DOJ, something Georgia must do because it falls under the Act.

After the DOJ questioned the purges, many counties stopped mailing letters to flagged voters. A three-judge panel of federal judges said on Monday of this week that the state must notify those who have been flagged and find a way to allow them to vote.

But it's not at all clear that Handel's decision to do an end-run around the counties and directly mail letters to 4,770 flagged voters will in reality allow them to vote. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:
Those whose citizenship is in question can go to a county elections office before Election Day and produce documents proving their citizenship and resolve the issue, Carrothers said.
But if the letters were only mailed Wednesday, that means that many flagged voters will only be receiving the letters today -- giving them only 1-2 business days at crowded election offices to resolve the problem. If they're not able to, Handel has made it clear the votes might not count:
The letter from Handel's office tells the voters that if they appear at their polling place with the issue still unresolved, they will be given a "challenge" ballot --- a paper version of the ballot that appears on electronic voting machines. The ballot will not be included in the precinct's vote totals, Handel said.
Even more worrisome is that Handel made a point of stating that any voter's citizenship can be contested by any other voter, a policy which could be used to target the state's rapidly-growing Latino population and other racial groups. As the AJC reports:
Any voter can challenge another's qualifications to cast a ballot by notifying a precinct poll manager, Handel said. That voter then would be given a challenge ballot and would have to go before the election board.
And as Handel has made clear, "challenge ballots" will not be counted, forcing those who are challenged to prove their citizenship later.

Handel seems to admit the approach opens the door for vigilante racially-targeted voter intimidation at the polls, but dismissed the threat:
If large numbers of challenges are made on Election Day, Handel said, her office will investigate whether they are part of an orchestrated effort to influence the election's outcome.

But, she said, "I'm not anticipating any kind of huge issue there."
Handel has been roundly criticized for her partisan approach to running Georgia's elections. In a scathing editorial today, the AJC editorial board looks at other controversies surrounding Handel and finds her reputation damaged:
No matter the outcome of Tuesday's election, a loser has emerged --- Secretary of State Karen Handel.

Her relentless crusade to bounce Democratic Public Service Commission candidate Jim Powell from the ballot, her posturing over yet-to-be-seen voter fraud and her flippant dismissal of voter delays this week have tarnished her and her office.

UPDATE: Several other states have laws on the books like Georgia's that allow voters to challenge other voters. For example, Republicans recently pushed through a similar law in Florida which provoked widespread controversy:
Challengers [in Florida] need not prove their accusations. Instead, the challenged voter has two days to justify his right to cast a ballot.

State Republican lawmakers who pushed the law say it will help combat fraud. Democrats call it a vote-suppression measure

What seems especially pernicious about what's happening in Georgia is that Secretary of State Handel appears to be encouraging Georgians to use the law as a way to deal with the "problem" she and Republicans see of non-citizens voting on election day. In a tight election with these controversies making big headlines in Georgia, that seems very dangerous.

UPDATE 2: Karen Handel takes great pride in being a zealous leader of the Republican "anti-voter fraud" movement. On her own website Handel boasts of supporting controversial laws beyond her own state:
Secretary Handel filed a brief of amicus curiae in December 2007 in support of Indiana's photo ID voting requirement. Handel's amicus brief noted that since the Murphy ruling "there has not been one single demonstrated deprivation of any right to vote or any other violation of a constitutional or statutory right resulting from the photo ID requirement."