CBS News Investigative Producer Michael Rey wrote this story for CBSNews.com.
A lawsuit was filed late Thursday against Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel claiming her office is breaking at least two federal laws by illegally purging voters from registration rolls based on challenges to citizenship.
The complaint, filed by several civil rights groups on behalf of a single plaintiff, claims the state is violating the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act by purging possibly thousands of voters less than 90 days before the election and relying on a flawed database to question the citizenship of registered voters.
"It appears as though Georgia is going out of its way to look to purge voters. They are going beyond what's allowed for by federal law," Jon Greenbaum, an attorney with the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights told CBS News. "In our view it is a clear violation of federal law."
The lead plaintiff in the suit is 29-year-old Jose Morales, a recently naturalized US citizen living in Cherokee County, GA. Morales, who studies international relations at Kennesaw University, has been a citizen since 2006. After registering to vote at school in September he received this letter in the mail telling him, "you may not be a US citizen." That began a trip through a confusing county bureaucracy that continued to insist he was not a citizen. "I began to be upset about the letter and the fact that I was being asked to prove my citizenship even though I am already a citizen," Morales said in an affidavit.
In March 2007 Georgia officials launched a statewide database that required voter registrations to be matched with the database at the motor vehicles department to check citizenship. Georgia is considered a section 5 state under the Voting Rights Act. Because of a history of discouraging minorities from voting, the state is required to check with the Department of Justice before it started using the database. But it never did.
Read The Complaint Civil Rights Groups Filed
Read The Letter From Cherokee County Election Officials
Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel Responds to Activist Lawsuit
On Wednesday, the Department of Justice sent a letter to the state Attorney General raising questions about the legality of the 2 million queries the state has made about resident social security numbers and citizenship in the past year.
Greenbaum said actions by the state could affect the voter registrations of "thousands" of residents in all 159 counties of the state. "The benefit of purging voters is if you can control who is registered to vote you can control who votes. That's one of the things we're trying to find out through the lawsuit is…who is responsible."
The Secretary of State's office told CBS News they would not be making a statement Thursday.
By Michael Rey