Challenge dropped against most Atkinson voters - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Challenge dropped against most Atkinson voters

October 28, 2004

Pearson-Many of the people who gathered outside the Atkinson County Courthouse had at least one thing in common, a Hispanic name.

They all received letters saying their right to vote had been challenged.

"I didn't know why I was being challenged," said Antonio Hernandez, who's lived in the county for 12 years and served on a grand jury there. "I didn't know what was the cause or anything."

So they filled the courtroom, many prepared to show birth certificates and citizenship papers, all because three men, Frank Sutton, Phillip Liles and James Mullis, questioned their right to vote.

"It was a closely contested commissioners race," Liles said. "And after looking into it, it had been discovered that there were some non-citizens who had been asked to vote."

But after county attorney Russ Gillis began the hearing, it didn't take him long to get to his point. The challenges were dismissed because they were "legally insufficient because they're based soley on race," he said to the courtroom.

Representing the Board of Registrars, he explained that the 96 people who received letters represent nearly 80 percent of the county's Hispanic voter, making it obvious they were challenged only because of their race, which is a violation of the Voters Rights Act.

But before it was over, one citizen wanted to make a point of her own.

"If you went to school and studied history, you should know that even your last name is foreign," said Olga Martinez, who was raised in a migrant farming family and became a U.S. citizen four years ago.

In fact, many of the people challenged were born U.S. citizens and pointed out that they are never challenged when they come to pay taxes.

"They kind of just take your check and I was kind of surprised to be challenged to vote," said Sid Rodriguez, who was born and raised in Texas and has lived in Atkinson County for more than 20 years.

Sutton didn't want to talk comment on the hearing. He and the other two challengers have 10 days to appeal.

"I think they are going to appeal, from what I was overhearing, but that they're going to approach it a little different next time," Hernandez said.

But for now, with their voter registration in tact, most of the people are planning to go to the polls next Tuesday and cast a ballot, their right as Georgians, their responsibility as Americans.

posted at 10:25 p.m. by brannon.stewart@walb.com