When the deputy sheriff’s patrol cruiser pulled up beside him as he walked down Broad Street at sunset last August, Martee Flournoy, a 32-year-old black man, was both confused and rattled. He had reason: In this corner of rural Georgia, African-Americans are arrested at a rate far higher than that of whites.
But the deputy had not come to arrest Mr. Flournoy. Rather, he had come to challenge Mr. Flournoy’s right to vote.
The majority-white Hancock County Board of Elections and Registration was systematically questioning the registrations of more than 180 black Sparta citizens — a fifth of the city’s registered voters — by dispatching deputies with summonses commanding them to appear in person to prove their residence or lose their voting rights. “When I read that letter, I was kind of nervous,” Mr. Flournoy said in an interview. “I didn’t know what to do.”
The board’s aim, a lawsuit later claimed, was to give an edge to white candidates in Sparta’s municipal elections — and that November, a white mayoral candidate won a narrow victory.
“A lot of those people that was challenged probably didn’t vote, even though they weren’t proven to be wrong,” said Marion Warren, a Sparta elections official who documented the purges and raised an alarm with voting-rights advocates. “People just do not understand why a sheriff is coming to their house to bring them a subpoena, especially if they haven’t committed any crime.”
The county attorney, Barry A. Fleming, a Republican state representative, said in an interview that the elections board was only trying to restore order to an electoral process tainted earlier by corruption and incompetence. The lawsuit is overblown, he suggested, because only a fraction of the targeted voters were ultimately scratched from the rolls.
“The allegations that people were denied the right to vote are the opposite of the truth,” he said. “This is probably more about politics and power than race.”
But the purge of Sparta voters is precisely the sort of electoral maneuver that once would have needed Justice Department approval before it could be put in effect. In Georgia and all or part of 14 other states, the 1965 Voting Rights Act required jurisdictions with histories of voter discrimination to receive so-called preclearance before changing the way voter registration and elections were conducted.
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