Georgia Senate panel creates rules for activists’ mass voter challenges

Voter eligibility challenge bill advances to final votes
The Senate Ethics Committee voted 5-3 to advance a bill setting criteria for voter eligibility challenges on Thursday. MARK NIESSE /

Credit: Mark Niesse

Credit: Mark Niesse

The Senate Ethics Committee voted 5-3 to advance a bill setting criteria for voter eligibility challenges on Thursday. MARK NIESSE /

A Georgia Senate committee moved forward with a bill Thursday that reinforces the ability of conservative activists to challenge the eligibility of voters who appear to have moved but protects voter registrations from being questioned just before an election.

The Republican-sponsored proposal sets criteria for voter challenges after activists disputed over 100,000 voter registrations in the wake of Georgia’s 2021 election law, which allowed any resident to contest unlimited registrations within their counties. County election boards have rejected most of those challenges.

The Senate Ethics Committee approved the bill 5-3, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed.

Under the bill, voter challenges would be upheld if a Georgia voter registers in another state, claims a homestead exemption in a different jurisdiction or registers at a nonresidential address.

Challenges wouldn’t be considered within 45 days of an election, and they couldn’t target college students, members of the military and out-of-state government employees who have temporarily moved from Georgia. Change-of-address information couldn’t be used as the sole source for sustaining a challenge.

Election officials routinely cancel outdated registrations, but the process can take years because state and federal laws include notification requirements and waiting periods to ensure voters aren’t incorrectly removed.

Voter challenges can speed up the government’s regular process of removing outdated registrations, but there have been several cases of erroneous challenges that canceled voters who were eligible Georgia residents.

Georgia has 7.95 million registered voters, and the state canceled 189,000 inactive voter registrations last year.

“(The bill) strikes a balance between those who feel that some electors are not appropriate or are legitimate. It requires the challenger to have reasonable evidence,” said Ethics Chairman Max Burns, a Republican from Sylvania. “It’s hard to argue if you have a voter who’s deceased; it’s hard to argue if you have a voter who is registered and voted in another jurisdiction; it’s hard to argue if you have a voter who’s changed their homestead.”

Activists who have filed mass voter challenges say outdated registrations could be used for election fraud, but very few cases of ineligible voting have been proved in recent years. Georgia law requires all voters to show ID before they can cast a ballot each election.

Democrats said Georgia’s voter challenge system could be used against legitimate voters who haven’t moved, jeopardizing their ability to participate in elections.

“We’ve been seeing these mass voter challenges” in response to Georgia’s voting law passed three years ago, said state Sen. Harold Jones, a Democrat from Augusta. “(The bill) is basically part of continuing to challenge voters over and over.”

Sweeping voter challenges gained popularity among conservative activists who say they fear the possibility of voter fraud since Republican Donald Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

The voter challenge measure, House Bill 976, is one of nine pending bills that would change Georgia voting laws ahead of this year’s presidential election. It could receive final votes in the Senate and House next week.

Other election-related bills would ban using computer QR codes to count ballots, allow local election officials to reduce the number of voting machines on election day, require more audits, post ballot pictures online, add watermarks to ballots and criminalize the use of deepfake computer-generated media to deceive voters.