Federal judge skeptical of Georgia voter challenges

A federal judge has denied a request to immediately stop the challenge of more than 364,000 Georgia voters amid the runoff election that will determine control of the U.S. Senate. But the judge expressed "grave concerns" about the legality of the purges. (AJC FILE PHOTO)
A federal judge has denied a request to immediately stop the challenge of more than 364,000 Georgia voters amid the runoff election that will determine control of the U.S. Senate. But the judge expressed "grave concerns" about the legality of the purges. (AJC FILE PHOTO)

A federal judge has denied a request to immediately stop challenges to the eligibility of more than 364,000 Georgia voters amid the runoff election, but he said the challenges may be illegal.

The Texas-based group True the Vote says the voters appear on a national change-of-address database, indicating they may have moved and may not be eligible to vote. Working with Georgia Republicans, the group has challenged the eligibility of those people to vote in Tuesday’s runoff election, which will determine which political party controls the U.S. Senate.

The voting rights group Fair Fight recently filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Gainesville that says the challenges amount to illegal voter intimidation and harassment.

Late Friday, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones rejected Fair Fight’s request for a temporary restraining order halting the challenges. But the litigation continues, and the judge expressed “grave concerns regarding defendants’ coordinated, broad-strokes challenges to more than 360,000 Georgia voters on the eve of an unprecedented two-seat Senate runoff.”

Federal law prohibits the systematic removal of voters from registration rolls within 90 days of an election. However, a provision of Georgia law allows residents to challenge whether individual voters are eligible to vote in a particular election. The challenger must live in the same county as the voter being challenged.

True the Vote, a group that combats voter fraud, enlisted Republicans in dozens of counties to challenge the 364,000 voters whose names it says appear in the U.S. Postal Services’ change-of-address database. Some of those voters appear to have moved out of state.

Voting rights advocates say the database is unreliable and cannot by itself be used to determine whether voters are eligible. They say there are plenty of people who move out of state temporarily but are still eligible to vote in Georgia, including college students, military personnel and people on temporary work assignments.

Most counties have rejected the True the Vote challenges. Two counties – Muscogee and Ben Hill – have proceeded with challenges to 4,003 and 152 voters, respectively. In a separate lawsuit, another federal judge this week allowed those challenges to proceed but prohibited Muscogee County from disqualifying voters based solely on the postal service data.

In its lawsuit, Fair Fight said the True the Vote challenges amount to intimidation of voters in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. The group asked Jones to order a halt to the challenges and to prohibit True the Vote from recruiting poll watchers and from recording voters and election workers at the polls.

Jones rejected the request for a restraining order. He found Fair Fight had not provided sufficient evidence that True the Vote is harassing or intimidating voters.

But Jones said Fair Fight may yet be able to prove True the Vote is engaged in such conduct. And he said the challenges may violate another federal law – the National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits the mass purging of voter rolls close to an election. Fair Fight did not challenge True the Vote under the voter registration law.

Jones questioned whether the sheer number of voters challenged by True the Vote and its local partners violates the federal law.

“As this court has expressed clearly, an eleventh-hour challenge to the franchise of more than 360,000 Georgians is suspect,” Jones wrote. “So too is the manner in which defendants mounted their challenges.

“The court will not abide attempts to sidestep federal law to disenfranchise voters,” the judge said.

The voter challenges follow accusations of widespread voting fraud during the presidential election, in which Democrat Joe Biden defeated incumbent Republican Donald Trump. Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr has said federal investigators have found no evidence of widespread fraud, nor have investigators from the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.

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