Judge restricts Georgia county’s ability to disqualify voters

A federal judge Wednesday ruled that Muscogee County cannot invalidate thousands of voters amid Georgia’s January runoff election based solely on their appearance in a national change-of-address database.

But U.S. District Judge Leslie Abrams Gardner did not find enough evidence to impose similar restrictions on Ben Hill County.

The ruling stems from an effort by the Texas-based group True the Vote and the Georgia Republican Party to challenge the eligibility of more than 364,000 voters because they may have moved. They say the names of those voters appear in a national change-of-address database maintained by the U.S. Postal Service.

Most counties have rejected the mass challenges, saying federal law prohibits the systemic removal of voters within 90 days of an election. But Muscogee and Ben Hill counties agreed to consider challenges to 4,033 and 152 voters, respectively.

Last week the group Majority Forward filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Albany, seeking to prevent the counties from processing those challenges. And on Monday Gardner issues a temporary restraining order halting the challenges in both counties.

At a court hearing Wednesday, Ben Hill and Muscogee County attorneys said no one had been denied the right to vote based on those challenges. They said the challenged voters would be allowed to cast provisional ballots, and they would be allowed to present evidence that they’re eligible to vote at a hearing.

But the attorneys said there was enough evidence to proceed with the challenges. Muscogee County’s election director said a preliminary review found nine people among those challenged who appeared to be registered to vote in another state.

An attorney for Majority Forward said the postal service change-of-address data is unreliable and cannot by itself be grounds to disqualify a voter. He said there are legitimate reasons why someone might temporarily move out of state but retain their Georgia residency for voting purposes – for example, college students and military personnel who live elsewhere can still vote in Georgia.

And he said requiring voters to defend their eligibility so close to the election would be an undue and illegal burden on their voting rights.

Gardner’s order prohibits Muscogee County from disqualifying voters based solely on the change-of-address data. It also required the county to notify voters they will not lose their eligibility without additional evidence and to disclose that additional evidence before a hearing at which the county election board will determine their eligibility.

Gardner’s order, issued Wednesday night, says Majority Forward did not demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits of its claim against Ben Hill County. The judge did not elaborate, but she plans to file a more detailed order later.

Gardner has drawn criticism for not recusing herself from the case. She is the sister of Stacey Abrams, the former state House of Representatives minority leader and Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Earlier this week, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger called Gardner’s temporary restraining order “a direct attack on rule of law in Georgia and the integrity of elections in this state.”

On Thursday Gardner issued an order formally rejecting the request by the Muscogee County defendants to recuse herself.

Gardner noted the law does not require her to step aside. She said she has sworn an oath of impartiality and there is no legitimate reason to believe she cannot fulfill that oath. And she said recusing herself would be a dereliction of duty.