Eligibility of 364,000 Georgia voters challenged before Senate runoff

A Texas-based organization is working with Georgia Republican Party members to challenge the eligibility of over 364,000 Georgia voters who might have moved, an attempt to disqualify their ballots in the U.S. Senate runoffs.

The effort questions voters’ residency and leaves decisions over whose ballots should count to county election boards.

The election watchdog group True the Vote targeted voters whose names showed up on U.S. Postal Service lists showing their addresses had changed. The organization enlisted Republicans in dozens of counties to file voter challenges with their local election boards.

The effort has gained traction in at least two counties, Forsyth and Muscogee, questioning the eligibility of over 9,000 voters who will be forced to use provisional ballots if they show up at the polls. Election boards in many other counties have rejected similar objections to voters, including in Athens-Clarke, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.

Requiring voters to use provisional ballots would prevent their ballots from being counted until election officials verify residency. The burden of proof is on the challenger, but voters might be asked to provide information that shows their votes are valid.

Voting rights groups say True the Vote is trying to disenfranchise voters, using inexact and unverified change-of-address lists to cancel ballots in a major election that will decide control of the U.S. Senate.

It’s “one of the oldest tricks in the voter suppression playbook,” said Sean Young, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. He called it an example of “voter caging,” the practice of using mail lists to seek large cancellations of registrations.

“It’s unsurprising that political operatives would pull this out in the middle of a contentious election,” Young said. “There’s no shortage of conspiracy theories in this election. Mass voter challenges attempt to make those conspiracies real and disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters in the process.”

Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams, plans to file a federal lawsuit Wednesday seeking to stop the statewide voter challenges.

Federal law prohibits systematic voter removals within 90 days of an election. But registrations of voters can be canceled on a case-by-case basis if county election boards decide a voter is ineligible.

Catherine Engelbrecht, president of True the Vote, said she’s following a process outlined in Georgia law to ensure that only legitimate voters cast ballots.

A unique provision of state law allows voters to challenge the eligibility of voters in their counties. Only Georgians are allowed to vote in the runoffs between Republican U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, and Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

“Everyone across the country is raising their eyebrows about election integrity,” Engelbrecht said. “There was no effort to do anything other than get good accurate voter lists in place for the coming election.”

But using change-of-address lists isn’t a reliable way to cull voter registration lists without additional information, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute at New York University.

Those lists often include the names of legitimate voters, such as members of the military and students who are temporarily living elsewhere. The lists also need to be checked to ensure that voters haven’t moved back to Georgia, and that they don’t include people in other states with the same names.

At least 2,203 of the voters on True the Vote’s list voted in person in the general election, meaning they’re active voters who showed photo ID at the polls, according to the Brennan Center.

The Gwinnett elections board voted 3-2 on Monday to deny a challenge of the eligibility of more than 15,000 voters.

“This is nightmarish from an adjudication standpoint, a practical standpoint,” said Stephen Day, a Democratic Party board member. “I think that this is ill-conceived and ill-timed and violates the law in many places.”

In Muscogee, local Republican Party Chairman Alton Russell said he wants to protect Georgia’s runoff from ineligible voters.

“I’m not trying to suppress any voter,” Russell said. “I’m just saying if you’re a legal voter, you should be allowed to vote. If you’re not, you shouldn’t.”

Fewer than 50 of the county’s 4,000 challenged voters have cast ballots so far, Muscogee Elections Director Nancy Boren said.

In one case, a man said he still lived in Muscogee County but his registration was challenged because his son has the same name and had moved to New York. Other voters said they had moved out of state to take care of family members before returning home to Georgia, Boren said.

She and her staff plan to check driver’s license and property tax records to verify residency, and voters will be mailed notifications before the county election board holds hearings on their registrations

“Most voters are very accommodating. All of them have cast provisional ballots, and we’re holding the absentee ballots for the board to consider at a later time,” Boren said. “They typically err on the side of allowing the voter to vote.”

State election officials update voter rolls every other year, canceling the registrations of people who moved away or hadn’t participated in elections for more than eight years. Last December 287,000 people were removed from the voter list.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Monday that he is also trying to stop out-of-state voters. He sent letters to 8,000 people who requested absentee ballots for the runoffs and filed change-of-address notices with the Postal Service.

“Qualified Georgians and only Georgians are allowed to vote in our elections,” Raffensperger said. “I will not tolerate out-of-state voters attempting to undermine the integrity of the vote in Georgia. Let this be a warning to anyone looking to come to Georgia temporarily to cast a ballot or anyone who has established residence in another state but thinks they can game the system.”

The letters inform voters that it’s a felony to vote in Georgia without being eligible.

The Democratic Party of Georgia said it will fight attempts to invalidate and intimidate legitimate voters.

“This is a baseless, despicable attempt to wrongfully disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Georgia voters, including members of our military serving abroad,” said Scott Hogan, the state Democratic Party’s executive director.

Staff writer Amanda C. Coyne contributed to this article.