Bill seeks to bolster Georgia voter registration challenge law

Activists have filed challenges against over 100K registrations since 2021
The Senate Ethics Committee heard testimony about voter challenges and could vote later this week. State Rep. John Lahood and Ethics Chairman Max Burns testified about the bill, House Bill 976, on Tuesday.

Credit: Mark Niesse

Credit: Mark Niesse

The Senate Ethics Committee heard testimony about voter challenges and could vote later this week. State Rep. John Lahood and Ethics Chairman Max Burns testified about the bill, House Bill 976, on Tuesday.

Georgia senators are trying to strengthen a state law allowing conservative activists to challenge voters’ eligibility by questioning their residency.

A Republican-sponsored bill debated Tuesday comes in response to activists who have challenged over 100,000 voter registrations during the past three years. Activists say outdated registrations could be used for election fraud, but very few cases of ineligible voting have been proved in recent years.

Democrats oppose the voter challenge process, saying it has been used against legitimate voters who remain Georgia residents. All voters are required to show ID before they can cast a ballot each election.

The Senate Ethics Committee considered proposed changes to the state’s voter challenge laws but didn’t vote Tuesday. A vote could be held Thursday, one week before the conclusion of this year’s legislative session.

Ethics Chairman Max Burns said House Bill 976 would clarify that voter challenges should be upheld if a Georgia voter registers in another state, claims a homestead exemption in a different jurisdiction or registers at a nonresidential address.

“I do think we have an excessive number of challenges. I think we need to clean up our voter rolls so that people have confidence that those who are on the voter rolls are legitimate, and then I do think we need to clarify what is a sustainable challenge,” said Burns, a Republican from Sylvania.

Large-scale voting challenges became popular among conservative activists after then-President Donald Trump’s narrow defeat in Georgia to Joe Biden stoked unfounded claims of voter fraud by Trump and his supporters.

The bill includes limitations on voter challenges by putting them on hold within 45 days of an election, preventing the use of change-of-address information as the sole source for sustaining a challenge, and protecting college students, members of the military and out-of-state government employees.

State Sen. Jason Esteves, a Democrat from Atlanta, said the bill wouldn’t constrain the “massive influx” of voter challenges since Georgia’s 2021 voting law allowed anyone to contest an unlimited number of registrations in their county.

“This would further allow people, usually one or two people, to challenge tens of thousands of electors,” Esteves said. “The burden of having to prove your residence is a burden not only on that voter who is innocent and not doing anything other than exercising their right, but it’s also a cost on counties.”

Georgia routinely cancels outdated voter registrations, but state and federal laws include waiting periods and notification requirements to ensure voters aren’t incorrectly removed.

The state’s voter challenge process can speed up the cancellation process, but there have been several cases where it has resulted in erroneous challenges and cancellations of voters who were eligible Georgia residents.

There are currently 7.95 million registered voters in Georgia, and the state canceled 189,000 inactive voter registrations last year.

Vic Tripp, a DeKalb County voter, told senators he’s worried about the possibility of election fraud using old voter registrations that haven’t yet been canceled.

“All these mass challenges, it’s because of mass phantoms on the voter rolls, and that’s because the officials are not doing their job of maintaining these rolls,” Tripp said.

There’s no evidence of mass voting fraud through outdated voter registrations.

Voting rights groups told senators that voter challenges can jeopardize voters’ ability to participate in elections because the activists behind the challenges sometimes base the challenge on inaccurate information found online. Voters then have to defend themselves in hearings held by county election boards.

“These are people who have to come in to show themselves to protect their right to vote, to say, ‘I am here, I am a real person,’ “ said Stephanie Ali, policy director for the New Georgia Project Action Fund, a liberal voter registration group. “As a working mom, I would be pretty upset if that happened.”

The voter challenge bill is the latest effort by the General Assembly’s Republican majority to tweak election laws before this year’s presidential race.

Other bills that advanced Monday would reduce the number of voting machines on election day, require more audits, post ballot pictures online, add watermarks to ballots, require election workers to be U.S. citizens, and criminalize using deepfake computer-generated media to deceive voters.