County election officials threw out almost all the challenges, but the lawsuit alleges that mass challenges amounted to a violation of the Voting Rights Act’s protections against voter intimidation and coercion. The case was brought by several voters and Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams.
True the Vote had said it recruited former Navy SEALS to monitor polling places, and the group offered a $1 million bounty to defend fraud whistleblowers if they were sued.
“This is objectively intimidating. Some voters will opt not to jump through these hoops and will not have the resources to overcome these challenges,” said Uzoma Nkwonta, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Challenges to voter eligibility were based in part on information from change-of-address lists, which can indicate when someone has moved but also includes names of Georgia residents who temporarily relocated, such as members of the military and college students.
For example, Gamaliel Turner was working in California as a military contractor when his residency in Muscogee County was challenged before the U.S. Senate runoffs, even though he was still a Georgia homeowner and taxpayer.
Jim Bopp, an attorney for True the Vote, said the organization was using its First Amendment right to petition the government under Georgia laws that allow voter challenges. After the U.S. Senate runoffs, the General Assembly expanded the voter challenge law, making it clear that Georgians could contest the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters.
Bopp said no voters were threatened by the defendants, and all of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were ultimately able to overcome challenges and cast their ballots.
“This is serious stuff. We are talking about things that are core to the First Amendment,” Bopp said. “None of the plaintiffs were contacted by any of the defendants. There was only subjective fear.”
Jones asked whether True the Vote was responsible for using the voter challenge law in such a broad way that it affected eligible voters, in some cases forcing them to prove their residency before they could cast a ballot.
In one case, election officials pulled one of the plaintiffs from the line at a polling place and took several hours to conclude that she was able to cast a ballot.
“The argument being made of these challenges being reckless does cause some concern,” Jones said. “... I have a concern that if you challenge someone so close to an election, there could be an intimidating factor.”
Fair Fight Action’s lawsuit asked Jones to enjoin True the Vote from future voter eligibility challenges and ban the organization from poll watching activities. During the hearing Wednesday, Jones considered motions seeking summary judgment from both sides.
Along with allegations of ineligible voters, True the Vote has also claimed in the conspiracy movie “2000 Mules” that voters were illegally stuffing multiple ballots into drop boxes, allegations that the State Election Board dismissed in three cases.
None of the surveillance videos in the movie showed anyone visiting more than one drop box in a day, and investigators found that ballots belonged to family members in the same household in compliance with the law.
But voter eligibility challenges continued during last year’s elections, with similar results. Roughly 3,000 challenges were upheld out of over 65,000 filed; the rest were dismissed.
While county election boards upheld challenges in some cases that showed clear evidence that a voter had moved from Georgia, challenges were often dismissed because they relied on change-of-address information rather than more detailed evidence that a voter was no longer living in Georgia.
Jones, a nominee of President Barack Obama who last year ruled against Fair Fight Action in a separate lawsuit, didn’t indicate when he would issue a ruling.