Judge rejects challenges to Georgia voters before Senate runoffs

A federal judge on Monday halted challenges to the eligibility of over 4,000 Georgia voters, ruling that they must be allowed to cast regular ballots in the U.S. Senate runoff election.

U.S. District Judge Leslie Abrams Gardner granted a restraining order that prevents election officials in Muscogee and Ben Hill counties from invalidating voters as early voting is underway.

The ruling from Gardner, the sister of Democrat Stacey Abrams, comes in response to an attempt by the Texas-based organization True the Vote and the Georgia Republican Party to challenge more than 364,000 voters whose names showed up on U.S. Postal Service lists showing their addresses had changed.

The plaintiffs in the case argued that change-of-address lists aren’t an accurate way of determining if someone has permanently moved, and they shouldn’t be used to disqualify votes without additional evidence.

The decision will be appealed, said Jim Clark Jr., an attorney for Muscogee County. The defendants filed a motion asking Gardner to recuse herself because of her relationship to Abrams, the founder of Fair Fight Action, which is also suing over election procedures in a separate case. Gardner wrote in her order that she found no basis for recusal.

Most county election boards across Georgia have rejected the voter challenges, but Muscogee and Ben Hill counties had required those voters to cast provisional ballots that would have been counted only after further review.

The runoffs will decide which political party holds a majority in the U.S. Senate. Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue face Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the Jan. 5 election.

Gardner ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, Majority Forward, a nonprofit organization supporting voter registration efforts represented by Democratic Party attorney Marc Elias.

“Republicans tried to disenfranchise over 300,000 Georgia voters. This victory means 4,000 voters in two counties are protected,” Elias wrote on Twitter. “We continue to monitor how other Georgia counties respond to the suppression scheme. Where necessary, we will sue and we will win.”

Voter eligibility challenges are allowed under Georgia law to determine the legitimacy of ballots, Clark said. Ballots cast by challenged voters would have been counted or discarded after county election boards reviewed the validity of eligibility challenges. No voter registrations have been canceled.

“Not a single voter has been removed from Muscogee County voter rolls from this challenge. We’re simply following the law as outlined in the statute,” Clark said. “The board was simply going to use provisional ballots so they could ensure only Georgia voters were voting in this election.”

But the plaintiffs said change of address lists are unreliable sources for challenging voter eligibility. Voters who temporarily forward their mail, including members of the military and caregivers, are still allowed to participate in Georgia elections. In addition, voters may have moved back to Georgia.

Gardner ruled that the voter challenges violated federal laws protecting voting rights.

Systemic removals of voters are barred within 90 days of a federal election, according to the National Voter Registration Act. Voters can’t be removed until they’ve been notified and then don’t vote in two federal election cycles.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the voter challenges dealt with acceptance or rejections of ballots, not the cancellation of voter registrations. He also questioned why Gardner, an appointee of President Barack Obama, would rule on a case brought by plaintiffs associated with the Democratic Party, given her relationship with Abrams.

“This ruling is a direct attack on the rule of law in Georgia and the integrity of elections in this state,” Raffensperger said.

Gardner’s ruling covered 4,033 voters in Muscogee County and 152 voters in Ben Hill county.

The largest remaining challenge to Georgia voter eligibility is pending in Forsyth County, where the elections board found probable cause to contest the residency of over 5,000 voters based on a request by state Rep. Marc Morris, a Republican from Cumming.