Will challenges to voter rolls hamstring Georgia's election system?




  • In Politics
  • 2022-10-05 10:00:05Z
  • By The Guardian

About a year ago, Lee McWhorter joined a group of people in the Atlanta suburbs who were concerned about the integrity of elections in Georgia. They prayed over what they should do, and eventually started scrutinizing the voter rolls in Gwinnett county, one of the most populous and most diverse in the US. The group started checking addresses, comparing voter information in different states, and perusing property records. They brought in data experts to help them compare voter information and began to collect affidavits to back up claims that ineligible voters were on the rolls.

In early September, the group, which has since grown to 80 people and does not have a formal name, challenged the eligibility of tens of thousands of people. The challenges were filed with the backing of VoterGA, whose founder has questioned the raised questions about the 2020 election results. The group has received backing from The America Project, which was founded by Michael Flynn and Patrick Byrne, who have promoted serial misinformation about the 2020 election.

A few weeks later, McWhorter, 68, showed up to speak at a routine election board meeting and urged officials to act. He was particularly disturbed about those who appeared to be registered at addresses that didn't exist. "Who put these phantoms on the voter rolls?" he said.

Sitting just a few rows behind McWhorter that evening, Helen Butler was concerned. One of the leading voting rights activists in the state, she had seen similar challenges filed throughout Georgia in recent months. She knew that workers sometimes make typos when they enter addresses on the rolls, and that Georgia's voter registration form allows people to draw a map to describe where they live if they lack an address. She also knew that a new law, passed by Republicans, allows any voter in Georgia to bring an unlimited number of voter challenges and requires election officials to promptly investigate them.

"[I] want to make sure that we're not removing the people just for the sake of clerical errors and without giving them due process," she said. "I take it that you will really carefully consider all of these challenges and do the right thing."

The voter challenges in Gwinnett, and across Georgia (there have been 64,000 according to one voting rights group) are one example of how groups are undermining confidence in US elections after the 2020 vote. These conservative groups seed a public perception that there is something amiss with the voter rolls, and suck away resources, increasing the possibility of mistakes and chaos, which Republicans could wield to question the results of elections. Groups have filed similar challenges to voter eligibility in Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

But Georgia faces a unique battle. After a large grassroots effort increased turnout among Black and other non-white voters and helped Democrats win upset victories in the 2020 presidential and US Senate races, Republicans responded and passed a 98-page measure, SB 202. The law placed sweeping new restrictions on voting, even after the state affirmed repeatedly that there was no evidence of fraud.

Voters enter and exit a polling station at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds on 5 January 2021 in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
Voters enter and exit a polling station at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds on 5 January 2021 in Lawrenceville, Georgia.  

Now voting rights activists say SB 202 is a thinly veiled effort to make it harder for non-white voters to cast a ballot, exacerbating a major battle over voting access that looms over Georgia as the state hurdles toward highly competitive midterm elections next month. Even if a small number of voters are disenfranchised, it could make a huge difference: Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in Georgia by 11,779 votes in 2020 - just a fraction of the number of voters challenged in Gwinnett county alone.

"There's no doubt that the senate bill 202 push, much like the January 6 insurrection, was a response to the sort of multiracial rising American electorate. Full stop," said Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, a group that works to mobilize Black voters. "I see a straight line between those two dots. No curve."

***

The threat of a stolen election lingers acutely in Georgia. After the 2020 election, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican serving as the state's top election official, and governor Brian Kemp refused Donald Trump's request to overturn the election. High-stakes fights over voting access have become a centerpiece of politics in the state.

But the issue preceded 2020. In 2018, Stacey Abrams, who had spent years mobilizing Black voters in the state, made voting rights a central part of her gubernatorial bid against Kemp, then serving as the state's top election official. After the supreme court freed it from federal supervision under the Voting Rights Act, the state closed large numbers of polling places, contributing to long lines at the polls in recent years in non-white neighborhoods.

Georgia also faced scrutiny for the way it aggressively removed people from the voting rolls, and there was outcry in the fall of 2018, just before the governor's race, when 53,000 voter registrations, the vast majority of them from Black voters, were flagged because the information on the voter registration form didn't exactly match existing Georgia databases. Abrams eventually lost to Kemp by about 55,000 votes in a race she said was marred by voter suppression.

Two years later, Black voters helped Biden carry Georgia, with increased turnout in the Atlanta suburbs, some of the most diverse in the state. In January 2021, Black voters also helped Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both Democrats, win stunning upsets in their US Senate races.

"​​Democrats are still the underdog, but Republicans can't expect to coast to victory. The numbers just aren't there any more," said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University.

For a brief moment in 2021, even Georgia's business community looked like it might be on the verge of taking a stand against voting restrictions. Major League Baseball withdrew the All Star Game from Atlanta over SB 202. Last April, the CEO of Delta Air Lines, based in Georgia, said "the entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections. This is simply not true." The CEO of Coca-Cola called the bill "unacceptable".

Representative Park Cannon is escorted out of the Georgia capitol building by state troopers after being asked to stop knocking on a door while Governor Brian Kemp was signing SB 202 behind closed doors on 25 March 2021.
Representative Park Cannon is escorted out of the Georgia capitol building by state troopers after being asked to stop knocking on a door while Governor Brian Kemp was signing SB 202 behind closed doors on 25 March 2021.  

Since then, the new law has gone into effect and the business community has gone quiet. And voting rights groups are concerned election offices are getting overwhelmed going into elections and have redoubled their efforts to encourage people to vote and ensure that they understand the new restrictions.

"Death by a thousand cuts is how I'm thinking about it now," Ufot said. "This is really like playing Whac-a-Mole at a time where we don't have the resources to fight back this kind of voter suppression," Ufot said.

Under SB 202, counties are required to look into the challenges, forcing them to reallocate resources that would otherwise go towards preparing for the election. But voter challenges are causing considerable alarm just weeks before the election.

"It is not gonna be a fast process. It's gonna take us some time. It's definitely a resource issue. It definitely pulls resources from other things that we're definitely starting to ramp up for the upcoming elections," Zach Manifold, the elections supervisor in Gwinnett county, said in an interview.

Debbie Merck, 60, who was also involved with the challenges, was skeptical that the county didn't have the resources to address their investigation.

"We did all this for free. And they get paid. And yet, it's too much work for them," she said. "I know they've got a lot of other stuff to do. But to me it's so important that you have to make time. You have to pull people off other stuff and do it. But they don't think it's real, so it's kind of discouraging."

As the county worked through the challenges in late September, it appeared that many of them were frivolous. Between 15,000 and 20,000 of them were complaints that Gwinnett county issued a ballot to someone who requested it too early. Manifold said the county had investigated a sample of hundreds of those complaints and all involved a voter who was 65+, disabled, or met the conditions to request an automatic mail-in ballot.

The county also investigated nearly 9,000 challenges involving people who had filed a change of address with the post office. About 5,700 of those voters were already in the process of being removed from the voter rolls, and another 2,074 had cancelled their voter registration. In the end, there were just 937 people who still remained active voters at the challenged address.

Earlier this week, the board voted to dismiss 22,000 remaining challenges, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

There were also several thousand remaining challenges to voters who appeared to have invalid addresses, the kind of voters McWhorter was concerned about. But when the county investigated more than 100 similar challenges this spring, it found that the majority were data entry errors, Manifold said.

Helen Butler: ‘This is junk.’
Helen Butler: ‘This is junk.’  

"We shouldn't be here," Butler said after the meeting in Gwinnett county. "They should just go about doing the election like it should be done. Recruiting people. They said [there are] hundreds of poll worker shortages already. That's the priority. This is junk."

McWhorter, who helped file the challenges, said there was no intent to disenfranchise anyone. "There's no suppression involved. It's a matter of trying to validate is it the correct person at the right address that either can vote or will vote."

In addition to the challenges, much of SB 202 takes aim at mail-in voting, which Georgia voters used in record numbers in 2020 amid the pandemic. It significantly shortened the window in which voters could request a mail-in ballot. Voters can no longer apply for an absentee ballot application online and must now provide a physical "wet signature" with their application in addition to information from their driver's license or another form of ID. The law severely limits the availability of ballot drop boxes, causing the number in the Metro-Atlanta area, home to a sizable chunk of the state's non-white voters, to drop from 107 to 25, according to one analysis.

"Prior to 2020, those who voted by absentee ballot were not Black. So what happened is, when Blacks went out and voted absentee ballot, and by ballot drop boxes, all of a sudden there's something wrong with that," said Bishop Reginald Thomas Jackson, the presiding prelate of the sixth district of the AME church.

SB 202 will affect people like Austin Dixon, an 18-year-old student who is registered to vote in Fulton county, but is going to school at Mercer University in Macon, about an hour and a half away. Instead of requesting an absentee ballot this fall, he plans to travel back to Fulton county and cast his vote early in person.

"I would like to request a mail-in ballot, [but] the system is so challenging now, I'd rather not," he said after seeing Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate speak, at a park in Macon one evening in September. "The process has become more complicated and I don't want to have to be in a situation where it gets challenged."

Robert Majors, a 72-year-old retiree in Macon who is supporting Abrams, said he planned to vote early in person, like he usually does. "I don't understand a lot of the changes," he said. "The Republicans, they want to be in control."

***

Republicans insist that the new voting law isn't suppressing anyone's vote. "Abrams and President Biden lied to the people of Georgia and the country for political gain," the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, told the Washington Post in May as the state saw record early voting turnout in their primary.

But voting activists say that is misleading and overlooks the increased work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure people can vote. It overlooks people like Dixon, who doesn't trust absentee balloting enough to cast one, as well as all of the resources groups have to allocate towards just making sure people understand the law. Georgia dropped from 25th to 29th in a ranking of the cost of voting in each US state.

Butler, who leads a group called the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, said her organization had recently bought printers and scanners to bring to events to assist people if they want to request mail-in ballots.

"We have to be more creative in terms of what we're trying to do," she said one afternoon as she sat at a table in a train station in downtown Atlanta registering voters (the group got 17 voter registrations after several hours at the station).

Leaders in the Black church are also planning their largest effort ever to get people to vote, said Jackson. They expect to have 1,000 churches across the state get out the vote this fall, and are offering a playbook with messaging to encourage people to vote. They are also encouraging people to vote as early as possible to limit their chances of having any issues at the polls, said Taos Wynn, a minister in Atlanta involved with Faith Works, the coalition working on the efforts.

Their work will include not just educating people about the changes, but also persuading people that the new barriers to voting can be overcome.

"​​This isn't going to stop you from voting. We still need you to go out and vote. We've overcome obstacles before and Georgia has proved that, so now we just got to do it again," he said.

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