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Georgia Promised to Fix How Voter Challenges Are Handled. A New Law Could Make the Problem Worse.

Georgia Promised to Fix How Voter Challenges Are Handled. A New Law Could Make the Problem Worse.

By Doug Bock Clark, ProPublica

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Ten months after Georgia officials said they would take steps to ensure that counties were correctly handling massive numbers of challenges to voter registrations, neither the secretary of state’s office nor the State Election Board has done so.

In July 2023, ProPublica reported that election officials in multiple Georgia counties were handling citizens’ challenges to voter registrations in different ways, with some potentially violating the National Voter Registration Act.

Instead of fixing the problem, the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature passed SB 189 at the end of March. The bill’s authors claim that it will help prevent voting fraud, while voting rights advocates warn that it could make the issue worse. Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law on Monday.

“I see this as being pro-America, pro-accuracy, pro-transparency and pro-election integrity,” state Rep. John LaHood said of the bill, which he worked to help pass. “I don’t see it being” about voter suppression “whatsoever.”

When it takes effect in July, SB 189 will make it easier for Georgia residents to use questionable evidence when challenging fellow residents’ voter registrations. Voting rights activists also claim that the law could lead county officials to believe they can approve bulk challenges closer to election dates.

“It’s bad policy and bad law, and will open the floodgates to bad challenges,” said Caitlin May, a voting rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, which has threatened to sue over what it says is the law’s potential to violate the NVRA.

ProPublica previously reported on how just six right-wing advocates challenged the voter registrations of 89,000 Georgians following the 2021 passage of a controversial law that enabled residents to file unlimited voter challenges. We also revealed that county election officials may have been systematically approving challenges too close to election dates, which would violate the NVRA.

The Georgia secretary of state’s office said at the time that it was “thankful” for information provided by ProPublica, that it had been working on “uniform standards for voter challenges” and that it had “asked the state election board to provide rules” to help election officials handle the challenges. And the chair of the State Election Board told ProPublica last year that though the board hadn’t yet offered rules due to the demands of the 2022 election, “now that the election is over, we intend to do that.”

With the new law soon to be in effect, the State Election Board is determining its next steps. “We’re going to probably have to try and provide some instruction telling” election officials how to respond to SB 189, said John Fervier, who was appointed chair in January after the former chair stepped down. “I don’t know if that will come from the State Election Board or from the secretary of state’s office. But we’re one day past the signing of the legislation, so it’s still too early for me to comment on what kind of instruction will go out at this point.”

Mike Hassinger, a public information officer for the secretary of state’s office, said in a statement that it falls to the State Election Board to review laws and come up with rules. “Once the board moves forward with that process we are more than happy to extend help to rule making,” Hassinger said.

Conservative organizations have been vocal about their plans to file numerous challenges to voter registrations this year, providing training and other resources to help Georgians do so. Activists and Georgia Republican Party leadership publicly celebrated the passage of SB 189, with the GOP chair telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that this year’s legislative session was “a home run for those of us concerned about election integrity.”

But what has not gotten as much attention is how individuals who were involved in producing massive numbers of voter challenges managed to shape SB 189.

Courtney Kramer, the former executive director of True the Vote, a conservative organization that announced it was filing over 360,000 challenges in Georgia after the 2020 presidential election, played an instrumental role in getting the bill passed. She was the co-chair of the Election Confidence Task Force, a committee of the Georgia Republican Party that provided sample language to legislators crafting SB 189. An internal party email reviewed by ProPublica thanked Kramer for her dedication in helping bring “us to the final stages of pushing essential election integrity reform through the legislature.” Kramer said in a statement that “my goal was to restore confidence in Georgia’s elections process” and to “make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

Jason Frazier, who ProPublica previously found was one of the state’s six most prolific challengers, served on the Election Confidence Task Force. Frazier did not respond to requests for comment.

In late July, William Duffey, who was then the chair of Georgia’s State Election Board, was working on a paper to update county election officials on how to handle voter challenges. But when the board met in August 2023, a large crowd of right-wing activists packed the room, and dozens of people castigated the board for defending the legitimacy of the 2020 election. One mocked a multicultural invocation with which Duffey had started the meeting, declaring, “The only thing you left out was satanism!” A right-wing news outlet accused “the not so honorable Judge Duffey” of hiding “dirt” on the corruption of the 2020 election.

Less than a month later, Duffey stepped down. He denied that activists had driven him out, telling ProPublica that pressure from such activists “comes with the job.” But, he explained, the volunteer position had been taking “70% of my waking hours,” and “I wanted to get back to things for which I had scoped out my retirement.”

According to two sources knowledgeable about the board’s workings, who asked for anonymity to discuss confidential board matters, Duffey had been the primary force behind updating the rules about voter challenges, and without him, the effort stalled. One source also said that the board had realized that Republican legislators planned to rewrite voter-challenge laws, and members wanted to see what they would do.

In January 2024, Republican legislators began working on those bills. The one that succeeded, SB 189, introduces two especially important changes that would help challengers, according to voting rights activists.

First, it says a dataset kept by the U.S. Postal Service to track address changes provides sufficient grounds for election officials to approve challenges, if that data is backed up by secondary evidence from governmental sources. Researchers have found the National Change of Address dataset to be unreliable in establishing a person’s residence, as there are many reasons a person could be listed as living outside of Georgia but could still legally vote there. ProPublica found in 2023 that counties frequently dismissed challenges because of that unreliability. And voting rights activists claim that the secondary sources SB 189 specifies include swaths of unreliable data.

“My worry is” that the bill “will cause a higher success rate for the challenges,” said Anne Gray Herring, a policy analyst for nonprofit watchdog group Common Cause Georgia.

The new bill also states that starting 45 days before an election, county election boards cannot make a determination on a challenge. Advocates have expressed concerns that counties will interpret the law to mean that they can approve mass, or systematic, challenges up until 45 days before an election. The NVRA prohibits systematic removal of voters within 90 days of an election, and election boards commonly dismissed challenges that likely constituted systematic removal within the 90-day window, ProPublica previously found.

When True the Vote was challenging voters in the aftermath of the 2020 election, a judge issued a restraining order against the challenges for violating the 90-day window.

Whether SB 189 violates the NVRA could be settled in court, according to voting rights advocates and officials. On Tuesday, after SB 189 was signed, Gabriel Sterling, the chief operating officer for the Georgia secretary of state, disputed on social media that the new law would make voter challenges easier. But months earlier, he said that imprecision in the voter challenges process could lead to legal problems.

“When you do loose data matching, you get a lot of false positives,” Sterling said, testifying about voter list maintenance before the Senate committee that would pass a precursor to SB 189. “And when you get a lot of false positives and then move on them inside the NVRA environment, that’s when you get sued.”

This post was originally published on this site

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