Georgia Officials Grapple With Frivolous Challenges From Election Deniers

Lawrenceville, Georgia — One by one, the speakers approached the podium at the elections meeting to air their grievances.

One person asked about alleged “phantom” voters who may be registered in Gwinnett County, their community just northwest of Atlanta. Another suggested that officials count ballots manually to avoid fraud. And yet another questioned whether the results of the 2020 election, the most secure in history, should have been certified in Georgia — and then cited the penalties for treason.

“I highly recommend that each of you take your responsibility very seriously, because that time is quickly approaching,” that person said.

A dozen or more speakers gathered Wednesday night to listen to local election officials discuss the fate 37,000+ voter registrations in the county. This was after an opposition group challenged them last month. Similar problems have been faced in other counties throughout Georgia as people who believe in conspiracy theories about the security and integrity of elections flood officials with questions. They are eating up time and resources as election officials — a workforce predominately run by women — are finalizing the logistics for November’s midterms in a state that is in many ways the center of the country’s political universe. The election they are running could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. a historic governor’s raceThese are just a few of the key races for legislative and statewide office.

Most states allow private citizens to challenge someone else’s eligibility to vote, though the rules vary by state. Many times, these challenges are related to claims of someone moving from a county or state and therefore is no longer eligible vote there.

These challenges were not very difficult until recently. These challenges have become more complex. in some pockets of the countryThey are fuelled by conspiracy theories about Trump’s 2020 election. They’re brought by people who believe the lie that Democrats stole the last election, whether by having people vote places they shouldn’t or otherwise fixing the results. Multiple audits, investigations, and litigation have not found evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.

“It’s all born out of the Big Lie,” said Vasu Abhiraman, senior policy counsel at the ACLU of Georgia. “It’s all born out of this idea that there’s something really inefficient about our election system that needs private actors doing this kind of stuff to fix. It’s born out of misinformation.”

According to voting rights organizations in Georgia, Georgia’s public challenges of voter rolls could cause chaos. The 2021 law known as SB202 has a unique provision which allows individuals and groups to submit unlimited challenges to the eligibility to vote. The ripple effect of that on the state’s 159 counties, each of which has its own board of elections, is still being sorted out.

Dele Lowman Smith, chair of the DeKalb Board of Registration and Elections, said the increase in challenges to voter registrations has been “a huge headache” for the volunteer board and its limited staff. They will need to review the challenges and consult attorneys before scheduling hearings for the public.

“It’s been a burden to have all these unexpected and unpredictable meetings,” she said.

Smith said there has been no formal guidance from the state — either the secretary of state’s office or the state board of elections — on how to handle the challenges. She said that other county election officials have reached out to Smith for help.

“Everybody has had to figure this out on their own,” she said.

Mike Hassinger is a spokesperson for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and has acknowledged some of the realities facing officials.

“The challenge review and hearing process can put a burden on county election officials, especially if there are a large number of them,” Hassinger said in an email. “However, county election officials need to continue to follow both Georgia and federal law regarding registration challenges based on individualized research.”

William Duffey, the chairman of Georgia’s State Board of Elections, said the board was aware of many recent challenges, and that they must be addressed in accordance with law. He said the board may evaluate the process and basis for considering challenges “if circumstances dictate.” He did not specify how, but said it would include “input from all interested parties and the public to guide counties in considering proper challenges.”

According to New Georgia Project, a voting rights group, at least 64,000 voters had their eligibility to vote in Georgia this year. At least 1,800 voters had been removed from the rolls of Chatham, Cobb and Dekalb, Fayette Fulton, Fulton, Gwinnett, and Spalding as of late July.

Aklima Khondoker (chief legal officer for New Georgia Project) stated that most of these counties lie in the metropolitan Atlanta area. This area is home to many people of colour and helped propel President Joe Biden to the White House. Vice President Kamala Harris was also a part of the New Georgia Project.

Voting rights groups are concerned that these challenges will make it difficult for voters to vote in communities that have large populations of Black, Latinx, or Asian American residents. Gwinnett County is being considered one of the most diverse countiesThe United States.

“Unlimited challenges is a huge power to give people,” said Lana Goitia Paz, state campaign manager for the Georgia chapter of the national group All Voting is Local, an organization that advocates for removing barriers to voting. “Without providing any guardrails or guidance on that process, it sows a lot of chaos into our very overburdened system.”

The majority of the challenges have been located in Gwinnett County. In late August, VoterGA, an organization with ties and support for Trump, filed challenges to more than 37,000 voter records. The group has denied allegations that it’s targeting people of color.

Garland Favorito (VoterGA’s leader) held a news conference where he encouraged people look into voter registration discrepancies in other Georgia county.

“Let us know, we’ll get you hooked up.… This is going on in other counties,” he said at the event.

Zach Manifold, Gwinnett County elections Supervisor, informed the local board of election that 15,000-20,000 challenges related to 2020 elections are not expected to proceed. He explained that the registrations had been validated through statistical analysis.

Manifold also stated that another 6,000 challenges had been withdrawn. The remaining challenges were being divided into different categories by the election staff, who continued to review them. As election officials attempted to determine when a public hearing would be held to defend voter registrations, they noticed the time crunch. October 11th is the deadline to register to vote in the upcoming election. They want people to have a chance to register if they’re kicked off the rolls.

Alice O’Lenick, chair of the Gwinnett Board of Registrations and Elections, was at the head of the dais in Lawrenceville on Wednesday. After the meeting, she shared with The 19th that the challenges faced by staff were unexpected. She believes that staff could make it through the work.

“It will be time-consuming, but we’ll handle it as best we can,” she said.

Khondoker called the debate Wednesday over the challenges a “zoo.” SB202 requires local boards of elections to hold hearings within 10 days of a challenge or face sanctions.

“What I heard was a very cautious board trying to navigate what it means to go through 30,000-plus challenges and figure out what each of them mean while they are trying to apply the correct code section of Georgia law,” she said.

The challenges are being met. The ACLU of Georgia submitted a letter this monthForsyth County should be asked to reinstate the eligibility of 300 voters it had removed or flagged from its rolls. Abhiraman stated that the ACLU is closely monitoring what happens in Gwinnett County, and how election officials apply law.

Smith said that she had big goals for the board and was looking forward to being chair. She wanted to upgrade the internal systems in order to make elections run more smoothly in the county. This aspiration has been made more difficult due to the voter roll issues.

Smith is also concerned about the impact of this law on the sustainability and integrity of election administrators.

“It’s going to make it harder to fill these positions in the future,” she said.

Voting rights groups say it’s also unclear what will happen if private citizens continue to challenge voter registrations up until Election Day. Some impacted voters may be able to cast a “challenge ballot” that is then separated for review. Before officials can certify the elections, the voter will need to return within a few days.

Khondoker said she worries others may fall through the cracks and be unable to register to vote if they’re kicked off the rolls. She urged election board officials not to remove voters from the rolls based on flawed data or speculation and ​​to allow voters to at least cast challenge ballots.

“Bringing all of these layers of confusion to the system puts enormous burden on the voters and on the counties who are responsible for election administration,” she said. “And really, the entire nation at large is looking at Georgia and how they’re handling their elections as a battleground state.”