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Analysis

New Georgia Law Spurs Bogus Challenges to Voter Eligibility

The law allows challenges that threaten to disenfranchise voters and distract election workers from doing their job.

July 9, 2024

A new law went into effect in Georgia this month that makes it easier for people to attempt to kick their neighbors off the rolls through voter challenges. Georgia already made voter challenges far too easy. Now, voters in the state face increased risk of losing their right to vote or being forced to defend it at public hearings, and election deniers have wide latitude to spread disinformation and waste election official time. These challenges are fueled by false claims about the 2020 election being “stolen,” including allegations that ineligible people voted, even though all evidence shows there was no widespread fraud in that election.

The effects of the new law, Senate Bill 189, are already being felt. On July 1, the Bibb County party chair challenged 243 voters; the local board put 45 of those voters into “challenged status,” meaning they will have to take extra steps to have their ballots counted this fall.

Some of the county election boards tasked with implementing this undemocratic law are taking steps to mitigate the damage. Fulton County’s board advised that it will continue to apply federal safeguards for voters, that challengers must have specific evidence as opposed to the generalized evidence they often present, and that the board will not remove anyone from the rolls on the basis of clerical errors such as a typo in an address. It even gives specific examples, including that simple list matching is not enough to remove someone from the rolls. All counties in the state should follow this example.

In Georgia, any registered voter can file an unlimited number of voter challenges with their local elections board alleging that people on the voter rolls are not eligible to vote. Activists have filed around half a million challenges going back to the January 2021 Senate runoffs in the state.

These mass challenges are almost always based on weak evidence that doesn’t justify removing voters from the rolls. For example, comparing names on the National Change of Address forms (what you fill out when you want your mail forwarded) with names on purchased, static copies of the voter rolls. Yet challengers frequently fail to account for different people with the same name or that someone only temporarily wants their mail forwarded. A federal court recently found that the tactics used in mass challenges filed in Georgia in 2021 were “shoddy and rife with errors.”

The good news is that county election boards have consistently rejected these challenges over the last few years. Over and over, the boards said that challengers didn’t provide enough evidence to remove anyone from the rolls. Local officials who reviewed the challenges described them as “guesswork” and “inaccurate assertions.”

These failures did not deter challengers. Instead, some groups have doubled down, creating software that can automate the process of generating mass challenges. These tools make bringing challenges easier but don’t fix the problems with the methodology.

Even when denied, voter challenges present major problems. They make election officials waste countless hours. A 2022 challenge to 37,000 voters in Gwinnett County forced 5 to 10 election staffers to work “all day, every day, six days a week” for multiple weeks and did not turn up a single ineligible voter. In fact, in at least one case, proponents of mass challenges have stated that their goal is to overwhelm election officials; the proponents can then sell the officials “solutions” that are really just the challenge lists by another name.

Moreover, challenges can be intimidating. Voters may become afraid when they learn their name is on a list submitted to the government or they get a notice that their right to vote is in jeopardy.

Challenges also spread disinformation when people use challenges as “proof” that ineligible people are voting. No state’s rolls are perfect, but there is no evidence to support such claims in Georgia or elsewhere.

Rather than reassess their strategy, some groups pressed to change the rules. Georgia S.B. 189 was the result. The local boards must hold hearings for all challenged voters when there is “probable cause,” and the new law specifies that certain types of information — including some known to be unreliable — meet that standard. Clearly faulty submissions can no longer be brushed aside for what they are, meaning weak challenges will force officials to send voters notices that they must defend their rights at a hearing. This is a potentially intimidating process even for voters who stay on the rolls and a headache for officials.

Also concerning are all the questions the law doesn’t answer: mainly, what must be proven at a hearing to remove a voter. Consider a challenge on the basis that a voter is deceased. Is the challenger’s word enough? Could a newspaper obituary suffice? Is a death certificate required? The open-ended nature of the law invites widespread challenges while leaving already swamped election workers to figure out the details.

In an era of seemingly endless attacks on voters and elections, states should be protecting voters and election workers. Georgia has instead offered its voter rolls to an election denial experiment. Rather than accept the good news — the state’s elections are not plagued by fraud — individuals unhappy with recent election outcomes have changed the rules of the game to try to create the appearance of cheating where none exists.