One morning in late August, Zach Manifold showed up at his job managing the elections office in Gwinnett County, Georgia, to find eight boxes waiting, all filled with documents challenging the right of tens of thousands of people to vote.
It was the physical manifestation of a law passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature in 2021 that explicitly allowed any voter in the state to challenge an unlimited number of Georgia members’ voter registrations.
Conservative activists have used that power to try to remove thousands of voters from the rolls, just weeks before early voting begins in this battleground state on Oct. 17.
In this year’s election in Georgia, there is a rematch race between incumbent Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. He also has one of the top US Senate races, pitting Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock against former NFL star Herschel Walker, the outcome of which could determine which party controls the chamber next year.
Voter challenges have emerged in those and other races before the start of voting in at least nine counties, including Fulton, Cobb and DeKalb in the Atlanta metropolitan area and Chatham, home to Savannah, according to the New Georgia Project, a voting rights group. this is a continuation of evolution.
The group says more than 64,000 voters have been challenged statewide and at least 1,800 voters’ names have been removed from the rolls.
“This is a scary time for our democracy,” said Aklima Khondoker, chief legal officer of the New Georgia Project. “Anyone in your neighborhood, for any reason, can question your voter eligibility.”
While election officials in other states have reported voter turnouts, the largest numbers appear to have turned up in Georgia. And the challenges that have been attempted in this state so far exceed the margin won by Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, which he won by less than 12,000 votes out of 5 million. That year, Biden was the first Democrat to win this traditionally red state in nearly three decades.
Khondoker said his group fears the challenges will affect “historically marginalized and Black and brown” voters.
“They are the ones that led to the historic turnout we saw in 2020,” he said. “This is a clear way to minimize voting power and voting power.”
Gwinnett County, the increasingly Democratic Atlanta suburb Biden won in 2020, has faced the most challenges so far, with the eligibility of more than 37,000 voters in question.
According to a recent news release, VoterGA, the group that mounted the massive Gwinnett County challenge, is financially backed by The America Project — an organization founded by former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne. . . The America Project previously helped fund a much-understudied study of ballots cast in Maricopa County, Arizona.
The group’s financial support for VoterGA was first reported by Bloomberg News.
Garland Favorito, co-founder of VoterGA and a vocal skeptic about the 2020 election results, did not return a message from CNN seeking an interview. But in a press conference earlier this month, he explained that the effort is widespread.
“In the future you’re going to see numbers similar to what you’re seeing today from Gwinnett,” he said of the voter challenges.
Activists aligned with the group have described themselves as conducting a “people’s audit” of the election. In some cases, they have used commercially available change-of-address data and compared it to county voter rolls to argue that some voters have moved and are no longer eligible to vote in Georgia.
Sean Morales-Doyle, director of the voting rights program at the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, said the push by conservative activists “is consistent with the trend of surveillance we’re seeing around elections,” including door-to-door people. to verify the addresses of people who voted in 2020 in some communities.
“There’s a growing part of the country that seems to believe the lies they’ve been told about the 2020 election and distrust election officials,” he added.
Change-of-address data is one of the tools election officials can use to clean up voter rolls. But, under federal law, election officials must reach out to affected voters first. They can be removed from the rolls if they don’t respond and don’t vote in two federal general election cycles, a process that can take years.
And voting rights groups argue that change-of-address data alone does not establish that someone is ineligible to vote in a state. College students, people with vacation homes, and military personnel may choose to receive their mail at a temporary alternate address.
The Brennan Center and other voting rights groups have sent letters to all Georgia counties denying mass challenges and warning that removing voters so close to the election could violate federal law.
The Voter Registration Act of 1993 prohibits the systematic purging of voter rolls within 90 days of a federal election.
But Georgia election officials face another dilemma: They can’t ignore citizens’ challenges, given another provision in the state’s 2021 election law that allows the state to take over local election offices if they have election management difficulties or other performance issues.
Additionally, Georgia law allows case-by-case challenges to voter eligibility to proceed.
Mike Hassinger, a spokesman for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, noted that local election boards and their attorneys must navigate a legal quagmire.
“It depends on the individual circumstances of each challenge,” he said. “If I show up with a spreadsheet and say: ‘These 500 voters should be removed from the roll’, (members of the electoral board) have to make a decision: ‘Is this a systemic challenge?’ ”
“On the other hand, I have a three-ring notebook with handwritten notes and a change-of-address sheet taped to each page and a note from my neighbor, ‘Yes, I’ve moved.’ Please forward my mail’, a person may not be on the registration rolls a valuable reason to be,” added Hassinger.
The Brennan Center’s Morales-Doyle said election officials already have procedures in place to clean up voter rolls without the extra work of investigating challenges brought by citizen activists.
“Looking at the elections is a waste of public resources and public resources that should be spent on other things,” he said.
In Gwinnett County, Manifold said “it’s a task” to sort through all the challenges.
“Somewhere in that five to 10 (people) range all day, every day, six days a week for the last few weeks,” he said recently of the workload.
Manifold said about 15,000 to 20,000 voter registration oppositions filed by VoterGA will not move forward because they face objections to absentee ballots filed in 2020.
And he said election officials had already flagged the possibility of removing many other voter registrations from the group’s list as part of the normal purge process. Additionally, the team recently removed over 6,000 of their challenges. Last week, Manifold told the electoral commission that staff had whittled down the list to about 900 challenges that require further investigation.
Even if most of the challenges prove futile, Gwinnett election workers still have to log long hours on the project.
“My biggest concern is probably employee burnout earlier in the cycle,” Manifold told CNN. “Then it becomes more and more difficult to run a quality election as we get closer to Election Day.”