One morning in late August, Zach Manifold showed up at his job running the elections office in Gwinnett County, Georgia, to find eight boxes waiting, all filled with documents challenging the eligibility of tens of thousands of people to cast ballots.
It was the physical manifestation of a law passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature in 2021, making it explicit that any voter in the state could challenge an unlimited number of fellow Georgians’ voter registrations.
Conservative activists have seized on that power to attempt to remove thousands of voters from the rolls with just weeks to go before the October 17 start of in-person early voting in this battleground state.
This year’s election in Georgia features a high-stakes rematch race for governor between incumbent Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. It also has one of the marquee battles for the US Senate, pitting Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock against former NFL star, Herschel Walker, a Republican, the outcome of which could determine which party controls the chamber next year.
Ahead of voting starting in those and other races, voter challenges have cropped up in at least nine counties – including Fulton, Cobb and DeKalb in the metro Atlanta area and Chatham, home to Savannah, according to the New Georgia Project, a voting rights group that’s tracking the developments.
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.
“It’s a scary time for our democracy,” said Aklima Khondoker, New Georgia Project’s chief legal officer. “Anybody in your neighborhood, for whatever their reasons are, can challenge your voter eligibility.”
While election officials in other states have reported voter challenges, the biggest number appears to have been lodged in Georgia. And the challenges attempted so far in this state far exceed Joe Biden’s margin of victory in the 2020 presidential election, which he won by fewer than 12,000 votes out of some 5 million cast. That year, Biden became the first Democrat to win this traditionally red state in nearly three decades.
Khondoker said her group fears the challenges are most likely to affect “historically marginalized and Black and brown” voters.
“They are the ones that led to the historical turnout that we saw in 2020,” she said. “This is a clear way to minimize their voting strength and voting power.”
Ties to Trump allies
Gwinnett County, an increasingly Democratic Atlanta suburb that Biden won in 2020, has seen the most challenges so far, with the eligibility of more than 37,000 voters questioned.
According to a recent news release, VoterGA, the group that mounted the mass challenges in Gwinnett County, is backed financially by The America Project – an organization founded by onetime Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com. The America Project previously helped fund a widely discredited review of ballots cast in Maricopa County, Arizona.
The group’s financial support for VoterGA was first reported by Bloomberg News.
Garland Favorito, VoterGA’s co-founder and a vocal skeptic of the 2020 election results, did not return messages from CNN, seeking an interview. But at a news conference earlier this month, he described the effort as widespread.
“You’re going to see in the future similar numbers to what you are seeing today from Gwinnett,” he said of the voter challenges.
Activists aligned with the group have described themselves as undertaking a “people’s audit” of elections. In some cases, they have used commercially available bulk change-of-address data and compared it to the county voter rolls to argue that some voters have moved and no longer qualify to cast ballots in Georgia.
Sean Morales-Doyle, director of the voting rights program at the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, said the drive by conservative activists “fits with a trend of vigilantism that we are seeing around elections,” including people going door-to-door in some communities to verify the addresses of people who cast ballots in 2020.
“There’s a growing segment of the country that seems to believe lies that they have been told about the 2020 election and that has them distrusting election officials,” he added.
The change-of-address data is one of the tools that election officials can use to clean up voter rolls. But, under federal law, election officials must first reach out to affected voters. They can be removed from the rolls if they fail to respond and also miss casting ballots 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 no longer eligible to vote in a state. College students, people with vacation homes and members of the military may opt to temporarily receive their mail at another address.
Navigating state and federal laws
The Brennan Center and other voting rights groups have sent letters to all Georgia counties, urging them to deny the mass challenges and warning that removing voters so close to an election could violate federal law.
The 1993 National Voter Registration Act prohibits systematic purges of the voting rolls within 90 days of a federal election.
But Georgia election officials face another dilemma: They cannot simply ignore the citizen challenges, given another provision of state’s 2021 election law that empowers the state to take over local election offices if they have difficulty administering elections or other performance issues.
In addition, Georgia law allows case-by-case challenges of voter’s eligibility to proceed.
Mike Hassinger, spokesman for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, noted that local election boards and their lawyers must navigate a thicket of laws.
“It kind of depends on the individual circumstances of each challenge,” he said. “If I just show up with a spreadsheet and I say, ‘These 500 electors should be taken off their registration rolls,’ (election board members) have to make a decision: ‘Is that a systematic challenge?’ “
“If on the other hand, I’ve got a three-ring notebook with handwritten notes and a change-of-address form taped to each page and a note from my neighbor, saying ‘Yep, I moved. Please forward my mail,’ there could be a valid reason that a person shouldn’t be on the registration rolls,” Hassinger added.
Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center said election officials already have procedures in place to clean up the voter rolls – without having the added job of researching challenges brought by citizen activists.
“It’s a waste of public resources and public resources that should be spent on other things in the run-up to an election,” he said.
‘It’s a task’
In Gwinnett County, Manifold said “it’s a task” to sort through all the challenges.
“Somewhere in that five to 10 range (of people) all day, every day, six days a week over the last couple of weeks,” he said recently of the workload.
Manifold said some 15,000 to 20,000 of the voter registration challenges lodged by VoterGA won’t proceed because they actually deal with objections to absentee ballots cast in 2020.
And he said election officials already had flagged for possible removal many of the other voter registrations on the group’s list as part of the normal cleanup process. In addition, the group recently withdrew more than 6,000 of its challenges. Last week, Manifold told the elections board that the staff had whittled the list down to some 900 challenges that need more research.
Even if most of the challenges prove invalid, the Gwinnett election staff still has had to log long hours on the project.
“My biggest concern probably is burning out the staff sooner in the cycle,” Manifold told CNN. “Then, it makes it harder and harder to run a quality election as we get closer to Election Day.”