Kendra Davenport Cotton, the recently promoted CEO of the New Georgia Project, founded in 2014 by Stacey Abrams to increase voter participation by Black Georgians and other residents of color, wanted to share good news about the upcoming midterm election, where Abrams challenges Governor Brian Kemp in a rematch of 2018, and Senator Raphael Warnock faces an unexpectedly fierce challenge from former football star Herschel Walker.
“Early voting,” she says, “is breaking [midterm] records.” When we spoke on Tuesday, three days before the end of the early-voting period, 1.8 million Georgians had already cast their ballots. She was most encouraged by the fact that 73,000 of them had never voted in Georgia before.
The bad news? A high number of “voter challenges,” mainly brought by older white people in the Metro Atlanta area, Savannah’s Chatham County, and near college campuses, designed to target voters of color and young voters. Georgia election law has allowed voter challenges before—an individual or political group can scan election rolls and look for address discrepancies and other “suspicious” data, and present a challenge to the local county election board. But the state’s suppressive 2021 law, SB 202, explicitly spelled out that right, and made clear that it was unlimited—a single voter could challenge any number of registrations.
There’s no single database of challenges in all of the state’s 169 counties. But NGP has tracked at least 75,000 challenges, including those already brought to county boards as well as those threatened. A survey by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution verified 65,000 challenges, and found that more than 3,000 voters had been disenfranchised. There could be challenges right up to Election Day.
It’s clear from either set of numbers that local election boards, which rely heavily on volunteers, are rejecting the vast majority of challenges. So what’s the problem? “My biggest concern probably is burning out the staff sooner in the cycle,” Gwinnett County election supervisor Zach Manifold told CNN last month. “Then, it makes it harder and harder to run a quality election as we get closer to Election Day.”
The process to inform a voter that they’ve been challenged seems to vary from county to county. But normally, Cotton says, “you won’t get a call. You’ll get one of those raggedy white envelopes you get from the government.” It’s not marked urgent; it doesn’t display its intent in any way, she noted. “And for a lot of people, if it’s not a check, it’s going straight into the garbage.”
Meanwhile, instead of focusing on getting voters to the polls at this point, NGP and other progressive groups are having to “spend our time fixing” these challenges, Cotton added—identifying them and working with eligible voters to make sure they can cast ballots, whether early or on Election Day.
Some of the individuals challenging voters insist that they’re not affiliated with right-wing groups—just concerned citizens working on election integrity. But after Joe Biden was declared the winner in 2020, and before the state’s historic Senate runoff elections that sent two Democrats to Washington, the notorious Texas-based conservative group True the Vote and Georgia GOP party members challenged 364,000 voters in late 2020. Ultimately, though, only a few dozen voters were disqualified.
This time around, a voter-suppression group known as VoterGA is working on the challenges, with funding from those noted election integrity experts Michael Flynn and Overstock founder Patrick Byrne at the America Project. Georgia Public Broadcasting reported that out of 25,500 voter challenges brought by VoterGA, only 1,800 have resulted in registration cancellations, according to the League of Women voters.
The reasons for the challenges vary, but are mainly sketchy. A common one, used by True the Vote in late 2020, tracks change-of-address forms. Of course, those don’t always mean someone has moved permanently and is voting elsewhere. Students, visiting professors, workers on extended assignment elsewhere, grandparents wanting a long stay with grandkids—all have valid reasons to have their mail forwarded while still maintaining their legal residence, and voter registration, in Georgia. Another common tactic is to challenge addresses as somehow faulty or incomplete. Cobb County mostly rejected challenges that centered on dormitories and other student housing around at Kennesaw State University, where numbers at apartment complexes and dorms might be harder to get right.
Some challenges are downright cruel. When Barbara Helm turned out to vote early in Forsyth County recently, she discovered that her registration had been canceled by a stranger who challenged it. She is homeless and lives in her car, so she used the address of a local post office to register, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. She’d missed the voter registration deadline and thus she cannot vote in this crucial election. But Joel Natt, Republican vice chair of the Forsyth elections board, says that Helm should have answered notification letters—presumably sent to the post office—or reregistered in time to vote. “All I can say is, she had time on her side to correct this,” he insisted. How she could “correct” what she didn’t know was a problem is unclear.
All of this malicious activism comes despite Georgia’s being one of the nation’s most aggressive states when it comes to culling its voter rolls. It’s removed nearly 1 million of what it says were “outdated” registrations in the past five years, including 534,000 in 2017 alone—discarded by then–Secretary of State Brian Kemp, just ahead of his first match with Stacey Abrams. The AJC says that was probably the largest mass cancellation in US history.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office made things worse by issuing a ruling on October 11 that people could challenge individual voters’ eligibility even in person, at their polling places, as they attempted to vote. Protests led the office to reverse its advice; such challenges will not be allowed.
But the forces of voter intimidation and suppression scored a victory recently when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that individuals could sue county election boards they believe broke the law in any way. That potentially leaves local boards who rejected most voter challenges open to lawsuits. VoterGA cofounder Garland Favorito applauded the news on Twitter with the hashtag #Fix2020Now.
It’s too late for the election deniers to “fix” 2020. But they’re aiming to fix 2022 and beyond. “I remind people, Joe Biden only won this state by 12,000 votes,” says former NGP CEO Nsé Ufot. Plus two of the most aggressively targeted counties, Gwinnett and Cobb, are two of only six counties in the entire country that flipped from John McCain to Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton in 2016. “They are ethnically and racially so diverse, and they are being targeted with surgical precision,” she adds. “I’m absolutely concerned this could impact the outcomes.”