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A new political battle over voter challenges is brewing in Georgia

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A new political battle over voter challenges is brewing in Georgia

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia has been rocked by fierce battles over voting laws since Democrat Stacey Abrams' narrow defeat by Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 gubernatorial race.

The nationwide brawl entered the national consciousness in 2021 when Republicans — under pressure from GOP activists who spread Donald Trump's false claims that he lost the 2020 election because of widespread voter fraud — pushed through a sweeping law imposing new restrictions on voters .

Now, with just months until a likely rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden, Georgia is again tinkering with state election laws.

Just last week, Republican lawmakers passed a new bill that would allow people to be removed from voter rolls by challenging their eligibility to vote. It awaits Kemp's signature or veto.

Advocates say such challenges prevent fraud by rooting out duplicate records and excluding voters who have moved out of state. Opponents claim they will misuse data and subject legitimate voters to legal scrutiny.

POLITICAL reporting in Georgia:

Here's a closer look at the problem:

WHAT IS A VOTER CHALLENGE?

Georgia and other states allow citizens to challenge a person's eligibility to vote, for example if they have personal knowledge that a neighbor is leaving the state. Now, however, residents are increasingly challenging large numbers of voters using impersonal data, including the national change of address list maintained by the U.S. Postal Service. Others search the lists for people who are not registered at residential addresses. A Texas group called True the Vote challenged 364,000 voters in Georgia ahead of two 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs. Since then, individuals and groups have challenged about 100,000 more.

WHAT MOTIVATES CHALLENGERS?

Under federal law, Georgia can only remove someone from the rolls if they fail to respond to an email at their registered address and then fail to vote in two subsequent federal elections. This process can take five years. Republican activists committed to challenging large numbers of voters say that's too long.

“These are voters who moved to their old address a few months or years before they voted, then came back and showed a driver's license that they knew had not been updated, claiming to still live there, and them were given the right to vote,” said Mark Davis , a Gwinnett County resident who said he has scoured voter rolls for decades. He testified for Republicans at a state Senate hearing on Feb. 15 that helped shape this year's legislation.

WHY ARE SOME AGAINST CHALLENGES?

Opponents describe the mass voter challengers as “vigilantes” who are upsetting the balance between updating voter rolls and ensuring the right to vote for all.

“There are people here who want to act as if we have a massive problem with our lists and that having a dead person's name on the lists is a real security risk,” said Rep. Saira Draper, a Democrat from Atlanta , who opposed Bill, said last week. “But when you put aside the scaremongering and leaps of logic, the facts show that actual voter fraud in Georgia is infinitesimally small.”

Fair Fight Action, a group founded by Abrams that unsuccessfully sued against the “True the Vote” challenges, argues that such challenges disproportionately target younger and poorer voters, including African Americans, because they move more often. Lauren Groh-Wargo, interim executive director of Fair Fight, said she believes Republicans are trying to win elections in Georgia by pushing out Democratic-leaning voters.

Opponents also point out that the challengers happen to be party activists and Trump allies who supported Trump's false claims. One of them is Brad Carver, head of the Georgia Republican Party's Election Confidence Task Force and one of 16 Republicans who falsely claimed to be legitimate voters for Trump in Georgia. Also involved is Cleta Mitchell, a former Trump lawyer who participated in the January 2021 call in which Trump urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden's victory in Georgia.

“I can’t believe we’re still bending over backwards to accommodate election deniers, conspiracy theorists and unindicted co-conspirators when it comes to electoral politics,” Draper said.

What would the new bill do?

The bill defines probable cause for removing voters from the voter rolls, including death, proof of voting or registration in another jurisdiction, a tax exemption indicating a primary residence elsewhere, or a nonresidential address. Most controversially, the new bill states that the national change of address list may be considered, although not exclusively. Opponents say the list is unreliable.

But it's not clear how the law will change things because the state has never issued guidelines to counties on how to deal with challenges. This means that some could accept them based on the probable cause set out in the bill, while others could reject mass challenges entirely.

WHAT DO THE OPPONENTS SEE AS ​​PROBLEMS?

Opponents of the new bill say it could harm legitimate voters. For example, sometimes people live at a place of business that is considered a non-residential address. Officials in Raffensperger's office say there are more reliable types of information, such as driver's license information, to confirm a voter's eligibility.

Gabriel Sterling, Raffensperger's chief operating officer, testified in February that removing voters too aggressively from the voter rolls could lead to lawsuits under the National Voter Registration Act.

“If you do loose data matching, you get a lot of false positives,” Sterling said. “If you get a lot of false positives, you’ll get sued, and then you’ll have big problems with list maintenance.”

The bill also requires homeless people to list their address as the county voter office instead of their place of residence. Opponents say this could make it more difficult for homeless citizens to vote because their registered polling place may be far away.

Could challenged voters be deterred?

Opponents say receiving a campaign letter in the mail is a frightening experience and voters may have to take time out of their day to show up at a county meeting to defend their eligibility to vote.

However, a federal judge ruled in January that challenges did not constitute illegal intimidation under the Voting Rights Act.

Are there grounds for a lawsuit?

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has already threatened to sue if Kemp signs the bill.

The National Voter Registration Act states that states and counties cannot make systematic changes to voter rolls within 90 days of a federal election. Georgia's bill allows challenges to be accepted and voters removed from voter rolls up to 45 days before an election.