This story was updated on October 31, 2022 at 2:20 p.m.
Several metro Atlanta counties have been inundated with massive challenges to the voting eligibility of tens of thousands of registered voters, filed with the help of groups spreading baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud.
Local election boards have rejected most mass challenges so far, but new ones may still be filed now that voting is underway.
Why are all these mass challenges happening now?
While Georgia's new election law SB-202 made it clear that individuals could challenge an “unlimited” number of voters in their county, there had never been an explicit limit.
And in fact, even before the new election law was passed, people were filing thousands of lawsuits, spurred by former President Trump and his allies' false claims of widespread voter fraud.
“Over 300,000 mass voter lawsuits were filed in the state in December 2020,” said Vasu Abhiraman, senior policy counsel at the ACLU of Georgia.
Abhiraman says Georgia's new electoral law did not allow mass challenges for the first time, but the explicit language essentially “blessed” the practice, which was reinforced by rhetoric about stolen elections.
What happens when disputes are filed for the first time?
If a challenge to a voter's eligibility in the upcoming election is filed, the local elections board will be directed to investigate the claim “promptly” and apply a very high evidentiary threshold to advance complaints.
“They should immediately examine the evidence presented and see if it qualifies as probable cause,” Abhiraman said. “And if they don’t, they reject it, and that’s it.”
The mere argument that a voter has requested a change of address, for example, is not sufficient to challenge his or her eligibility to vote.
The majority of mass lawsuits failed this initial assessment and were dismissed.
Can individual voters personally challenge another voter in the election?
No. Initial guidance from the State Department's office suggested this was possible, but this has since been corrected. Objections can only be submitted in writing to the local election office.
What happens if I vote after a challenge is filed but before the board considers it?
An election board may not be able to meet literally “immediately” as each challenge arises. Abhiraman says that in Gwinnett County, for example, the board has failed to gather enough members to weigh in on a current challenge, so it remains outstanding. But until they meet, voter registration remains unaffected and they can vote like everyone else.
“If you vote in person and your ballot goes into the scanner, that’s it,” Abhiraman said. “You cannot take your vote back. There is no logistical way to take your vote back. At this point it is a secret vote.”
To make things a little more complicated, the timeline differs slightly depending on the type of voter lawsuit filed. Challenges to a voter’s eligibility for the current election (known as a 230 challenge) must be resolved “immediately.”
An even more serious version of the voter challenge (so-called 229 challenge) aims to completely cancel a voter's registration. Boards of elections must notify the voter, hold a hearing and decide on these challenges within 20 days.
What happens when a challenge reaches the probable cause threshold?
The voter's registration status appears in the system as disputed.
The law states that those voters should be notified “when possible” and given an opportunity to resolve the challenge.
If not, it is possible that a voter will arrive at the polling place and learn that their voter registration status is marked as disputed.
What should I do if I arrive at the polls and find that my registration has been challenged?
In some counties, voters can sign an affidavit of residency on the spot, fix the problem and vote as usual. The Secretary of State's Office encourages election offices to adopt this practice.
Otherwise, voters will be asked to vote on a paper ballot, which will be marked as challenged and will not be counted until the challenge is resolved.
“I understand the desire not to vote for a contested ballot and hope that the matter can be resolved before the voter can come back and cast a regular ballot,” Abhiraman says. “That being said, as the days go by and especially when you show up on Election Day, you should cast your vote.”
What happens after I cast a ballot marked as challenged?
“If you find yourself in this situation, casting a contested ballot, a hearing about whether you are actually an eligible voter, that's exactly what needs to happen,” Abhiraman says.
The elections office should conduct a hearing. The entire process must be resolved before the November 15 deadline to certify the election.
Are there other reasons why my registration is marked as disputed?
There are several other reasons your registration may appear challenged – including standard procedures the state and counties follow to keep voter rolls accurate, such as flagging voters who are currently serving a felony sentence and in Georgia is not allowed to vote.
Should I worry about not being able to vote?
“For the vast majority of voters in Georgia, you’re not involved in that challenge process,” Abhiraman says. “[If] You're a voter who shows up and finds out you're in Challenge status. Being informed that this is happening can ensure you are not surprised and you can take the appropriate next steps to ensure things are resolved and your vote is counted.”
While it's unclear how many more mass challenges there will be in the final days of the midterms, election experts say these mass challenges are burdening poll workers with hours of extra work at a time when they're running out of time.
“It punishes the staff, it challenges the voter, it causes delays and puts the poll worker in an uncomfortable position. I call it killing a flea with a shotgun,” Gwinnett County Board of Elections member Stephen Day said at a recent meeting where the board fielded thousands of challenges.