Six Right-Wing Activists Filed 89,000 Georgia Voter Roll Challenges — ProPublica

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week.

On March 15, 2022, an email appeared in the inbox of the election director of Forsyth County, Georgia, with the subject line “Challenge of Elector’s Eligibility.” A spreadsheet attached to the email identified 13 people allegedly registered to vote at P.O. boxes in Forsyth County, a wealthy Republican suburb north of Atlanta. Georgians are supposed to register at residential addresses, except in special circumstances. “Please consider this my request that a hearing be held to determine these voters’ eligibility to vote,” wrote the challenger, Frank Schneider.

Schneider is a former chief financial officer at multiple companies, including Jockey International, the underwear maker. His Instagram page includes pictures of him golfing at exclusive resorts and a dog peeing on a mailbox with the caption “Woody suspects mail-in voter fraud” and the hashtag “#maga.” On Truth Social, the social media platform backed by former president Donald Trump, Schneider’s posts have questioned the 2020 election results in Forsyth County and spread content related to QAnon, the conspiracy theory that holds that the Democratic elite are cannibalistic pedophiles. In January 2023, he posted an open letter to his U.S. representative-elect encouraging “hearings to hold perpetrators accountable where evidence exists that election fraud took place in the 2020 and 2022 elections.”

The March 2022 voter challenges were the first of many from Schneider: As the year progressed, he submitted seven more batches of challenges, each one larger than the one previous, growing from 507 voters in April to nearly 15,800 in October, for a total of over 31,500 challenges.

Vetting Georgia’s voter rolls was once largely the domain of nonpartisan elections officials. But after the 2020 election, a change in the law enabled Schneider and other activists to take on a greater role. Senate Bill 202, which the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed in 2021, transformed election laws in response to “many electors concerned about allegations of rampant voter fraud,” as the bill stated. Many states allow challenges, but officials in Georgia and experts say that in the past challengers have typically had relevant personal knowledge, such as someone submitting a challenge to remove a dead relative from the rolls. Georgia, however, is unusual in explicitly allowing citizens unlimited challenges against anyone in their county.

At first, voting rights groups were vocal about other aspects of SB 202, such as restrictions on absentee ballots, paying less attention to the 98-page bill’s handful of sentence-length tweaks that addressed voter challenges. The change to the challenges rule was “the sleeper element of SB 202,” said Rahul Garabadu, a senior voting rights attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

Media outlets have reported on the high number of challenges and numerous cases of voters feeling harassed, impeded or intimidated by being placed into “challenged” status. But the outsized role of the small group of people making the challenges was less clear. ProPublica was able to determine that a vast majority of the challenges since SB 202 became law — about 89,000 of 100,000 — were submitted by just six right-wing activists, including Schneider. Another 12 people accounted for most of the rest. (ProPublica obtained data for all challenges logged in 30 of the state’s 159 counties, including the 20 most populous.) Of those challenges, roughly 11,100 were successful — at least 2,350 voters were removed from the rolls and at least 8,700 were placed in a “challenged” or equivalent status, which can force people to vote with a provisional ballot that election officials later adjudicate.

Gwinnett County elections supervisor Zach Manifold looks over boxes of voter challenges on Sept. 15, in Lawrenceville, Georgia.


Credit:
John Bazemore/AP Photo

Challenges from right-wing activists have proliferated in Georgia despite strict federal laws governing how voters can be removed from rolls. That’s in part because state and local election officials have struggled to figure out how to reconcile SB 202 with federal protections. This has resulted in counties handling challenges inconsistently, sometimes in ways that experts warn may have violated federal law, something they say may have been the case with Schneider’s March challenges.

In the run-up to the 2022 election, voting rights advocates warned that some challenges might create insurmountable barriers to people casting a ballot, such as by removing them from the rolls. But there were no published accounts of Georgians who ultimately did not cast a ballot as a result of being challenged. Schneider’s March challenges did lead to this kind of harm in at least one instance: An unhoused voter found his removal from the rolls too high a barrier to allow him to re-register in time to vote.

Schneider would not agree to an interview and did not respond directly to ProPublica’s written questions. In emails, he stated that challenges “only are acted upon” if the elections board approves them and wrote, “I have not been made aware of anyone that couldn’t vote based on anything submitted, if true.”

Even some voters who managed to remain on the rolls were still forced by challenges to fight to remain registered. In Fulton County, which encompasses most of Atlanta, an immunosuppressed cancer patient had to drive nearly two hours round-trip to a crowded hearing to defend his right to vote. At the same proceeding, a Black woman likened her challenge to voter intimidation.

“There is a clear imbalance of power between the individual bringing the challenges and the county and voters,” said Esosa Osa, the deputy executive director of Fair Fight Action, a voting rights advocacy organization. Elections officials and voters, she said, “currently have very little recourse once challenged, regardless of the merits of the challenge.”

Some activists have justified their efforts by claiming that people might exploit flaws in the voter rolls to commit fraud — for example, by voting under the name of a deceased person still on the rolls. Officials in multiple counties told ProPublica that they did not know of any instances of challenges resulting in a successfully prosecuted case of voter fraud. A spokesperson for the Georgia secretary of state’s office said it does not track this data.

ProPublica did find that challenges sometimes identified errors in the voter rolls, which are dauntingly complex databases that are forever evolving as people register, move, die or otherwise change their statuses. Many of these corrections would have happened anyway in the routine maintenance process, officials said and records showed, though sometimes at a pace slower than if activists submitted challenges.

“If all these challengers are finding is inconsequential errors that do not affect election results on the whole, but they’re placing real and harmful burdens on voters, then you have to wonder why they’re really doing this,” said Derek Clinger, a senior staff attorney with the State Democracy Research Initiative at the University of Wisconsin Law School. “It’s doing more harm than good.”

In 2018, Joseph Riggs, a longtime Forsyth County resident who identifies as a Democrat, became homeless after struggling with depression and other mental health challenges and began using a P.O. box as his permanent mailing address during what would be years of instability. Still, he made sure to vote in the 2020 presidential election and wanted to vote in the hotly contested 2022 Georgia senate race because he viewed its outcome as affecting social policy that would impact him.

But that spring Riggs received at his P.O. box a two-page letter from the Forsyth County elections office informing him of Schneider’s March challenge and asking him either to appear at a board hearing at 9 a.m. on a workday in June or to send in paperwork justifying his registration at a P.O. box, changing his registration or removing himself from the rolls. Around the time of the hearing, Riggs was living in a tent in the woods, within walking distance of the part-time jobs he was juggling at McDonald’s, Dollar Tree and a gas station. He worried that attending the hearing would require an expensive Uber ride and force him to take unpaid time off work. In the months beforehand, a state election official had also called Riggs to question him about his registration, he said, making him think fearfully of news reports of people being arrested for violating voting laws. And he said he did not remember seeing the option to send in paperwork. Ultimately, he did not contest his removal from the rolls.

Riggs said that after the county elections board removed him, he doubted that he could re-register because the letter and phone call led him to believe he now had no valid address. (According to the secretary of state’s office, unhoused individuals can solve this challenge by giving a residential address that is the “closest approximation” of the location they shelter at, such as a street corner, and then listing a separate mailing address, such as P.O. box. But Riggs was not provided with this information.)

“I was really angry,” he said. “When you’re homeless, your vote is the only voice you’ve got.”

Barbara Helm, who identifies as a Democrat, said she did not see the letter in her P.O. box notifying her of Schneider’s March 2022 challenge against her, as she had been struggling with addiction and homelessness. Nor did she know at first that she had been removed at the same June hearing as Riggs was called to, though election workers sent her another letter announcing her removal. It wasn’t until she contacted election officials during the in-person early voting period in October that she learned that she’d been removed from the rolls and that the window to re-register had closed.

“A lot of people have fought and died for voting rights,” said Helm. “I didn’t even know” the challengers and board “could do that to you.”

Barbara Helm, who lives in Toccoa, Georgia, said she did not see the letter in her P.O. box notifying her of the challenge to her voter registration.

Helm contacted the local Democratic Party about her plight, and its officials took up her case — she was mentioned as an example of voter suppression by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in a debate, though not by name, and her voting difficulties were covered in several news reports. Helm was eventually allowed to vote with a provisional ballot, which she believed only happened because of the attention to her case. (A lawyer for the Forsyth County board, Karen Pachuta, wrote to ProPublica that “the receipt of a provisional ballot in Forsyth County is not dependent on any particular person or circumstance receiving media or political attention.”)

A week after the election, Helm showed up to a board meeting to defend her provisional ballot and beg for her vote to count. “It kind of brought tears to my eyes when they approved my ballot,” she said.

Two other voters challenged by Schneider in March 2022 returned residency affirmations, obtained by ProPublica through records requests, in which they explained that they traveled throughout the year as engineers on projects around the nation and used the P.O. box as their residency address in lieu of a permanent one. The board rejected the challenges, allowing them to maintain their prior registrations.

Of Schneider’s initial thirteen challenges from March 2022, eleven were heard at the hearing that June, with the county election board upholding five and dismissing six.

In the lead-up to the 2022 election, the Forsyth County board ruled on about 31,500 challenges from Schneider and another 1,100 from two other challengers. In total, the board approved over 200 of the most serious type of challenge that immediately removes a voter from the rolls, known as “229s” for their section of Georgia code. The board also approved around 900 “230” challenges, which place voters into “challenged” status.

Of the 30 counties for which ProPublica reviewed voter challenges, Forsyth County was the most aggressive in approving them — in ways that voting rights lawyers warned may violate the National Voter Registration Act, a federal law regulating how voters can be removed from voting rolls.

When Joel Natt, the Republican vice chair of the board, sought to approve Schneider’s challenges against Helm and Riggs at the June 2022 hearing, Democratic board member Anita Tucker asked, “Madam Chair and Legal, does that violate the NVRA?”

Tucker expressed a number of concerns, according to an audio recording of the hearing obtained through open records requests. The concerns centered on whether the removals of Helm and Riggs violated the NVRA’s prohibition against removing voters in a systematic manner in the 90 days before a federal election.

In the hearing, Tucker argued that rather than immediately removing Helm and Riggs, “the best right procedure” was the NVRA’s process for voters whose residency is in doubt, which allows voters to remain on the rolls for around four years and protects them against being unable to re-register in time to vote. Tucker also questioned whether the batches of challenges — which had grown to encompass hundreds or thousands of voters, along with PDFs of alleged evidence of their ineligibility to vote, such as documents matching names to addresses outside the county — qualified as systematic challenges, and therefore shouldn’t have been allowed to proceed.

In response to Tucker’s questions, Pachuta, the board’s lawyer, warned, “There’s not clear case law on that. It could very well end up in litigation.” The lawyer explained that “there’s different opinions” on whether the challenges would fall under state code or the NVRA. She then advised that “because it is so close to the election, you have to review these items on an individualized basis.” (The NVRA allows consideration of individualized challenges during the 90-day protected window.)

Natt had originally motioned to remove Helm, Riggs and another voter as a block, until the lawyer advised that this could be construed as systematically processing a mass challenge. So Natt and the conservative board chair, Barbara Luth, reintroduced them one by one. Then the conservative board members outvoted Tucker to remove them from the rolls. Recordings show that the majority continued outvoting the Democratic minority while approving challenges one by one during many meetings. The board did summarily dismiss around 28,500 challenges, all from Schneider, because they were made using a fallible database-matching technique comparing Georgia voter rolls with the National Change of Address system, which a federal court had disallowed as systematic.

“I want to be clear that breaking down the challenges” to do them one by one “is still systematic and likely violating the NVRA,” said Andrew Garber, a counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, who had concerns with the quality of evidence presented and the depth of evaluation.

“The Forsyth board certainly violated the spirit of the NVRA and likely its letter as well,” said Garabadu, the attorney with the ACLU of Georgia, which sent a letter to the board warning that its decision at a September meeting to remove voters within the 90-day window “was made in violation of state and federal law and we urge you to reverse it.”

Pachuta wrote to ProPublica that “I respectfully disagree with the suggestion that considering challenges ‘one by one’ is a violation of the NVRA. Rather, I believe established authority provides that the NVRA allows removals based on individualized information at any time.” She noted that the board spent “hours during its meetings conducting individualized reviews of various data sets to make the best collective decision(s) it could.”

After a ProPublica reporter described Riggs’ experience, Luth, the board chair, said that in the future the board might refrain from removing voters from the registration rolls within the 90-day window and just put voters under a challenged status, though she emphasized it would remain a case-by-case decision. “That’s better than taking them off the rolls,” she said. “That would be where my vote would go.”

Natt, who had argued forcefully at the hearing to remove Helm and Riggs from the rolls, called the removals “a mistake” and said, “We learned from it.” He expressed remorse to ProPublica over their difficulties voting. “I don’t want voters to feel burdened,” he said. “It pained me personally.” He emphasized that the board had been operating with limited guidance from state election officials and that they had no legal choice but to rule on the challenges. “We have to respect the challenger,” said Natt, and “we have to respect the challengee.”

South of the conservative, wealthy suburbs of Forsyth County, in the county that encompasses the liberal center of Atlanta, challenges were handled differently by the left-leaning elections board — but still caused problems for election officials and voters.

By the time Chris Ramsey received a letter requesting him to appear before the Fulton County board and “defend why the challenge to your right to vote should not be sustained,” he was six months into a cancer treatment that had suppressed his immune system. On his doctor’s advice, he had stopped teaching elementary school and had people bring him groceries rather than risk interacting with crowds. But Ramsey felt he had to defend his right to vote. So on a Thursday morning in March 2023, he braved rush-hour traffic from his home on the outskirts of Atlanta to downtown, drove in circles looking for parking, paid $20, trudged three blocks to the meeting and arrived “extremely exhausted,” he recalled. Still, he was angry enough to wait nearly two hours so that he could get his turn at the microphone.

Chris Ramsey was six months into cancer treatment that had suppressed his immune system when he received a letter requesting that he appear before the Fulton County elections board to defend his voter registration.

“I’m sorry, excuse my voice, I’m battling cancer,” he said hoarsely. He then proceeded to criticize the Fulton board for summoning him over a clerical error in his address that he’d previously tried to fix. But once he more fully understood that the board had just been following the law that the challenger had invoked, he suspected the challenger of having political motives. Ramsey, who identifies as a Democrat, told ProPublica, “I felt that it was a conservative person trying to make it easier for their politician to get where they need to be.”

Ramsey had been challenged by Jason Frazier, a member of the planning commission for the city of Roswell and urban farmer, who has filed almost 10,000 voter challenges in Fulton County. On a conservative podcast, Frazier described introducing other activists outside of Fulton County to the basics of voter roll analysis. He is also a prominent participant in frequent private conference calls about policing voter rolls hosted by the Election Integrity Network, a conservative organization focused on transforming election laws. During several calls, Frazier gave advice to more than 100 activists from at least 15 states, according to minutes provided by the watchdog group Documented.

Jason Frazier, a member of the planning commission for the city of Roswell and urban farmer, challenged Chris Ramsey’s vote and has filed almost 10,000 voter challenges in Fulton County.

The vast majority of the challenges handled in the March hearing that Ramsey attended had been submitted by Frazier, who had challenged about 1,000 people registered at nonresidential addresses, such as P.O. boxes or businesses, and another 4,000 people who he claimed lived at invalid addresses (including one member of the county elections board), most because they had the wrong directional component at the end of their street name — e.g., “SE” instead of “NE.” About a dozen people at the three-hour hearing spoke out against the challengers and Fulton officials’ handling of the challenge process. A woman who introduced herself as a survivor of domestic violence explained her use of a P.O. box as part of her “extraordinary lengths to try to protect myself and not keep my address public.” A mother complained about how addressing the challenge was taking her away from caring for her children.

“I don’t appreciate being collateral damage in this mission to clean up the voter rolls,” Sara Ketchum said to the board. Ketchum, who is Black and identifies as liberal, had temporarily moved for work from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., where she registered for a mailing address, but then returned to Georgia in time to vote. That D.C. mailing address became the basis for the challenge against her, submitted not by Frazier but by another prolific challenger. According to Georgia law, many people, such as university students, military personnel and traveling workers, may be legally registered to vote in one place but have a temporary mailing address while living in another.

Sarah Ketchum, who lives in Atlanta, says a temporary move to Washington, D.C., became the basis for the challenge against her.

Ketchum told ProPublica that she felt the challenge was a type of intimidation, given Georgia’s history of white citizens using voter challenges to suppress the Black vote. “It put in perspective that voter suppression is real and it’s actually happening,” she said.

At the meeting, Frazier defended his challenges. “I’m free labor trying to help the system to make sure everyone can vote,” he said. “I’m not trying to suppress anyone. I just want clean voter rolls for a multitude of reasons,” including to make sure absentee ballots go to the right address. He insisted that challenges needed to be processed in a way that “doesn’t hassle anyone” and blamed election officials for not making it clear that people could have responded to the challenges in ways that did not include coming to the hearing in person.

Frazier did not respond to requests for comment or to a list of detailed questions.

When Frazier himself was challenged in 2022 for being registered to vote at a business address — he sells vegetables from his farm at his house — he decried it as a “frivolous retaliatory challenge” from someone he himself had challenged. The Fulton board did not approve the challenge against Frazier.

Recently, Fulton’s Republican Party has twice nominated Frazier to become a member of the county board of elections, which would give him oversight of its employees and data. But each time the county commission voted to reject him, with one commissioner criticizing him for undermining confidence in the election’s office’s work and calling him “not a serious nomination.” At the end of June, the county GOP sued the board of commissioners, seeking to have a judge force the commissioners to appoint Frazier to the elections board.

A person speaks in support of Republican elections board nominee Jason Frazier during the public comment portion of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners meeting in June. The board rejected the nomination of Frazier, who has challenged the registrations of nearly 10,000 voters in Fulton County, the largest base of Democratic voters in Georgia.

A ProPublica analysis suggests that Frazier disproportionately challenged Democrats. Georgia election data does not track party affiliation, so officials use primary voting histories as a proxy. Of the roughly 8,000 challenges by Frazier that ProPublica obtained, about 800 voters had most recently voted in a Fulton County primary. Of those, 78% voted in the Democratic race, compared to 67% of voters across the county. Several other challengers in Fulton County, including the person who filed the challenge against Ketchum, challenged more than 90% Democratic primary voters. (In Forsyth County, the challenges submitted by Schneider show a smaller disparity: 28% Democratic primary voters, relative to 22% for the county as a whole.)

Five of the six most prolific challengers identified by ProPublica, including Frazier, have assisted or been assisted by right-wing organizations, some leaders of which were involved in efforts to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Frazier has been a prominent participant in frequent private conference calls hosted by the Election Integrity Network, dispensing advice about how to police voter rolls to more than a hundred activists from Georgia and other states. In Gwinnett County, the state’s most populous, a trio of challengers associated with VoterGA, an organization with a stated mission of “working to restore election integrity,” needed dollies to wheel eight cardboard boxes loaded with tens of thousands of affidavits into the election office. Another Gwinnett County challenger targeted about 10,500 registrations using data provided by Look Ahead America, a conservative organization that offered data and guides for a “Ballot Challenge Program” in battleground states.

In response to questions, Look Ahead America released a statement describing how it “provided thousands of volunteers across ten states” with guidance on how to properly submit voter challenges. It also described itself as “a nonpartisan, nonprofit foundation.” Garland Favorito, the co-founder of VoterGA, did not answer ProPublica’s questions about Georgians working with the organization on their challenges and its leadership’s involvement in disputing the 2020 presidential election results. When pressed for comment, he only responded, “Yes it is a provably false blatant lie.” He declined to elaborate. The Election Integrity Network did not respond to detailed questions.

Fulton County removed the most voters from its rolls of any county that ProPublica examined — roughly 1,700 — but did so mostly during the first half of 2022 when the challenges began, before switching course. Cathy Woolard, the board chair at the time, explained to ProPublica that it had made the removals while taking advice from a county lawyer and that removals were “compliant with the law.” After hiring a special counsel with more experience, however, the board switched to placing voters in “challenged” status rather than removing them, in order to “minimally impact the voter” during the 90-day protected window. (The challenges were then resolved after the election.) If Forsyth County’s board had handled challenges in this way, Helm and Riggs would not have had their difficulties voting. “Fulton County’s objective is to make certain that anyone who is able to vote gets an opportunity to vote,” said Patrise Perkins-Hooker, the special counsel who became board chair on July 1. “We prioritized the right to vote for each of our citizens and protected that through the challenge process.”

Nadine Williams, the elections director for Fulton County, said in an email to ProPublica that the challenges had “significantly” impacted her workers “due to the short turnaround time to complete the challenge process.” (SB 202 requires that challenges that place voters in “challenged status” be considered “immediately” by the board and that hearings for challenges that remove people from the rolls be held within roughly a month of being filed.) Officials from multiple counties described processing the challenges as not just time consuming but also expensive, due to the extra demands on staff and the need to hold additional public hearings and send thousands of mailers, plus hire lawyers and technology consultants.

“If this was actually fixing something or finding criminal activity, it might be worth it. But it’s harassing other citizens, distracting us from important work and not achieving the desired result,” Woolard said. Challenges, she said, have “supplanted our priorities with the priorities of a very small group of people who did these challenges.”

Despite requests from some counties for clearer direction, state officials have issued limited guidance for how counties should handle challenges, mostly advising them to rely on their attorneys.

Zach Manifold, the head of elections for Gwinnett County, said that “counties are out there on their own trying to figure out” the potential discrepancies between state and federal law regarding voter challenges. Gwinnett is Georgia’s second most populous county and had the most challenges of any of the 30 counties ProPublica examined. Almost all of them were dismissed for inadequate evidence.

The lack of direction, the overwhelming volume of challenges and the complicated intersection between SB 202 and the National Voter Registration Act have resulted in boards handling challenges in divergent ways and with different impacts on voters — as evidenced by Forsyth and Fulton counties.

Among Georgia election officials, a sense has been growing that something needs to be done about the challenges. About a week before the 2022 election, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said that “we need some reform” on the challenge provision to “tighten that up” due to impacts on election officials, and he suggested that the legislature could change the law in 2023. (In the subsequent session, the Georgia legislature enacted no such measure, though it did pass another election-related bill.) In the February meeting of the State Elections Board, which can issue rules for interpreting election law, its chair, William Duffey, briefly noted that “we have already identified” challenges “as an issue that we need to address,” after a voting rights advocate raised concerns about how they were being handled disparately.

“If you have two different counties handling” analogous “challenges differently, we have an issue,” Edward Lindsey, a Republican member of Georgia’s State Election Board, told ProPublica, emphasizing that county and state election boards need to work together to solve the problem. “It’s incumbent on us to have a consistent system in determining who is and isn’t eligible to vote. That needs to be consistent across 159 counties.”

When ProPublica asked the secretary of state’s office about the inconsistent ways in which counties were handling the challenges, Mike Hassinger, a spokesperson, said: “We’re going to try to get the State Elections Board to issue guidance of some kind to answer all these questions that you have.” He said that county elections board members, who receive a small stipend for their part-time work, “are having to make these decisions affecting people’s franchise” and that the secretary of state’s office was going to encourage the state board to “give them some rules to go by.”

How We Measured the Title Lending Industry in Georgia

Asked if the inconsistencies ProPublica identified had led to internal discussions about how to update guidance around challenges, Hassinger answered, “Oh, hell yeah. Absolutely.” The secretary of state’s office subsequently issued a statement to ProPublica saying that the office had already been working on creating “uniform standards for voter challenges,” adding, “It is not ProPublica’s findings that prompted us to do so.” In another statement, the office said that it is “thankful” for “ProPublica’s additional information, and have asked the state election board to provide rules.”

Duffey, the chair of the State Election Board, said that he had not received recommendations regarding new rules from the secretary of state’s office and that he had been independently drafting a memorandum that would provide “an analytical process” to allow counties to discern if a challenge should be considered under state or federal law. He explained that past news coverage of voter challenges and complaints from election officials prompted him to ask himself during the 2022 election: “How can a county deal with that? And the fact is, they can’t. There was nobody out there that was trying to help them make the determination of how they ought to process these.”

He went on to say: “As a practical matter, they probably didn’t have enough time to do it differently. But we do now. And now that the election is over, we intend to do that.”

Irena Hwang and Joel Jacobs contributed data reporting.