Judge blocks voter purge in 2 Georgia counties

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A federal judge in Georgia on Monday ordered two counties to reverse a decision removing more than 4,000 voters from the rolls ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff elections that will decide control of the U.S. Senate.

The judge, Leslie Abrams Gardner — the sister of former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, a prominent ally of President-elect Joe Biden who has led voter registration efforts across the state — concluded that the counties appeared to have improperly relied on unverified change-of-address data to invalidate registrations in the two counties.

The bulk of the registrations that the counties sought to rescind, more than 4,000, were in Muscogee County, which Biden won handily in November. An additional 150 were from Ben Hill County, which Trump won by a wide margin.

The suit, brought by national Democratic Party attorney Marc Elias’ group Democracy Forward, followed an effort to challenge the lengthy roster of voters simply because their registrations appeared to match U.S. Postal Service change-of address records. Voting officials in the two counties agreed to remove the voters, despite warnings from Democrats that such postal data is not a reliable or conclusive indicator that a voter has given up their local residence.

After Gardner’s ruling, Elias hailed the decision as a “blow to GOP voter suppression.”

“We continue to monitor how other Georgia counties respond to the suppression scheme,” he added. “Where necessary, we will sue and we will win.”

The evidence to challenge the 4,000 registrations in Muscogee County was particularly sparse. The challenge was lodged Dec. 14 by a local voter named Ralph Russell who alleged that he had compared evidence from publicly accessible voter registration databases to prove that these voters had moved out of Georgia.

“I believe that each of the individuals named … as a result of registering their name and change of address to a location outside of Muscogee County, removed to another state with the intention of making the new state their residence,” Russell told the county board. “Thus, each individual has lost their residence in Muscogee County, and consequently, each individual is ineligible to vote in Muscogee County.”

The Muscogee board met Dec. 16 and backed Russell’s motion 3-1, even though he didn’t attend the meeting and provided no additional evidence to support his challenge. Voters on Russell’s list, per the board, would be required to vote by provisional ballot and present additional evidence of residency to vote.

In Ben Hill County, the board voted 2-1 to support a challenge lodged by Tommy Roberts, a member of the City Council in Fitzgerald, Ga. Roberts similarly relied on change-of-address data, and the board backed him despite evidence that the data could not be verified and would be inadmissible in court.

“Despite this advice from the County Attorney, the Ben Hill Board voted to find that there was probable cause to sustain the challenges,” Gardner noted.

Gardner’s 11-page ruling released Monday night noted that the removals of the voters appeared to violate federal law because they were not given proper notice and because they qualify as the type of systematic voter roll cleaning that is not permitted within 90 days of a federal election.

The Muscogee board filed a motion earlier Monday arguing that Gardner must remove herself from the case based on her relationship with her sister, Abrams.

Lawyers for the board, described Abrams as “a Georgia politician and voting rights activist who was the Democratic candidate in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election and has since engaged in various highly publicized efforts to increase voter registration and turnout for the 2020 general election in Georgia.”

The motion requesting Gardner’s recusal noted that a voter registration group affiliated with Abrams, Fair Fight, filed a suit in another federal court in Georgia last week complaining that a national organization dedicated to targeting voter fraud, True the Vote, is making unjustified challenges to Georgia voters in the lead-up to the Jan. 5 runoffs.

“Abrams’ involvement in the Fair Fight Litigation … is sufficient to satisfy the standard for mandatory judicial recusal,” the board’s attorneys wrote. “Abrams has a clear interest in the outcome of this proceeding and other similarly situated litigation in Georgia due to her voting advocacy through projects such as Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project.”

Gardner, an appointee of President Barack Obama, noted the recusal request in her ruling granting the restraining order and said she is declining to step aside.

“The Court has reviewed the motion and finds no basis for recusal. An Order detailing the Court’s reasoning is forthcoming,” the judge wrote.

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