Judge seeks deal to limit voter challenges in Georgia runoff

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A federal judge is seeking to craft an agreement that would prohibit voters in two Georgia counties from having their votes in the upcoming Senate runoff election disqualified based solely on postal change-of-address filings.

U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Abrams Gardner moved to broker the deal after a two-hour hearing Wednesday on a lawsuit filed last week by the Democratic group Majority Forward over an attempt to challenge more than 4,000 voters in Muscogee and Ben Hill counties right before the Jan. 5 election.

Some of the county officials who are defendants in the case have pressed Gardner to recuse herself from the case because she is the sister of former Rep. Stacey Abrams, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for Georgia governor in 2018 who has since emerged as a major force to register new voters and to overhaul the state’s laws to rein in practices that she contends amounted to voter suppression.

Gardner shot down any discussion of the recusal matter at the start of the Wednesday hearing, when one of the defendants’ attorneys raised it, saying she would issue a fuller explanation later and didn’t intend to hash it out during the discussion on the substance of the lawsuit.

“This hearing is not about the motion to recuse,” said Gardner, an appointee of President Barack Obama.

Muscogee County officials formally moved for Gardner’s recusal on Monday. She indicated in a temporary restraining order on Monday halting the voter challenges that she did not think her recusal was warranted, but she has not yet issued a detailed explanation.

The judge’s role in the case has drawn national attention and criticism from top Republican Party voices.

“Stacey Abrams sister is the judge… nothing shady at all here,” President Donald Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. wrote on Twitter on Wednesday morning. “If it were reversed the Democrats would be screaming for recusal etc. but the GOP won’t because they’re weak.”

Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, said financial ties between Abrams’ group and Majority Forward underscored the need for Gardner to recuse in the case.

“That a judge would rule on case brought by a group heavily funded by her sister is very concerning,” Raffensperger said in a statement on Tuesday.

Majority Forward’s suit alleges that the mass challenges violate the federal National Voter Registration Act. But lawyers for the counties argued on Wednesday that the challenges don’t trigger that act because they are focused only on the voters’ right to cast ballots in the upcoming runoffs and not on their right to remain on the voter rolls more generally.

However, Gardner seemed skeptical of that contention.

“This distinction that has been made I’m not understanding. … You find people not eligible to vote and you leave them on the voter rolls?” the judge asked.

A lawyer for Majority Forward, Uzoma Nkwonta, also argued that notion was illusory.

“That distinction is simply untenable,” Nkownta said. “The distinction they try to draw here doesn’t make any sense.”

Gardner said she does not believe that the change-of-address data alone amounts to a strong indication that voters have actually moved their legal residence. She also noted that in some states individuals who apply for a driver’s license are automatically registered to vote and may not even know it.

“My concern here is, one, relying on unreliable data and then putting the burden on people” to respond and defend their registrations, the judge said. “We’re also in the holiday season and we’re dealing with a pandemic and I have a great concern about asking voters to prove that they’re eligible to vote during this time.”

Gardner said she was trying to prompt an agreement that voters wouldn’t be denied the right to vote based on postal data alone, but Nkwonta expressed concern that they could still be put through an onerous process based on scant or shaky evidence.

However, the judge said the suit focused on the issues raised by using the postal change-of-address database. “You haven’t filed a case to say any other other reason is out of bounds,” she said.

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

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