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Officials in two counties in Georgia were ordered Monday to halt a voter purge, a week before two Senate runoff elections.  (Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Citing Violation of Federal Law, Judge Halts Voter Purges in Rural Georgia Counties Ahead of Senate Runoffs

Officials in Muscogee and Ben Hill Counties used little concrete evidence to defend their purge of more than 4,000 voters, a U.S. district judge found. 

Julia Conley, staff writer

Officials in two rural counties in Georgia late Monday were ordered by a U.S. district judge to stop invalidating voter registrations due to so-called "unreliable" change of address information, a ruling that could protect more than 4,000 Georgia residents from voter suppression.

After two Georgia residents challenged the voter registrations of people in Muscogee County, which President-elect Joe Biden won by a wide margin in November's election, and Ben Hill County, which was won by President Trump, Judge Leslie Abrams Gardner ruled (pdf) that the counties are "enjoined from removing any challenged voters" ahead of two U.S. Senate runoff elections scheduled for January 5. 

"Republicans tried to disenfranchise over 300,000 Georgia voters. This victory means 4,000 voters in two counties are protected."
—Marc Elias, Majority Forward

Earlier this month, the election boards in Muscogee and Ben Hill Counties voted 3-1 and 2-1, respectively, to remove voters from registration lists despite little concrete evidence that the voters had moved out of state. 

In Muscogee County, a voter named Ralph Russell alleged that publicly accessible voter registration lists and U.S. Postal Service change-of-address records showed that about 4,000 voters had moved away and should be purged from voter rolls.

Russell did not attend the board's meeting on December 16 and presented no additional evidence of his claim, yet the board ruled that voters he had raised concerns about would have to vote via provisional ballots and provide additional evidence of residency at polling places. 

Fitzgerald, Georgia City Council member Tommy Roberts presented a challenge of about 150 voters' names in Ben Hill County, also relying on the post office's change-of-address data, which he said included names on the county's voter list. 

Against the advice of the county attorney, the board supported Roberts' effort. 

Both boards violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) by initiating the voter purges, wrote Gardner, who sits on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, siding with the national group Majority Forward. The group is led by Democratic Party attorney Marc Elias. 

"It does not appear that the Boards received written confirmation from the Targeted Voters that they had changed their addresses," wrote Gardner. "Section8(d)(1)(A) of the NVRA clearly states, in relevant part, that a 'State shall not remove the name of a registrant from the official list of eligible voters in elections for Federal office on the ground that the registrant has changed residence unless the registrant...confirms in writing that the registrant has changed residence to a place outside the registrar's jurisdiction in which the registrant is registered.'"

The judge also noted that the changes the boards were making to voter rolls were being made within 90 days of a federal election, another violation of the law. 

Elias said after Gardner's ruling was handed down that his organization would "continue to monitor how other Georgia counties respond to the suppression scheme."

"Where necessary, we will sue and we will win," he said.

Earlier on Monday, the Muscogee board filed a motion demanding that Gardner recuse herself from the case on the grounds that she is the sister of Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate whose organization, Fair Fight, was credited with helping to ensure that more than 800,000 new voters in the state were registered for the November elections. 

The board's call suggested election officials were concerned the judge may be biased towards ensuring Georgians have the right to vote due to her relation to Abrams, some on social media noted.

"Really saying the quiet parts out loud there," wrote one observer. 


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