The Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections rejected a Republican-backed challenge to almost 8,000 Athens voters’ residency at a called meeting Monday.
Gordon Rhoden, chairman of the Athens Republican Party, filed a challenge to 2,948 voters last week, then filed a second challenge to 4,943 more voters whose names also appear on the National Change of Address Registry, alleging that they’ve moved away from Clarke County and/or Georgia.
But submitting a change-of-address form isn’t probable cause to challenge a voter’s residency, Athens-Clarke County Attorney Judd Drake and assistant attorney Michael Petty told the board. A voter can temporarily move out of state for work, school or other reasons while maintaining their primary residence and right to vote in Georgia.
That was the case for UGA professor Josh Barkan, who said in an email to the board that he saw his name on Rhoden’s list, and explained that he accepted a fellowship at Princeton but remains an Athens resident. Barkan said he was “angered” by the challenge in an email board Chairman Jesse Evans read into the record, along with about a dozen others urging the board to reject the challenges and one in support of an investigation.
The board also heard from numerous voting-rights and civil-rights organizations—including the American Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters, NAACP, Fair Fight Georgia and the Southern Poverty Law Center—urging it to reject the challenges, Evans said. Susannah Scott, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, called them an “obvious and unwarranted attempt to suppress voter turnout” in an email to the board.
In addition, Drake said that the list Rhoden provided isn’t verified; challenges must be made against an individual, not a blanket challenge; first-hand knowledge is required for a successful challenge, which Rhoden lacks; and systematically removing voters from the rolls within 90 days of an election violates federal law.
“I don’t believe there’s probable cause to challenge these voters,” Drake said.
Republican appointee Patricia Till pushed back against the idea that the challenges were a coordinated, partisan effort, saying that Rhoden acted in his capacity as an individual voter. But Evans noted that not only is Rhoden the local GOP chairman, but that his lists were provided by True the Vote, a pro-Trump group out of Texas that is preemptively challenging 364,000 “potentially ineligible” voters in all 159 Georgia counties.
“This notion that it’s not connected to the Athens or the Georgia GOP is just flat-out wrong,” said Evans, a nonpartisan board member appointed by the ACC Mayor and Commission.
Till also said she did not want to see legal votes “diluted” and questioned Drake about how voter rolls are kept up to date. Drake said that the Georgia Secretary of State’s office compares voter rolls to the change-of-address database, but then takes the additional step of contacting them in an effort to verify they’ve actually moved their permanent residency. If the voter responds that they’ve moved out of state, they’re removed; and if they respond that they’ve moved to another county in Georgia, their registration is changed to that county. If they don’t respond, they’re placed on an “inactive” list, then removed if they don’t vote in the next two election cycles.
Till abstained from the voting on the challenges, and the other four board members—Evans, Democratic appointee Rocky Raffle and nonpartisan appointees Willa Fambrough and Charles Knapper—voted to dismiss them. Other counties, including Cobb and Gwinnett, have also rejected similar challenges.
Had the board ruled that Rhoden did have probable cause, the 8,000 voters would not have been removed from the rolls immediately. But anyone on the list who voted in the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs would have had to cast a provisional ballot, with the Board of Elections holding a hearing at a later date to determine if that ballot would be counted, Drake said.
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