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DeKalb Board of Elections rejects latest voter challenge

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DeKalb Board of Elections rejects latest voter challenge

Gail Lee (right) brought challenges to voter registrations before the DeKalb Board of Voter Registration and Elections during a special called meeting on Aug. 31, 2023. Photo by Sara Amis.

DeKalb County, GA — The DeKalb Board of Voter Registration and Elections voted not to approve a challenge to the registration of 84 voters brought by Gail Lee at a special called meeting Aug. 31.

Lee stated that her challenge of 159 voters on the rolls was based on the fact that their birth years were recorded as 1800, 1900, or 1901, and the birthdates of many were recorded as Jan. 1.

Since Aug. 9, the Department of Registration and Elections has been able to resolve 75 of the registrations by getting correct dates of birth from voter cards or absentee ballot requests, merging duplicate records, and canceling registrations of voters who had moved.

The department sent letters to remaining challenged voters. The law allows 10 days before a hearing must be held.

Department of Voter Registration and Elections Director Keisha Smith said that only four people on the list had voted in DeKalb County in the last four election cycles.

Georgia law provides for the removal of voters after they have been inactive through two general election cycles. That removal process is conducted by the Secretary of State’s office.

Lee’s challenge is one of many being brought around the state in the wake of SB 202, which allows citizens who don’t personally know a voter to challenge their voting status based on certain criteria. One of those criteria is “giving false information,” which, if proven, is a felony.

Lee said that either the birth year information was correct, in which case the voters were likely dead, or it was incorrect, in which case the information was false.

“I am not alleging fraud on the part of the individuals. I think it’s likely that they are unaware of it. But the information is false,” Lee said.

Board Chair Karli Swift said that it seemed more likely that the dates were errors in the system rather than actual birthdates.

“I’m just going to read out some names. Keyanna, Shakila. Imani Mitchell. They don’t seem like people who would have been born in the early 1900s,” Swift said.

Swift went on to say that when some of the challenged voters went to vote in recent elections, they would have had to present an ID with their correct birth year.

“I looked up [Keyanna] North, and she isn’t 120 years old,” Swift said.

Lee said that was the point, while Swift and Board Vice Chair Vasu Abhiraman pointed out that clerical errors in the database were not a basis for a challenge, only intentionally giving false information.

Swift, Abhiraman, and Board Member Susan Motter also pointed out that the burden of proof was on the challenger.

“Do you have proof that the individuals submitted false information when they registered to vote,” Swift asked.

“I have no proof that they submitted false information. False information was entered,” Lee responded.

Public comment was overwhelmingly in favor of rejecting the voter challenge. Several said they viewed the spate of voter challenges as a waste of board time and taxpayer money, including Judy Sophianopoulos, who said she had been a resident of DeKalb since 1968 and a voter for seven decades.

“Voter fraud is a very rare occurrence,” Stephanopoulos said.

Stephanie Ali of the New Georgia Project characterized the waste of time and money as deliberate.

“Voter challenges are voter suppression by networks that include unindicted co-conspirators like Cleta Mitchell,” Ali said.

Representatives of other groups including Protect the Vote Georgia and the League of Women Voters also offered comments, and more than one speaker cited experience as a poll worker or volunteer. Many said they were most concerned about eligible voters being denied their rights.

“I would suggest that if Ms. Lee is really concerned with how DeKalb elections work, she should become a poll worker, so she can see how hard we all work,” Pam Woodley said.

Those who spoke in support of the challenge said that their goal was not to disenfranchise eligible voters, but to make sure the voting rolls are clean.

“We’re not here to kick anyone out of voting,” Bill Henderson said.

When asked what the voters on the challenge list had in common, Deputy Director Julietta Henry said that they had all been in a group of voters who had been on a pending list in the Secretary of State’s voter rolls, removed, then added back in response to a lawsuit in 2018. That lawsuit was settled in 2017.

Motter said that as a lawyer who helps people plan their retirement, she deals with government databases frequently, and errors happen but are never considered a reason to deny benefits that someone is entitled to.

“It gets corrected at the end of the day when people apply for benefits, just as errors get corrected when people present their ID when they vote…Why are pension benefits far more protected than voting rights,” Motter asked.

Board Member Anthony Lewis said that the board has a duty to make sure the voter rolls are clean, while Board Member Nancy Jester said there had been an example where nine people were registered from a post office box.

Motter, Swift, and Abhiraman said that the department has other methods to ensure accuracy, as does the Secretary of State, and the burden of proof required by the statute had not been met.

Motter said that she welcomed any chance to improve those processes, but whenever humans are involved, errors will occur.

“Perfect data is an imaginary friend,” Motter said.

Motter and others emphasized that the county boards need guidelines for dealing with voter challenges, from the legislature, the Georgia Board of Elections and the Secretary of State’s office.

Discussion among board members grew uncharacteristically testy, with Lewis asking if other board members believed the voter rolls should be accurate, and Jester complaining about Motter bringing up her day job.

Lewis said that he agreed with other board members that the 10-day deadline for a response set out in the statute is very short, and suggested a substitute motion to table the vote in order to give voters whose registration was challenged more time to respond, but it was rejected by the board 3-2.

The vote against approving the challenge was also 3-2, with Jester and Lewis voting for approval and Motter, Swift, and Abhiraman voting against.

Board members acknowledged the presence of State Board of Elections member Dr. Janice Johnston several times, and also encouraged her and any other state board members who viewed the meeting to issue guidance on how to address future challenges.

“We hear you, we do hear the request and plea for guidelines. It’s at the top of our priorities. But as you know, after a three-hour meeting, it’s complicated,” Johnston said.

During public comment, Adelle Frank said that she’d only heard about any of this a week ago.

“I had no idea that this law was on the books. I am disappointed in my state,” Frank said.

Brittany Burns of Protect the Vote Georgia spoke at the DeKalb Board of Voter Registration and Elections meeting on Aug. 31, 2023. Photo by Sara Amis.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted one of the speakers. This story has been updated with the correct quote. 

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