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DeKalb Elections Board rejects voter registration challenges along party lines

campaign coverage DeKalb County

DeKalb Elections Board rejects voter registration challenges along party lines

DeKalb Voter Registration and Elections Executive Director Keisha Smith (left) and VRE board member Karli Swift (right) work through the challenge to voter registration rolls at the DeKalb Board of Registration and Elections meeting Thursday. (photo by Hayden Sumlin)

This story has been updated.

By Hayden Sumlin, contributor 

DeKalb County, GA – With municipal elections on the horizon, the DeKalb County Board of Registration and Elections once again rejected challenges to the registration of voters at the BRE’s monthly meeting on Sept. 14. 

The Elections Board rejected the challenges in a 3-2 vote along party lines.

The monthly public meeting was heavily attended, with several DeKalb residents providing public comment on the issue of voter suppression and the accuracy of registration lists.

After challenging the registration of 84 voters at a special called meeting of the BRE on Aug. 31, DeKalb resident Gail Lee unsuccessfully challenged the registration of an additional 98 registered voters at Thursday’s meeting.

Since Aug. 9, the Department of Registration and Elections has been able to resolve over 80 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. Out of all the voters Lee challenged, only one voted in 2020. 

DeKalb resident and human rights attorney Robin Shahar was the first to give public comment. Shahar distinguished the effort to ensure the accuracy of registration lists from the effort to prevent qualifying citizens from voting. 

“Administrative errors are made all the time,” Shahar said. “Someone else’s administrative error is not grounds to disenfranchise someone.”

Several other Elections Board meeting attendees pushed back against what they characterized as punishing voters for clerical errors.

There was some public comment supporting Lee’s challenge. Many of those in support argued that their votes would not matter unless the voter registration lists were purged of inaccuracies.

Beth Levine from unincorporated DeKalb urged the board to, “Tell us where it needs to be cleaned up, and stop there.”

Lee’s challenge is one of many being brought around the state after the passage of Senate Bill 202. 

Gov. Brian Kemp signed SB 202, or the “Election Integrity Act” into law in March 2021. While SB 202 expanded early and absentee voting in Georgia, changes to state election law allow citizens of the state who don’t personally know a voter to challenge their voting status.

Lee’s basis for challenging the voters on the rolls, both at the August and September meeting, was because their birth years were recorded as 1800, 1900, or 1901, and the birthdates of many were recorded as Jan. 1.

Lee stated in a letter to the Elections Board before their monthly meeting that she informed the Registrar of her concerns over voter rolls over a year ago. Lee claimed she had found 309 voters registered in DeKalb that were almost certainly dead, or that the information in the registration lists was false.

Challenges to the voter registration list may be made only by a registered voter of DeKalb County. The challenger bears the burden of proving the challenged voter is not qualified to remain on the registration list. 

Lee hopes that the BRE will correct the false information in the registration lists through contact with the challenged voter or remove the voter from the list of electors.

The Elections Board includes two appointed Democrats, two appointed Republicans, and an at-large member appointed by the chief judge of the superior court of DeKalb. 

After the board went into executive session, they returned to give comments before the meeting adjourned.

“We’re dealing with all kinds of folks here, who have differing levels of awareness and knowledge of the election process and what’s possible with this voter challenge,” said Vasu Abhiraman, a Democrat on the Elections Board. “It is helpful to have things flagged for this department, but the voter challenge process is not the right conduit… for today’s challenge.”

Nancy Jester, a Republican on the Elections Board, said that the voter challenge process is the only legal conduit available for DeKalb voters to address their concerns over election integrity.

“I think we all have to play by the same exact, unrelenting rules, no matter our situation in life because they apply exactly the same to everyone,” Jester said. “The law needs to show no bias or fear, while we can be sympathetic individually, I think systemically, we need to be very dispassionate.”

DeKalb Elections Board member Anthony Lewis, the other Republican on the board, supports the challenge procedure.

“This one method we have, where voters can take part in their government, they really are the government,” Lewis said.

Karli Swift, at-large member and the new chair of the Elections Board, provided the decisive vote.

“Back in the day, you had to have a basis for challenging voter rolls,” Swift said. “I can’t in good conscience vote when someone gives me 300 names that they have no knowledge of.”

“This idea that no challenge could ever be sustained, that’s not true, it’s just that these are not,” Swift concluded.

In other news, the executive director of the BRE, Keisha Smith, provided updates to voters for the Nov. 7 election.

First, the Elections Board unanimously approved two polling place changes. The Pleasantdale Road precinct will now be located at Pleasantdale Elementary, 3680 Pleasantdale Road. The Clairmont precinct will now be located at the Bridgeport Church at Toco Hills, 1995 Clairmont Road. 

Secondly, the Elections Board approved advanced voting locations, dates, and times. From Oct. 16 through Nov. 3, early voting will be available Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information on all 14 locations and weekend voting hours, visit https://www.dekalbcountyga.gov/voter-registration-elections/current-election-information.

The board unanimously approved five additions to November’s election ballot. First, there is a vote on DeKalb’s Equalized Homestead Option Sales Tax (EHOST), which uses a sales tax to lower property taxes. Secondly, there is a vote on DeKalb’s Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), which is a one-cent sales tax used for infrastructure and capital projects. 

DeKalb voters will also vote on three pieces of legislation – HB 591, HB 592 and HB 594 – that focus on homestead exemptions. After being signed into law by Gov. Kemp, a local referendum is required in all DeKalb precincts. 

While the public discussion with the board over a challenge to voter registration rolls divided the room, the board unanimously expanded the citizens of DeKalb’s access to the polls and prepared the ballot for this November’s election.

“We always as a department, any industry or organization, love having things flagged for them that need to be corrected, “Abhiraman said. “You can just send an email.”

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