A federal judge has agreed to allow a county in Georgia to require certain voters to vote provisionally, just days before the run-off election in the state that will decide on control of the US Senate.
More than 4,000 voters faced eligibility issues ahead of the January 5 run-off, based on unverified postal address change registers. U.S. District Judge Leslie Abrams Gardner’s new injunction, issued just before midnight on Wednesday, replaces an earlier restraining order she issued that prevented Muscogee County from forcing those voters to vote provisionally. The latest order represents an important step in the direction the county council advocated in a court hearing earlier Wednesday.
Although the county can now require provisional ballots from these voters, Gardner’s order directs that no challenges to their eligibility be confirmed based exclusively on data from the National Register of Address Changes, a database of U.S. Postal Service data which Democrats say is not a reliable and unverified indicator. whether the individuals have changed their legal residence.
“The challenge to their eligibility will not be sustained without specific proof of ineligibility,” ordered Gardner, who sits in Albany, Georgia. “This specific evidence should not include the appearance of a voter name or other information on the NCOA register”
His ordinance also requires Muscogee County to notify all voters for whom it finds such proof of ineligibility and give them a chance to present evidence to count their ballot before January 8.
The order came in a lawsuit brought by Majority Forward, a Democratic nonprofit, affiliated with the Senate PAC majority, that focuses on voter registration.
Gardner, the sister of former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, had drawn strong criticism from allies of President Donald Trump for refusing to withdraw from the affair. Gardner, a person appointed by President Barack Obama, issued a seven-page rebuttal to the recusal calls on Thursday, saying the effort was rooted in “unsupported, irrational and very tenuous speculation” about its ability to be impartial .
“One can only assume that the argument is something that if my sister is actively engaged in a cause, I cannot be impartial,” Gardner continued. “This argument is mere speculation, unsupported by facts that might support a conclusion of bias.”
Gardner also dismissed the suggestion that his sister’s activism for voter registration represented conflict. She called Abrams’ connection to the case in her court “very distant.”
Marc Elias, the Democratic lawyer who represents Majority Forward, said the order was a “victory over voter suppression.”
JB Poersch, President of Majority Forward, added: “We are very happy with this decision. This is a great victory for Georgian voters who want to make their voices heard in the second round of elections. “
But the judge’s latest order on the matter represented a significant step back from his original restriction on Muscogee, which prevented the county from requiring contested voters to vote provisionally at all. The initial restraining order prompted the conviction of Georgian Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and caught the attention of figures such as Donald Trump Jr., who called out his connection to Abrams to support allegations of bias.
Gardner’s order follows a two-hour hearing Wednesday into a lawsuit filed last week by Majority Forward over an attempt to challenge more than 4,000 voters in Muscogee and 150 others in Ben Hill County just before Tuesday’s election . Gardner determined that Majority Forward failed to demonstrate that he was likely to be successful in challenging Ben Hill’s decision and focused his final order solely on Muscogee.
The county elections office did not consent to the judge’s order, according to one of its lawyers, Thomas Gristina. But county officials have expressed satisfaction with the decision.
“Muscogee County Election Board is pleased that Judge Abrams Gardner’s order dissolves previous interim restraining order and allows Muscogee County Election and Registration Board to resume use of ballots interim and rule on the election challenge, ”officials said in a statement. “This is a substantial victory for the Council and it shows that the prosecution is based on a false narrative and that the interim restraining order should never have been entered.”
The council also said it was considering its appeal options, “including the issue of Judge Abrams Gardner’s decision not to recuse himself from this case.”
Muscogee County officials formally requested Gardner’s recusal on Monday.
Some of the county officials who are accused in the case had urged Gardner to recuse himself from the case because of his relationship with Abrams, which has become a major force in registering new voters and revising state laws to curb the practices that it claims to amount to the suppression of voters.
The judge’s role in the case drew national attention and criticism from the main voices of the Republican Party.
“Stacey Abrams’ sister is the judge … nothing fishy here,” Donald Trump Jr. wrote on Twitter Wednesday morning. “If this were reversed, Democrats would cry out for recusal etc., but the GOP won’t because they are weak.”
Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, said the financial ties between the Abrams group and Majority Forward underscored Gardner’s need to recuse himself from the case.
“That a judge will rule on a case brought by a group heavily funded by his sister is very worrying,” Raffensperger said in a statement Tuesday.
The Majority Forward lawsuit alleges that the mass challenges violate federal voter registration law. But county lawyers argued on Wednesday that the challenges do not trigger this act because they focus solely on the right of voters to vote in upcoming polls and not their right to remain on the voters lists more generally.
However, Gardner seemed skeptical of this claim.
“This distinction that has been made, I do not understand it. … Do you find people who do not have the right to vote and you leave them on the electoral roll? Asked the judge.
Majority Forward lawyer Uzoma Nkwonta also argued that this notion was illusory.
“This distinction is simply untenable,” Nkownta said. “The distinction they’re trying to make here just doesn’t make sense.”
Gardner said she does not believe change of address data alone is a strong indication that voters have indeed moved from their legal residence. She also noted that in some states, people who apply for a driver’s license are automatically registered to vote and may not even know it.
“My concern here is, firstly, to rely on unreliable data and then put the burden on people” to respond and defend their tapes, the judge said. “We are also in the holiday season and we are facing a pandemic and I am very concerned about asking voters to prove that they are entitled to vote during this time.”
Gardner said she was trying to come to an agreement that voters would not be denied the right to vote based on postal data alone, but Nkwonta expressed concern that they might still be subject to a expensive process based on scarce or uncertain evidence.
However, the judge said the lawsuit focused on issues raised by the use of the mailing address change database. “You have not filed a complaint to say that no other reason is prohibited,” she said.
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