Fueled by conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, activists across the country are using laws that allow people to challenge voters’ right to cast a ballot to contest the registration of thousands of voters at once.
In Iowa, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller had handled three voter challenges in the past 15 years. He got 119 more than two days after Doug Frank, an Ohio educator who is touring the country spreading doubt about the 2020 election, passed through the state.
In Nassau County in northern Florida, two residents challenged the registration of nearly 2,000 voters just six days before last month’s primary. In Georgia, activists are turning out boxloads of challenges in the diverse and Democratic counties that comprise the Atlanta metro area, including more than 35,000 in one county late last month.
Election officials say the vast majority of challenges are irrelevant because they challenge the presence of people who are already being removed from voting rolls after moving out of the region. Still, they create hundreds of hours of extra work as offices struggle to prepare for the November election.
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“At best they overburden election officials before the election, and at worst they cause people to be taken off the rolls when they shouldn’t be,” said Sean Morales-Doyle of the Justice Center Brennan said. tracking a rise in voter challenges.
The voter challenges come as activists who believe former President Donald Trump’s election lies have also flooded election offices across the country with public records requests and threats of litigation, heaping more work on them as they prepare for the month of November.
“It takes time for us, because we have to consult with our county attorneys about what will be the right answer,” said Rachel Rodriguez, supervisor of elections in Dane County, Wisconsin, which includes Madison, the state capital.
She received duplicate emails demanding records about two weeks ago: “It’s taking up valuable time that we don’t need to be election officials as we try to prepare for the November election.”
Michael Henrici, the Democratic commissioner of elections in New York’s Otsego County, received a one-line email last week warning of unspecified “election integrity” litigation, then a follow-up complaint that he did not respond to.
“These are not people with specific grievances,” Henrici said. “They’re getting a form letter from somebody’s podcast and sometimes filling in the blanks.”
Multiple investigations and reviews, including one by Trump’s own Justice Department, have found no significant fraud in the 2020 presidential election, and dozens of lawsuits brought by Trump and his allies have been rejected by the courts. But Trump continues to claim that widespread fraud cost him re-election. That inspired legions of activists to become do-it-yourself election sleuths across the country, challenging local polling officials at every turn.
In Linn County, Iowa, which includes the city of Cedar Rapids, Miller said he and the auditors who run elections in the state’s other 98 counties are inundated with records requests and voter challenges.
“The whole barrage came in a two-week period,” said Miller, after the visit from Frank, who uses mathematical projections to make claims of a massive conspiracy to steal the election from Trump, “and it’s happening to auditors across the state. “
Electoral offices regularly go through their voter rolls and remove those who have moved or died. Federal law limits how quickly they can release voters, and conservative activists have long complained that election officials don’t move quickly enough to clear their rolls.
The recent challenges stem from activists comparing postal address changes and other databases to voter rolls. Election officials say this is redundant, as they are already taking the same steps.
The challenges sometimes come after election conspiracists go door to door, often in minority neighborhoods, looking for evidence that votes were improperly cast in 2020.
Texas’ Democratic Harris County, which includes Houston, received nearly 5,000 challenges from a conservative group that went door-to-door checking voter addresses. The election office said it dismissed the challenges that had to be legally reviewed before the election and will complete the rest after November 8.
Activists in Gwinnett County, which straddles the increasingly Democratic north Atlantic suburbs, spent 10 months comparing change-of-address databases and other databases with the county’s voter rolls. They sent in eight challenge boxes last month. About 15,000, they said, were complaints that specific voters improperly received postal ballots in 2020. Another 22,000 were for voters who claimed they are no longer at their registered address.
There are so many challenges that election officials can’t even count them all. But Zach Manifold, Gwinnett’s supervisor of elections, said that in every single mail-in ballot complaint the office has sampled, the voter received a ballot by mail correctly.
But if any of the challenged voters try to cast a ballot in November, the county’s board of elections will have to decide whether to count that vote. They will have just six days to make a decision, as they must confirm their total vote by the Monday after Election Day under Georgia law.
Manifold estimated that his office has a month to log and research the challenges, before postal ballots go out for the November elections: “It’s a tight window to do everything,” he said.
Many of the major counties facing voter roll challenges are places where President Joe Biden beat Trump in 2020, including Gwinnett and Harris. But the people behind the protest effort are against the notion that they are targeting Democratic counties and say they are working for all voters. In Nassau County in Florida, for example, Trump won with more than 72% of the vote.
“They should be happy that the voter rolls are being cleaned up so they can make sure their votes are counted,” said Garland Favorito, a conservative activist who is allied with Trump’s election supporters and is helping voter challenges in Georgia.
Favorito said more challenges are coming in other counties in Georgia.
Under legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last year, there are no limits on the number of voter challenges that can be filed in Georgia. Most states implicitly set limits on challenges, said Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center. They require a complainant to have specific, personal information about targeted voters and set penalties for making frivolous challenges.
Florida is an example. Its voter challenge law only allows challenges to be filed 30 days before the election, requiring election officials to contact all challenged voters before Election Day. Filing a “frivolous” challenge is a misdemeanor. But voter challenges nearly destroyed Florida’s primaries last month in heavily Republican Nassau County, in the state’s northeast.
Two women belonging to a conservative group, Citizens of the County Defending Freedom, dropped the nearly 2,000 challenges at the county elections office six days before the August 23 primary.
Fortunately, the challenges were filed in the wrong format. Supervisor of Elections Janet Adkins told the activists they would review them, anyway – after the primary.
“Taking away a person’s right to vote is a very serious thing,” Adkins said.
Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.