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Georgia bill could provide specific reasons for challenging voters

ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia state senator says he's seeking to make it harder for people to challenge the qualifications of individual voters, but opponents warn he's only going to enable more baseless attacks.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Max Burns, a Sylvania Republican, told committee members on Tuesday that his proposed rewrite of House Bill 976 would add some standards for county election boards to uphold challenges and remove voters.

“I do think we have an excessive number of challenges," Burns said. "I think we need to clean up our voter rolls so that people have confidence that those on the voter rolls are legitimate. And I do think we need to clarify what is a sustainable challenge.”

The committee didn’t vote on the bill after getting bogged down in discussions over further changes, but Burns said he wants a vote Thursday, setting the bill up for possible action in the closing days of the Georgia General Assembly’s 2024 regular session.

It's part of a continuing ferment over election laws in Georgia, as Republicans continue to seek changes aimed at redressing complaints fueled by former President Donald Trump's false claims that he lost Georgia's 16 electoral votes in 2020 because of fraud. Those claims have created a continuing demand for changes among Republicans, even after Georgia's majority-GOP legislature muscled through a long list of legal rewrites in an intensely controversial 2021 bill.

One of the biggest consequences of the 2021 law has been the rise of mass voter challenges in Georgia, where activists claim thousands or even tens of thousands of registrations are improper in some counties. If a voter challenge is accepted, a voter could have to prove their eligibility or be required to vote a provisional ballot that wouldn’t be counted until the challenge is resolved.

The liberal New Georgia Project said more than 100,000 challenges have been filed since 2021. The vast majority of the challenges have been rejected, but some have been accepted. County boards have to decide whether there is probable cause to uphold a challenge, and Burns said his bill is aimed at giving better legal guidance.

The bill states there is probable cause to uphold a challenge if someone is dead, if someone has voted or registered to vote in a different jurisdiction, or if someone has registered for a homestead exemption on their property taxes in a different jurisdiction.

More controversially, it says a challenge could be upheld if someone is registered at a nonresidential address, and that someone's name appearing on the U.S. Postal Service's national change of address list can be used as evidence of being ineligible if there is other evidence someone has moved away. However, appearing on the change of address list itself would not be probable cause for a challenge to be upheld.

The bill prohibits challenges within 45 days of an election, even though opponents say federal law requires a 90-day window. The bill also prohibits challenges for college students, military members or people living in the District of Columbia who have maintained their Georgia registration.

Democrats propose amending the bill to force challengers to bear the cost of challenges, saying that some large metro Atlanta counties have dealt with thousands of challenges.

“The burden of having to prove your residency is a burden not only on that voter who is innocent and not doing anything other than exercising their right, but it’s also a cost on counties," said Sen. Jason Esteves, an Atlanta Democrat.

Republicans, though, suggest that Georgia's voter rolls are bloated with people who no longer live here and say that's an invitation to fraud. Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican, said he didn't believe a challenge was a hardship.

“If someone challenged my eligibility to vote in Lumpkin County, I’d be happy to provide documentation,” Gooch said. “Why would we be concerned about challenging somebody’s eligibility?”

A draft of the bill would have allowed rejected challenges to be appealed to the State Election Board instead of the current process of appealing to court, but Burns said it would be removed, citing opposition from Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. They say it could would deluge the volunteer board with an unsustainable workload.

The bill would provide access to higher-resolution electronic scans of ballots at the cost of the person requesting them, but a proposed amendment would let requesters inspect the actual physical ballots, a step some say is necessary to detect fraud.