A federal judge has agreed to allow a Georgia county to cast tentative ballots just days before two runoff elections in the state that controls the US Senate.
More than 4,000 voters faced electoral challenges ahead of the January 5 runoff election due to unchecked postal address change records. The New Order from District Court Judge Leslie Abrams Gardner, issued shortly before midnight on Wednesday, replaces an earlier restraining order that prevented Muscogee County from forcing those voters to cast preliminary ballots in the first place. The latest order marks a significant step in the direction the district authority called for during a trial earlier Wednesday.
Although the county may now require tentative ballots from these voters, Gardner’s order directs that no challenge to their eligibility will be confirmed solely on the basis of data in the National Change of Address Registry, a US Postal Service database feared by Democrats an unreliable and unverified indicator is whether individuals have changed their legal residence.
“The challenge to their eligibility will not be upheld unless there is specific evidence of inadmissibility,” ordered Gardner, who is based in Albany, Georgia. “This specific evidence cannot include the appearance of a voter’s name or any other information on the NCOA register.”
Her order also requires that Muscogee County notify any voters found such evidence of inadmissibility and give them the opportunity to produce evidence to have their vote counted by Jan. 8.
The order came in a lawsuit filed by Majority Forward, a Democratic nonprofit affiliated with the Senate Majority PAC that focuses on voter registration.
Gardner, the sister of former Georgia Democratic government candidate Stacey Abrams, had received heavy criticism from President Donald Trump’s allies for refusing to withdraw the case. Gardner, a person appointed by President Barack Obama, issued a seven-page counterargument to the denial calls on Thursday, saying the efforts stem from “unsupported, irrational and extremely weak speculation” about their ability to be impartial.
“One can only assume that the argument is that I cannot be impartial when my sister is actively involved in something,” Gardner continued. “This argument is mere speculation, not supported by facts that would support a determination of partiality.”
Gardner also turned down the suggestion that her sister’s activism in support of voter registration was conflicting. She called Abrams’ connection to the case “extremely remote” before her court.
Marc Elias, the democratic lawyer representing Majority Forward, declared the order to “defeat the suppression of voters”.
J.B. Poersch, President of Majority Forward, added: “We are very pleased with this decision. This is a huge win for Georgia voters looking to make their voices heard in the runoff elections. “
The judge’s recent order on the matter, however, represented a significant reduction in her initial restriction on Muscogee, which prevented the county from requiring challenged voters to cast preliminary ballots in the first place. The original injunction resulted in the conviction of Georgian Foreign Secretary Brad Raffensperger and drew the attention of figures such as Donald Trump Jr., who pointed their association with Abrams to fan allegations of bias.
Gardner’s order followed a two-hour hearing Wednesday on a lawsuit Majority Forward filed last week in an attempt to challenge more than 4,000 voters in Muscogee and another 150 in Ben Hill County shortly before Tuesday’s election. Finding Majority Forward unable to demonstrate that it would likely succeed in questioning Ben Hill’s decision, Gardner focused their final order only on Muscogee.
According to one of his lawyers, Thomas Gristina, the district electoral authority disagreed with the judge’s order. But district officials signaled their delight with the verdict.
“The Muscogee County Electoral Authority is pleased that Judge Abrams Gardner’s decision resolves the previous injunction and allows the Muscogee County Electoral and Registration Authority to resume using preliminary ballot papers and deciding on the election challenge,” they said Officials in a statement. “This is a major victory for the board and shows that the lawsuit is a misrepresentation and that the injunction should never have been issued.”
The board also said it was considering its appeal options, “including the issue of Judge Abrams Gardner’s decision not to withdraw from the matter.”
Muscogee County officials officially petitioned Gardner’s denial Monday.
Some of the county officials defendants in the case had urged Gardner to withdraw from the case because of her relationship with Abrams that has emerged as an important force in registering new voters and revising the state’s laws to curb the practices it practiced disputes amounted to the suppression of voters.
The judge’s role in the case has drawn national attention and criticism from leading voices in the Republican Party.
“Stacey Abram’s sister is the judge … there’s nothing shady here at all,” wrote Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter on Wednesday morning. “If it were the other way around, Democrats would scream for rejection etc, but the GOP won’t because they are weak.”
Raffensperger, the Republican foreign secretary, said the financial ties between Abrams’ group and Majority Forward highlighted the need for Gardner to reuse the case.
“That a judge would rule on the case of a group that is heavily funded by their sister is very worrying,” Raffensperger said in a statement on Tuesday.
Majority Forward’s lawsuit alleges that the mass challenges violate federal law on national voter registration. However, district lawyers argued on Wednesday that the challenges did not trigger this act, as they only focus on voters’ right to vote in the upcoming runoff elections, rather than their right to remain on the electoral roll more generally.
Gardner, however, appeared to be skeptical of this claim.
“I don’t understand the distinction that has been made. … You find people who are not eligible to vote and you leave them on the electoral roll?” Asked the judge.
A Majority Forward attorney, Uzoma Nkwonta, also argued that the term was illusory.
“That distinction is simply untenable,” said Nkownta. “The distinction you want to make here doesn’t make sense.”
Gardner said she doesn’t believe the change of address data alone is a strong indication that voters have actually moved legally. 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 him.
“My concern here is to rely on unreliable data and then incriminate people” to respond and defend their registrations, the judge said. “We are also in the holiday season and we are dealing with a pandemic. I am very concerned about asking voters to prove they are eligible to vote during this time.”
Gardner said she was trying to reach an agreement that voters would not be denied the right to vote based on postal data alone, but Nkwonta expressed concern that they could still face an onerous trial based on sparse or shaky evidence.
However, the judge said the lawsuit focuses on the issues raised by the use of the postal address change database. “You haven’t filed a case to say any other reason is out of bounds,” she said.
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