Voter Testimony: Intimidation and Disenfranchisement in the Georgia Senate Runoffs

A hand is placing a Georgia ballot with a Georgia peach voter sticker into a paper shredder labelled "Validate the Vote." A speech bubble with cut out text reads "When I was challenged I was the only Hispanic there voting... and that made me feel intimidated."

In November 2020, Georgia went blue.  

Two months later, with control of Congress on the line, Georgia voters once again showed up to the polls in record numbers. They propelled the two Democratic candidates, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, to the U.S. Senate. In both victories, Black voters were the deciding force

In those two consequential months between the general and runoff election, a more nefarious story was unfolding behind the scenes. True the Vote (TTV), a right-wing, Texas-based organization, mounted several failed legal challenges to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Afterwards, TTV zoned in on Georgia’s runoff elections.

Georgia has an expansive statute that permits any voter to challenge the right to vote of any other voter in that county or municipality. Within a few weeks of the 2020 general election, TTV challenged the eligibility of over 364,000 Georgians, the largest mass challenge effort in Georgia history. On Dec. 22, 2020, a voting rights group sued TTV.

Fair Fight, founded by former state representative and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, filed this lawsuit, arguing that TTV’s actions — the mass challenges to voter eligibility, combined with recruiting partisan poll watchers and offering a money award to anyone who finds evidence of “illegal voting” — violate Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 11(b) outlaws any act that is likely to intimidate voters: “No person, whether acting under color of law or otherwise, shall intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote.”

(TTV countersued, arguing that it was Abrams and her team who were actually intimidating them, the TTV defendants. As expected, the court didn’t buy that argument, dismissing TTV’s counterclaim.)

A year and a half later, the legal battle is still playing out. Both the plaintiffs and defendants filed motions for summary judgment — asking the judge to rule on a portion or all of a case without a full trial by arguing and presenting evidence that their side is right. Now, there’s 979 pages of evidence from the plaintiffs and 757 pages from the defendants to explore. In our first Voter Testimony piece, we examine the extreme steps TTV took and how that caused very real harm to voters. Here’s what we found:

True the Vote challenged voter eligibility based on methods it knew were faulty.

TTV’s mass challenges were based on the U.S. Postal Service’s National Change of Address (NCOA) database. TTV challenged individuals of being unlawfully registered if they had filed a request to forward their mail to a different address over the past few years. But, using the NCOA alone, it’s impossible to know whether someone has moved from Georgia permanently or has asked their mail to be forwarded for a myriad of other reasons. By relying on a match between Georgia’s voter rolls and NCOA, TTV effectively assumed that every Georgia voter who had submitted a change of address was an illegally registered voter.

Gregg Phillips, the sole employee at OpSec, a technology group he founded, was hired by TTV to conduct the matching process. In discussing the algorithm that he developed, Phillips said: “We use it everyday in our business. So it’s used in practice, and we’ve done 43 million cases, so its accuracy is pretty well known.” 

“Has it been independently verified by anyone else?” asked the opposing counsel. “Nope,” Phillips responded. Phillips also admitted in his deposition that individuals with the same first names and last names, but different middle initials, could be flagged as a match. He was aware that someone can submit a change of address and still be properly registered: for being deployed in the military, for attending university out of state or for simply moving within the same jurisdiction.

Dr. Ken Mayer, a political scientist who analyzed the file of challenged voters, wrote in his expert report that TTV’s data was “riddled with errors; has no meaningful checks on the validity of its results; contains false positives, missing data, incorrect matches, improperly formatted and entered data” and more. 

In Mayer’s independent analysis, the expert identified over 57,000 registrants (around 23% of those in the challenge file) who appear to have moved to or near a military installation, or to a municipality with a college or university. Students or military personnel who temporarily moved out-of-state are still eligible Georgia voters.

From the testimony of Catherine Engelbrecht, founder and president of TTV, we learned that TTV had partnered with the Georgia Republican Party and that many of the volunteer challengers it recruited were under the impression, in part from TTV’s communication, that the goal was to remove voters from the rolls (though Engelbrecht maintains the goal was to simply challenge voters’ eligibility). On this point, the plaintiffs argue that TTV “prepared its bloated challenge lists as part of their plan to ‘build momentum through broad publicity’ and ‘galvanize Republican’ support at the expense of accuracy.”

These voter challenges weren’t victimless. They made voters feel threatened.

In the January runoff elections, many challenged voters only learned that their eligibility was questioned when they tried to vote or found their name online. Here’s what the experience was like in the words of four Georgians:

This voter had moved before COVID-19 but was not permanently tied to her new residence because of remote work. She only learned about her eligibility being challenged when she showed up in person to a polling location and was required to cast a provisional ballot. The voter later found out that her name was published on the county website for six months. 

When I was challenged, I was the only Hispanic there voting. And I noticed that the only other race besides white who I believed was also challenged — she casted a paper ballot — was Asian…. I connected the two, and I thought that people of color were being challenged. And that made me feel intimidated.

This voter has lived in Georgia for the past 12 years, where she owns a home and maintains a permanent job. Her spouse was offered a short term career opportunity in another location and she travels back and forth, but she forwarded her mail to the spouse’s location. The voter found that her eligibility had been challenged in a news article in a local paper, with her name and home address published online.

I feared that I could — or my family could — become the next target of harassment from True the Vote and their supporters for having voted, especially because my name and address had been published online and I had been publicly identified as a challenged voter.

This voter is a civilian employee for the U.S. Department of Defense and has lived overseas since August 2020. She received an absentee ballot for the runoff election in mid-November and promptly returned it. She checked the “My Voter Page” on the Georgia secretary of state’s website nearly everyday, until Dec. 20, 2020, when the status of her ballot was marked as “Challenged.” 

I was very confused and concerned by the challenge. I was not provided any information about why I had been challenged or what I would need to do to make sure my ballot was counted.

If additional challenges are made in future elections that are again based on mail-forwarding requests, I worry about the effect that will have… I remain concerned about the time and energy it will take to make sure our right to vote is vindicated while we are serving overseas.

This voter is a retired veteran who has voted in Georgia in almost every election for the past 50 years. As a government contractor with the U.S. Navy, he was required to temporarily relocate to California. This voter proactively called his election officials when he became anxious that his absentee ballot had not arrived. He was informed that he was one of approximately 4,000 voters in his county who was challenged for requesting an absentee ballot from out-of-state.

He successfully sued the election board for the ballot to be counted, but said that “the entire experience was scary, confusing, and intimidating.

I am a Black voter and a veteran, and I grew up in an era of segregation when it was common for public officials and certain members of our communities to make it difficult for us to vote. Having to deal with these kinds of obstacles still today is both discouraging and aggravating, and makes it seem like we should just give up.

I wonder if it is even worth trying to vote again given the trouble that the voter challenge has caused me.

While many counties rejected the frivolous challenges launched by TTV and its supporters (and other counties were required to by court orders), the damage was done. Fair Fight’s legal documents outline the impact: “lawful voters will be deterred and intimidated from participating in the political process out of fear that they will be accused by [TTV] and their supporters of voting illegally.” Instead of curtailing these challenges, the state of Georgia has further empowered these efforts in its massive voting law passed later in 2021.

Georgia has a long — and recent — history of intimidating Black voters.

Mayer notes that TTV conducted challenges in only 65 of Georgia’s 159 counties, those with higher concentrations of African American voters. Ten of the 11 counties immediately surrounding Atlanta were included in TTV’s challenges.

Another expert for the plaintiffs, Dr. Vernon Burton, testified about Georgia’s long history of intimidating Black voters. “Since its inception, Georgia’s voter challenge provision has repeatedly been used in an intimidating manner against minority voters,” writes Burton, describing the law introduced in the early 1900s “as a means to exclude Black Georgians from the ballot box under the guise of ‘purifying’ elections.” 

Here’s the crucial point from Burton’s testimony — voter intimidation isn’t a relic of Georgia’s past. It persisted into the second half of the 20th century and throughout the early 2000s.

Burton chronicles a story of the 2010 school board elections in predominantly white Brooks County, Georgia. Nancy Dennard, a Black woman, worked hard to register and engage first-time voters and those who struggled to get to the polls; she won in 2009. The following year, two more Black women ran for seats on the school board. Black voter turnout surged and they won.

What happened next? During the campaigns, the Brooks County School Board hired a private investigator to monitor the women. Afterwards, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) opened a formal investigation into the elections and local police arrested the three women who had won seats on the school board, along with nine others. Collectively, they were charged with 102 felony counts ranging from “unlawful possession of ballots” to “interfering with an elector.” After several years and one trial, the charges were ultimately dropped.

In Burton’s review of the long — and recent — history of voter intimidation, he concludes: “The idea that only a ‘qualified’ few, rather than all citizens, should be permitted to vote propagates white Democrats’ rhetoric from Reconstruction about the illegitimacy of freedmen’s votes.”

Last month, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on a Georgia man who had challenged the eligibility of over 13,000 voters in Forsyth County, about 8% of all registered voters in that county. These challenges, based on the same unsound matching with the NCOA, were dismissed by Forsyth County’s election board. Now, voters in the Peach State await the ruling in Fair Fight’s case against TTV and the implications that may bring for future challenges. Briefing continues throughout the summer and then the judge could set a date for a hearing. 

But, given the sanctioning from some of Georgia’s highest ranking Republicans, these mass challenges don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.