Legitimacy of mass voter challenge on trial in political battleground Georgia

Oct 25, 2023, 9:10 PM

FILE - Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams faces off with Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in a t...

FILE - Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams faces off with Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in a televised debate, Oct. 30, 2022, in Atlanta. A lawsuit that plaintiffs say could deter mass voter challenges around the country ahead of the 2024 election is headed to trial in Georgia on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. A group associated with Abrams accuses Texas-based True the Vote of trying to intimidate voters ahead of a 2021 Senate runoff election in Georgia. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, File)

(AP Photo/Ben Gray, File)

GAINESVILLE, Ga. (AP) — A former Georgia voter testified Thursday that he felt “overwhelmed” and “discouraged” when he learned that his eligibility to cast a ballot in the state had been challenged ahead of a critical election for two U.S. Senate seats.

Scott Berson took the stand in federal court in Gainesville at the start of a trial to determine whether the conservative voting organization True the Vote violated federal law when it announced it was challenging the eligibility of more than 360,000 state voters and taking other action on the eve of the 2021 runoff election.

Berson, a group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams and other plaintiffs argue that True the Vote’s actions violated a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that prohibits voter intimidation. A ruling against the group could deter future mass voter challenges, attorneys for Fair Fight and the other plaintiffs say.

Texas-based True the Vote says it had good reason to believe the voters had moved out of their districts and were ineligible to cast a ballot there.

Berson testified that he had completed a master’s degree at Auburn University and was back in Georgia’s Muscogee County looking for a job when he learned in December 2020 that his eligibility to vote in the county in the upcoming runoff races had been challenged.

“It was a very discouraging and frustrating thing to hear,” he said.

He felt that someone had accused him of wrongdoing, which was intimidating, he added. His vote was eventually counted after he provided additional proof of residency to local election officials.

During cross examination, an attorney for True the Vote, Jake Evans, said Berson had not said he was intimidated when responding to written questions. Berson said he had more time think about the experience ahead of trial.

True the Vote announced the voter challenges just after early in-person voting began for the Jan. 5, 2021, runoff election for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats. At the time, President Donald Trump and his allies were spreading false claims that voter fraud had cost Trump the presidential election. True the Vote had aligned itself with Trump’s reelection campaign and its multistate legal effort to overturn the general election results.

Voter fraud in the U.S. is exceptionally rare. A review by the Associated Press of every potential case of voter fraud in the six battleground states disputed by Trump found fewer than 475 cases — an inconsequential number to the 2020 presidential election results. In Georgia, elections officials rejected just a few dozen ballots cast in the 2021 Senate runoff election, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Both Democrats beat their Republican opponents by tens of thousands of votes, giving the party control of the Senate.

Another attorney for True the Vote, Cameron Powell, said in court Thursday the challenges were “well-grounded” and allowed under Georgia law.

Fair Fight and the other plaintiffs say True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht also tried to deter voters from casting ballots in the runoffs by publicizing a million-dollar bounty for reports of election-related wrongdoing and saying she would send Navy SEALs to polling places.

Engelbrecht sat at the defense table in court Thursday. She declined comment.

Powell said Navy SEALs were mentioned during a private, closed-door presentation and was not broadcast to voters. Attorneys for True the Vote have said in court documents that the money the group announced was a legal fund for whistleblowers.

Other lawsuits alleging intimidation under the Voting Rights Act have involved conduct, Powell said, while his clients were merely engaging in protected speech.

The trial could take as many as 10 days. The plaintiffs have asked U.S. Judge Steve Jones to bar True the Vote from operating in Georgia and initiating any challenges in the future in the battleground state that President Joe Biden won by roughly 12,000 votes in 2020. The judge is not expected to rule immediately after the trial concludes.

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Legitimacy of mass voter challenge on trial in political battleground Georgia