The federal trial against a conservative activist group accused of using mass voter eligibility challenges to discourage Black and brown Georgians from participating in elections began today.

Fair Fight, the voting rights advocacy group founded by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, filed a lawsuit that seeks to bar True the Vote from pursuing mass voter challenges ahead of the 2024 presidential election cycle. The Houston-based vote-monitoring organization used change-of-address reports to challenge the eligibility of hundreds of thousands of registered voters en masse in 2020 without sufficient pre-existing evidence, Fair Fight argues.

“Immediate judicial relief is critical to ensuring that Georgians can fully and freely participate in the electoral process and exercise the rights to which they are constitutionally entitled,” the plaintiffs contend in their complaint.

U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones is set to hear arguments and testimony in Gainesville. The trial is expected to last no more than a week, according to Fair Fight, which says the proceeding could pave the way for making mass voter challenges more difficult to file in the future.

Conservative activists have ramped up efforts to shrink voter rolls by legally challenging people’s eligibility to cast a ballot. Being a noncitizen, a felon whose voting rights haven’t been restored, or not meeting residency requirements are some of the grounds for being ruled ineligible. Public records, like change-of-address forms, have allowed them to challenge eligibility by the thousands.

Voter challenges were legal prior to the enactment of SB 202, the so-called election integrity law, in 2021, but the legislation codified the process and expanded residents’ ability to file them. SB 202 was championed by Republicans after 2020 election voter fraud allegations gained traction.

Today, there’s no limit on the amount of challenges a resident can file against other city or county residents. A ProPublica investigation found that six right-wing activists in Georgia were responsible for filing about 89,000 voter challenges since SB 202 became law.

Since the 2020 election, more than 350,000 voter eligibility challenges have been filed in Georgia, according to Fair Fight executive director Cianti Stewart-Reid, who says the state has become “ground zero” for mass voter challenges in the United States. Black residents have been disproportionately targeted.

Last year in Cobb County, voters of color made up 61% of individuals whose voter eligibility was challenged, despite only making up about 49% of registered voters there, according to Steward-Reid.

In Forsyth County, Black voters represent only 3.59% of registered voters but make up 6.1% of the voters whose eligibility was challenged between October 2021 and October 2023, she said.

She described the mass challenges as a “Jim Crow 2.0” voter suppression tactic that has “no place in our democracy.”

“We believe these anti-voter tactics like mass voter challenges are part of a nationally coordinated campaign by big wide conspiracy theorists to restrict voter access and hamper election administration,” Steward-Reid said. “Georgia is their testing ground.”

‘Intimidate and deter’?

True the Vote has been involved in a number of mass voter challenges in Georgia since former President Donald Trump and his allies made meritless allegations of widespread voter fraud in the state in the wake of Trump’s failed 2020 reelection bid.

Fair Fight’s amended complaint against True the Vote was originally filed in December 2020 after the latter group announced plans to challenge the eligibility of 364,000 Georgia voters suspected of moving to a new address ahead of the state’s U.S. Senate runoff races the following month. 

Legal challenges that True the Vote operatives filed in four states, including Georgia, were dismissed within 72 hours, according to members of Fair Fight’s legal team.

The organization led by conservative activist Catherine Engelbrecht presented lists of names taken from the U.S. Postal Service’s National Change Of Address database as evidence supporting its claim that certain voters were ineligible, the lawsuit states. 

Fair Fight cites temporary relocation for school, employment, military service, and travel among the “innumerable reasons” people might change their mailing address while maintaining residency in Georgia.

In their complaint, attorneys for Fair Fight say federal law bars election officials “from removing individuals from the voter rolls simply because of an address change unless several strict precautions are followed.”

The group argues that True the Vote’s mass voter challenges were intended to “intimidate and deter” eligible Black and brown voters and additional first-timer voters, an alleged violation of a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

‘I earned my right to vote’

U.S. Army veteran James Darnell McWhorter became one of the latest Black Georgians to have his voter eligibility challenged earlier this month. In McWhorter’s case, it was a frequent voter-eligibility challenger named Gail Lee who took the case to the DeKalb County Board of Registration and Elections.

McWhorter, a 54-year-old barber and Stone Mountain resident who did a tour of duty in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, said he was “taken aback” when he received an Oct. 10 letter in the mail from the DeKalb County Voter Registration & Elections office informing him his voter status had been challenged. 

Memories of scud missiles lighting up the sky and having to eat a meal next to a dead body during Operation Desert Storm caused McWhorter to self-medicate with alcohol during the mid-1990s, he said.

He racked up three DUI charges that led to a felony conviction, which annulled his right to vote. Georgia law allows people with felony convictions to regain their voting rights once their sentence, probation, and parole are complete. McWhorter says he regained his right to vote in 2008 after completing all his conviction requirements and getting his life back on track.

​​“I earned my right to vote,” McWhorter said. “I worked so hard to get it back. Why would it be questioned?”

On Wednesday, McWhorter pleaded his case to members of the DeKalb County Board of Elections during their latest voter eligibility challenge hearing in Decatur.

During the hearing, McWhorter says a white DeKalb County resident, identified by Decaturish as Lee, said she had challenged his eligibility because his driver’s license lists the barbershop where he works as his residential address.

McWhorter explained that he was unhoused in 2008 when he used his barbershop address to get a driver’s license and to register to vote, which is legal, according to Fair Fight.

“You can’t get an apartment without an ID, so I would stay for years at extended stay hotels,” McWhorter said. “I would go in the barbershop and sleep in the barbershop at times, but no one ever knew that I was displaced.”

The board of elections ultimately rejected the challenge to McWhorter’s voter eligibility.

He said the challenge didn’t intimidate him, but it might discourage other unhoused people from participating in elections.

“They don’t have the means to get a lawyer to fight their right to vote,” McWhorter said. “It can be very disparaging and intimidating.”

Chauncey Alcorn is Capital B Atlanta's state and local politics reporter.