Eligible voters are being swept up in conservative activists’ efforts to purge voter rolls

Voters eligible to cast ballots are already being swept up in a grassroots effort to purge the nation’s registration rolls ahead of the 2024 presidential election, a CBS News investigation has found. 

Fueled by doubts about the 2020 election, an army of conservative activists is poring over state voter lists, looking for registration errors that can be used to file what are known as voter challenges — questioning the registrations of thousands of Americans.

The undertaking, which includes the involvement of a lawyer tied to former President Trump’s alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election, tends to affect minority or younger voters who may be statistically more likely to vote Democrat, according to local election officials. 

“It’s young voters, it’s people of color, and it’s people that are unhoused,” said Karli Swift, chair of the election board in DeKalb County, Georgia. “Those are generally the types of people that end up in voter challenges.” 

One of those hit with challenges was James McWhorter, who received a letter at the barbershop he manages in the middle of October from DeKalb County informing him that someone had challenged his voter status. The challenger, a woman named Gail Lee, argued McWhorter improperly registered to vote at a commercial address and snapped photos of his barbershop, which is located inside an Atlanta-area Kroger supermarket, as evidence.  

“I didn’t know Gail Lee from a can of paint,” McWhorter told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett. 

De Kalb County voter and barbershop owner James McWhorter talks with Major Garrett.

CBS News

Since the two had never met, there was no way for Lee to know that McWhorter had registered to vote at the shop’s address in 2008 because he was homeless at the time. A veteran of the Gulf War, he was still trying to get back on his feet after years of struggling with PTSD and alcoholism.

“My friends, my family never knew I was displaced, never knew I was homeless,” McWhorter said, adding he would return to the barbershop after it closed and sleep in his chair and wash his clothes at a24-hour laundromat nearby.

Nevertheless, the letter made it clear that McWhorter’s voter registration could be canceled if he didn’t take action. 

“I had to put on my glasses just to make sure it said what it was saying,” said McWhorter, who is no longer homeless but has kept a mailing address for two decades at the shop he now manages. “I was taken aback. I really was. Why would someone challenge my vote?” 

McWhorter, 55, is among the latest group of Georgia citizens targeted by an effort to purge the nation’s voter rolls ahead of the 2024 presidential election. 

Georgia became ground zero for the movement after Republicans in the state pushed through a law in 2021 allowing citizens to file an unlimited number of challenges against fellow voters within their own county. In the two years since the law passed, a CBS News investigation found more than 80,000 challenges have been filed against Georgia voters — many of them by a loose network of about a dozen conservative activists. 

The movement is not limited to Georgia. CBS News obtained video and transcripts from 11 separate sessions this year in which activists are seen strategizing how best to deploy voter challenges across the country.

For example, public records reveal a local Republican Party activist in Virginia who attended a March strategy session, then filed a slate of 43 voter challenges in August, ahead of the November election. Activists have also recently filed challenges in Washington state and Michigan, where a public records request revealed a GOP official conducted a “field investigation,” going to dozens of homes to check if voters were registered to the correct address.

Gail Lee
Conservative activist Gail Lee is interviewed by Major Garrett.

CBS News

In an interview, Lee said she’s filed about 500 challenges and says her work is a non-partisan effort to highlight and correct errors in the voter roll. She said she believes those inaccuracies may present an opportunity for fraud, enabling someone to cast a ballot who isn’t legally able to vote. 

CBS News’ analysis found across Georgia at least 12,000 challenges – about 15%– have been upheld and resulted in the removal of voters from the rolls, but local election officials say the challenges identify administrative errors and technical violations, not evidence of fraud. 

“I think that unfortunately many members of our community have taken misinformation to heart and they truly believe there is fraud in the system, which is just not true,” Swift said, adding the issues the challenges are identifying shouldn’t deprive someone of their right to vote.

Swift said her staff has spent hundreds of hours dealing with challenges she says are meritless. In Georgia, counties are required to attempt to contact challenged voters in advance of an administration hearing that will determine whether they are removed from the rolls.

Karli Swift
File: Karli Swift, chair of the election board in DeKalb County, Georgia.

Despite the tens of thousands of challenges across Georgia, it’s rare for someone who is challenged to actually appear at the hearing to defend his or her registration. CBS News attended a recent hearing in Forsyth County where none of the 236 voters who had their registrations challenged showed up. 

The Republican-leaning election board voted to uphold 135 of the challenges, canceling the registrations of individuals who are likely unaware they’re being struck from the rolls. On Election Day, removed voters may still cast a provisional ballot, and these votes would only count if the removed voters prove their eligibility to the county within three days. 

“Trying to put your foot on someone else’s neck”

McWhorter said he did not realize the letter gave him the option of resolving his voter status over email, and believed he needed to attend his hearing. Last month, he arrived at the county election office ready to defend his right to vote and found himself face to face with Lee.

“For you to challenge me, you have that right as a citizen of DeKalb County, but I served [in the military] to give you that right,” McWhorter told Lee. “I paid taxes here for 20 years, even though I was homeless.” 

After the hearing, McWhorter updated his address, but said he believed Lee had been trying to disenfranchise him.

“It was hurtful that she would do something like that,” McWhorter said. “You’re trying to put your foot on someone else’s neck.”

Responding to that claim, Lee said the challenge to McWhorter’s registration was “not exactly a heavy foot,” since all he had to do was contact the election office to update his address. 

Asked whether she could see how Black voters like McWhorter might feel threatened by her work, Lee, who is white, denied race played a role.

“I would think they would want their vote protected too, because someone who doesn’t belong on the rolls would take away their vote,” she said.  

While McWhorter acknowledged Lee is exercising her right under the law, he believes her motives were malicious.

“What God wants me to do”

Lee said she decided to become more politically active after former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden, a race she still believes Trump won. Convinced that rigged voting machines and bloated voter rolls helped deliver Mr. Biden the presidency — though officials found no such evidence — she attended an election integrity conference in Atlanta last year. 

According to Lee, a nonprofit called the Conservative Partnership Institute participated in the conference. The group’s staffers include former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, who spoke at the conference’s luncheon, and GOP lawyer Cleta Mitchell, who aided Trump’s effort to overturn the election in Georgia. (Trump, Meadows and more than a dozen others are now facing criminal charges for their efforts. The former president, his White House chief of staff and most of the other co-defendants have pleaded not guilty, though four have reached plea deals.)

Eager to find a way to volunteer, Lee says she began filing challenges after a chance encounter during a bathroom break at the conference with a woman who was doing similar work in another Atlanta-area county.

“The woman who spoke from Gwinnett was there …and I said, ‘I’m interested in the voter rolls,'” Lee said. “She emailed me back a list of people in DeKalb County, and I began investigating the addresses.”

Now Lee is one of scores of volunteers who scours the rolls, looking for voters registered at P.O. boxes, those who appear in the rolls multiple times, or those who list birthdays so old that the voter may be deceased. She then compiles a dossier on each challenged voter and sends it to the county election board.

“I believe it’s what God wants me to do,” Lee said. “He knows what’s right and what’s wrong and there’s things that need to be fixed in the voter rolls.”

These are all tasks that are already handled by Georgia election officials, said Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican whose office is charged with maintaining the state’s voter rolls. 

Raffensperger told CBS News the assumption that the system is riddled with fraud is not valid. He said his office, unlike citizen challengers, typically has access to driver’s license and Social Security data that is more up to date. 

“We have objective voter rolls,” said Raffensperger. “They’re clean, they’re accurate. We’re doing voter list maintenance every month.” 

“They’re registering homeless folks there”

One of the people driving the push for grassroots activists to scrub voter rolls is a medical entrepreneur named John “Rick” Richards, who promotes a new software product that he described as a “Betty Crocker cookbook approach” that would expedite the challenge process.

Richards helped organize online video demonstrations throughout the spring and summer to train activists, including Lee, who attended one in June. In all, hundreds of volunteers nationwide have listened to how they could soon use the software, called EagleAI NETwork, to scan publicly available databases to identify “irregularities” with voter registrations and flag them to county officials.

The existence of EagleAI was first reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. In company pitch documents CBS News obtained through a public records request, Richards billed the product as “Voter Integrity Software” that will “enable citizens to audit, validate and offer suggestions to improve the integrity of their state’s voter roster.” 

Richards declined an interview, but in a statement said EagleAI “only presents data” to county officials who ultimately decide whether to remove voters, and that its users are “volunteering to provide assistance to county election officials.” On Friday, Columbia County, outside of Augusta, Georgia, which is heavily Republican, became the first local government in the country to adopt the software to help maintain its voter rolls. 

Some of the Eagle AI video sessions, including the one Lee attended, were hosted by Mitchell, who, since the 2020 election has been leading a growing network of conservative activists that claims to be investigating theories and uncovering what they believe is proof of fraud in the administration of U.S. elections. Dozens of investigations into the 2020 election have failed to turn up any evidence of fraud, including in Georgia where three recounts confirmed Trump’s loss.

Mitchell also declined an interview, but in a series of emails refuted the characterization that those in her organization are “election deniers,” She described them as “patriots … who woke up after 2020 and realized what had happened to their election systems and are doing their best to work hard to remedy various aspects of the problems.”

The video sessions obtained by CBS News raise questions about who exactly the software and its users are targeting. In one session in March, Richards demonstrated how the software can accelerate a mass challenge against homeless voters registering at a church.

“It’s a Presbyterian church,” Richards explained in the video, which was provided to CBS News by the progressive watchdog group Documented and independently verified. “They have an outreach mission. They’re registering homeless folks there. Of course, nobody knows whether they’re actually voting or not. So that’s an issue.”

Richards told the audience of volunteers that it might normally take a long time to file a challenge report on 2,224 people. But not with his software, he said. 

“All I gotta do is hit that button right there and it brings them all up,” he said. “And I hit this button right here, and it creates all those challenge forms at one time.”

Challenged over typos 

CBS News found other instances of challenges that led eligible voters to have their right to vote questioned. Two days after he left the hospital following surgery for colon cancer, Christopher Ramsey received a letter from Fulton County alerting him his voter registration had been challenged due to a typo in his address, which Ramsey had previously tried to correct. Despite a compromised immune system and a warning from his doctor, Ramsey drove 30 miles to the county’s election board office and waited hours to defend his right to vote. 

“I felt firmly that I have my right to vote, and I was going to defend it,” Ramsey, a former kindergarten teacher, told CBS News. 

Ramsey said he was one of 4,000 voters challenged that day, but only a few dozen showed up to defend themselves.

“This made me lose confidence in their system,” said Ramsey, who first shared his story with ProPublica. “What about all the people who couldn’t show up for themselves?” 

Lakendra Graham was also challenged for registering at an invalid address. Graham’s address changed in 2019, after Atlanta renamed a number of streets that previously honored the Confederacy. Ms. Graham had lived on Confederate Court, before the city changed it to Trestletree Court. 

“It was on the news that the street names changed, so that’s something small you could have looked at to see I’m still there,” said Graham at a Fulton County hearing last March. “Nothing’s changed, my information hasn’t changed.” 

This past June, Courtney Scott had to wait more than four hours to testify before the board of elections after she was challenged over a clerical error in her street name. Scott lives on Azalee Hester Wharton Way NW, but the voter roll her challenger found was missing “Hester” in the address. 

“I couldn’t believe I could lose my voting rights that easily,” Scott told CBS News. “If I was charged with anything, the burden of proof should be on them, but the burden was on me, by a letter, to be able to vote.” 

A federal court in Georgia is currently hearing a lawsuit over the legality of mass voter challenges and whether the practice amounts to voter intimidation, and Raffenperger said he’s looking to the outcome for guidance.

“I think that we’ll have to take a look at what the remedy will be from the court system,” said Raffensperger, adding that he did not believe the practice disenfranchises voters in Georgia. “It’s never been easier to vote. We are, we believe, the model for what election integrity and election accessibility should look like throughout the entire country.” 

Since having his vote challenged, McWhorter said he has decided to be more politically active. The master barber said that will start with a simple message for his customers: “Go vote.” 

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