By Dan M. Berger
GAINESVILLE, Ga.—In the small town of Gainesville, just outside Atlanta, two powerful election advocacy groups are duking it out in court in a case with widespread implications in the voting rights versus election integrity controversy.
Fair Fight, founded by two-time Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, sued True the Vote, an election integrity group that questioned absentee ballot procedures in 2020, which hinged on Georgia’s disputed tally.
Then-President Donald Trump’s allegations of voter fraud led to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol breach that Democrats have labeled an “insurrection.” The former president hasn’t backed off his claims despite his four pending criminal cases, two concerning the election or Jan. 6, and various judges’ efforts to get him to stop talking about it.
Fair Fight alleges in its lawsuit, filed on Dec. 23, 2020, that True the Vote’s allegations in the fall of that year—that Georgia’s voter rolls contained more than 364,000 improperly registered people, and its efforts to enlist citizen volunteers to challenge questionable voters—tended to intimidate people.
That sounds subjective, but it’s a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the group alleges in its lawsuit. That law, in examining potential intimidation of minority voters, doesn’t require proof of the intent of those accused, the group stated in the case.
The nonjury trial before U.S. District Judge Steve Jones began on Oct. 26 at the federal courthouse in Gainesville, on Lake Lanier, a popular leisure destination for metropolitan residents.
The court heard earlier from witnesses who said they regarded True the Vote’s tactics as intimidating. On Nov. 1, the court heard from Catherine Engelbrecht, the founder of the Texas-based organization, who was cross-examined by one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, Uzoma Nkwonta of the Elias Law Group in Washington, for about five hours.
Mr. Nkwonta sought to tie Ms. Engelbrecht to various emails and texts, some by other people, supporting the plaintiff’s case.
Ms. Engelbrecht, who has a background in marketing statistical analysis, proved a tough witness, calmly and repeatedly refusing his demands for yes or no answers and insisting instead on providing context for various statements.
Mr. Nkwonta objected to her answers, arguing to the judge that she was launching a “narrative” rather than answering his questions.
Fair Fight seeks to prove an atmosphere of intimidation. Ms. Engelbrecht testified that intimidation was present—on the defendants’ side. Mr. Nkwonza grilled her on the group’s offer of $1 million in incentives; specifically, one man offered $50,000.
Ms. Engelbrecht said that man’s was a special case. The money was intended for expenses, including medical bills.
One of her attorneys, Michael J. Wynne of Gregor Wynne Arney in Houston, told The Epoch Times later that the man, after going public with claims of electoral fraud, was hospitalized from a severe beating, an attack possibly triggered by his allegations.
Ms. Engelbrecht told The Epoch Times during a recess that she received police protection in the heated days around the Nov. 3, 2020, presidential election, turmoil that continued in Georgia until the Jan. 5, 2021, runoffs for two Senate seats.
Democrats took both those seats from Republicans that day, giving them the tiebreaker majority in a now evenly split U.S. Senate.
Much of Ms. Engelbrecht’s testimony related to her group’s compiling a list of 364,000 questionable voters by comparing Georgia’s voter rolls with publicly available U.S. Postal Service lists of those who have changed addresses. About 11 percent of U.S. residents move yearly, she told The Epoch Times during a recess.
Mr. Nkwonta sought to establish that many people who move don’t become ineligible to vote at their prior addresses, among them college students and military service members.
Ms. Engelbrecht maintained that voter identification is already required in Georgia and that any voter challenged could prove eligibility by producing an established means of voter identification.
Ms. Engelbrecht told The Epoch Times that people needed to put the 2020 election behind them. But she wants the record to be accurate, she said. Those concerned about fraud should look ahead instead to reforming election law by tightening up procedures regarding, e.g., absentee ballots.
She said she was heartened by reforms in states such as Georgia and Florida that have addressed those. Georgia Republican leaders such as Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both reelected last year, have said the reforms make it “easy to vote and hard to cheat” and that minority turnout records disprove allegations of voter suppression.
Late in the afternoon, Mr. Nkwonta presented as an exhibit a 2021 video deposition of Clair J. Martin, who in 2020 was the Republican Party chairman of Taliaferro County, between Athens and Augusta, the state’s smallest county by population, with only 1,717 residents in that year’s census.
Mr. Martin said he’d gotten a call in December of that year from a man he initially thought was from the Republican Party but who later told him he was affiliated with True the Vote.
Mr. Martin testified that the man had asked him to find a volunteer to challenge 37 people on a list of Taliaferro voters questionably registered. Mr. Martin said he volunteered to do it himself.
“If people were voting who didn’t live here, that was significant,” he said.
Georgia law allows citizens to file complaints that people are illegally registered to vote.
Mr. Martin detailed his initial efforts regarding three of the voters, helped by the county’s elections registrar. One who was listed as living in Paterson, New Jersey, was actually a 100-year-old resident of a Taliaferro County nursing home. Another lived in another county but still was deemed eligible for the homestead exemption in Taliaferro County, enough proof to allow her to vote there.
“Who’s going to argue with a judge who said she lived there?” Mr. Martin said.
The third lived in another county but had requested an absentee ballot from Taliaferro County.
With two of the three people clearly eligible to vote, he said, he retracted his challenges a few days after making them, seeing them as unlikely to be sustained.
He had already had misgivings about True the Vote’s list, he said, not knowing who they were or their methodology.
His experience in 30 years working for the Department of Defense, he said, was that “not all the time, what you see on a piece of paper is real.”
And the results of the three withdrawn challenges showed “there’s a lot of nuances to all this.” Someone might have an address outside the county, he said, “but it’s not clear whether the individual has the right to vote in this county or not.”
Fair Fight seeks to permanently enjoin True the Vote and individual codefendants, including Ms. Engelbrecht and five others, from challenging any voter’s eligibility in Georgia, contacting any voters about their eligibility, poll watching or monitoring, or photographing or videoing voters or election workers.
“Crucially, the focus of these efforts has been to intimidate and deter eligible and qualified Georgians—particularly Black and brown voters and first-time voters—from exercising their fundamental right to vote,” the group says in its amended complaint.
Rebutting that, True the Vote (TTV) says in its brief that Fair Fight’s own expert witness “admits the percentage of African-Americans in the TTV challenge files (27.3 percent) was almost 10 percent less than the percentage of African-American voters in Georgia as a whole (29.9 percent.) In short, African-Americans were under-represented in TTV’s challenge file.”