A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order that prevents the Muscogee County Board of Elections and Registrations from keeping more than 4,000 “targeted voters” from casting ballots in the U.S. Senate runoff election on Jan. 5.

The order came late Monday from U.S. District Court Judge Leslie A. Gardner, who is based in Albany. Gardner is the sister of Georgia voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams.

Majority Forward, a nonprofit voter registration and turnout organization, petitioned the court in the Middle District of Georgia to stop two challenges to voters who were believed to live outside of the jurisdictions in which they were registered. Gardener’s decision impacts voters in Muscogee County and also voters in Ben Hill County.

The order last for eight days, which would carry it through the Jan. 5 election day. Early voting started in the two runoffs that will likely decide control of the U.S. Senate two weeks ago. More than 2 million Georgians have already voted.

Republican U.S. Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are facing challenges from Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in a high-stakes runoff.

Reached early Tuesday morning, Muscogee County Director of Registrations and Elections told News 3 that they were still studying the order and would not have comment until they had a chance to discuss it with the board’s attorneys.

Attorney Jim Clark told News 3 Tuesday afternoon that the board had authorized an appeal, but one had not been filed yet. Any appeal would go to the 11th Circuit based in Atlanta. There is a hearing on the TRO Wednesday at 10 a.m. at the federal courthouse in Albany.

The attorneys for the Muscogee County elections board have asked Gardner to recuse herself.

“Judge Gardner made a reference to that motion to recuse in her temporary restraining order,” Clark said. “She indicated that she did not find it to have merit. We believe that the judge should have recused in this case. But as of yet she has not done so.” 

On December 14, 2020, Ralph Alton Russell, the chairman of the Muscogee County Republican party, filed a challenge to the eligibility of 4,033 registered voters in Muscogee County to vote in the Runoff Elections. At the time, Russell said he was filing the challenge individually and not in his party leadership role.

Russell stated, “The grounds for my challenge are that I have evidence that there are approximately 4,033 individuals registered to vote in Muscogee county who reside outside of the State of Georgia. This information was gathered by running the Muscogee County voter registration database against the National Change of Address Registry.

“I believe that each of the individuals named . . . as a result of registering their name and change of address to a location outside of Muscogee County, removed to another state with the intention of making the new state their residence,” Russell claimed in the challenge. “Thus, each individual has lost their residence in Muscogee County, and consequently, each individual is ineligible to vote in Muscogee County.”

Russell told News 3 on Tuesday he was concerned about non-residents voting.

“The law in Georgia is very clear that you have to be a resident of the county to be able to vote in the county or the state,” Russell said. “That’s all this challenge was about.” 

The Muscogee Board met on Dec. 16 to consider Russell’s challenge. Russell did not attend the meeting, and no additional information was provided to support his challenges, Gardner’s ruling notes.

The Muscogee Board voted 3-1 that there was probable cause to support Russell’s challenge. The Muscogee Board placed the names of the 4,033 Targeted Voters (minus any voters on Russell’s list who were entitled to vote under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act) on a list.

“The Muscogee Board instructed that any Targeted Voter whose name appears on the list and who attempts to vote in person is to be advised of the challenge and allowed only to cast a provisional ballot,” Gardner wrote. “Any Targeted Voter requesting an absentee ballot will be required to present additional evidence of residency in order to vote.”

Gardner ordered the following:

— Defendants are enjoined from removing any challenged voters in Ben Hill and Muscogee Counties from the registration lists on the basis of National Change of Address data;

— Defendants are enjoined from preventing any Targeted Voters from casting a regular ballot in the January 5, 2021 runoff elections on the basis of NCOA data;

— Defendants are enjoined from requiring any Targeted Voters to cast a provisional ballot or to present any additional evidence of eligibility on the basis of NCOA data; and

— Defendants are required to make reasonable efforts to inform all Targeted Voters of the terms of the restraining order.

One of the Democratic candidates potentially impacted by these challenges, which have been happening across the state, called it voter supression.

“Right now, there are ongoing attacks on voting rights in Georgia, and these lawsuits that the GOP is filing to purge the rolls, to remove dropboxes where people will submit their absentee ballots — these are an attack on Black voters in Georgia,” Jon Ossoff said Tuesday while campaigning in Atlanta. “This is voter suppression. This is an effort to disenfranchise people.
And the best way to defend the franchise is for the people to show that tenacity and determination to exercise the sacred franchise to vote. So I am calling on the people of this state to defy these efforts to disenfranchise Black voters by voting in record numbers.”