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Georgia law now makes it easier for citizens to challenge a voter's eligibility

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Georgia has a law that makes it easier for citizens to challenge other voters' eligibility. It's one of the changes that Georgia's Republican-controlled legislature made after the 2020 election, when President Biden won Georgia, defeating Donald Trump by fewer than 12,000 votes. The new law requires people to have a residential address, which is a challenge for the voters we're going to hear about next. Stephannie Stokes of member station WABE reports.

STEPHANNIE STOKES, BYLINE: First Presbyterian Church in Midtown Atlanta opens its mailroom for people who are homeless four days a week, at 1:00 p.m. Right away, more than 20 people file into a line at the reception window.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Next.

STOKES: They approach two at a time...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm here to check my mail.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

STOKES: ...While inside the mailroom is a flurry of activity. Five volunteers check IDs. Their arms reach this way and that as they search through filing cabinets stacked along the back wall. The church has about 700 people actively getting mail here. Most are homeless or living from spot to spot, like King Lyles.

KING LYLES: I don't have a permanent place right now. I kind of hop right now.

STOKES: He's able to get his medical supplies here - he has Crohn's disease - along with other mail. Just a week before, Lyles received his voter precinct card. Like many of the church's clients, he also uses this address to vote. But Lyles isn't sure he's eligible this year.

LYLES: I don't know for sure. Like, you see my precinct card, but I don't know if this is necessarily saying I'm registered to vote.

STOKES: He's heard there could be an issue with his registration. A new state law says anyone can challenge another person's voting status, just because their address is nonresidential. According to Caitlin May with the ACLU of Georgia, that could disqualify this church and other places homeless people might register.

CAITLIN MAY: There's no exception carved out for people, for example, who may be registered at a homeless shelter or somewhere else that they can actually receive mail or where they actually are sleeping at night.

STOKES: She says this makes homeless voters uniquely vulnerable. Ultimately, a challenge could kick them off the rolls, and not for a legitimate reason, voting rights advocates say. Andrew Garber is at the Brennan Center. He says it is important for voters to provide an address they can access.

ANDREW GARBER: Election officials needs to be able to find them, to know where their precinct is, where they should go to vote.

STOKES: But requiring them to have a residential address is like requiring voters to own or rent a home.

GARBER: And that would raise a number of concerns for me, including that people with lower income or people who have faced health or mental health issues being categorically excluded from voting.

STOKES: Those who support the law don't understand why it's causing these new concerns, though. Garland Favorito runs VoterGA, a group that sued over the 2020 election, alleging widespread fraud, which state investigators have not found. He says a residential address is just an indicator that someone is actually a resident in Georgia, which is required to vote.

GARLAND FAVORITO: So all we're trying to do, all the legislature is trying to do, is to really enforce the law that already existed.

STOKES: His group acknowledges there may be exceptions and says election officials can handle them, but Favorito says there is a problem with many unhoused voters' status if they're registered at places like First Presbyterian, that mainly provide mail, not shelter.

FAVORITO: Does the homeless person reside there permanently? If so, maybe that's a valid address, but in most of these cases, they don't have beds.

STOKES: He says it's not a new rule. You can't register to vote where you don't actually live, but this is the issue. Even those who find a spot at a homeless shelter may only be there a few months. Tricia Passuth at First Presbyterian says that's why so many use the church's mail service, including for things like voting. It's not to cheat the system.

TRICIA PASSUTH: And in fact, it's people who are unhoused, and they need a home base to receive their mail.

STOKES: Advocates like her worry this attention on nonresidential addresses will just discourage more unhoused voters from participating. Already, few do. There are three main churches that provide mail to homeless people in Atlanta. Four years ago, a few thousand were registered at their addresses, but less than 200 voted in the presidential election. Lyles was among them. He hasn't decided whether he will vote this year, even though he got his precinct card. He knows this - he doesn't want to face issues at the polls.

And what would it be like if you got there and there were problems? How would that make you feel?

LYLES: Horrible, 'cause (laughter) it's like, what did you send me the card for? And you gave me hopes that I can actually vote.

STOKES: Now it's easier for anyone in Georgia to challenge his registration. If someone does, Lyles hopes he can get it resolved before November.

For NPR News, I'm Stephannie Stokes in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephannie Stokes