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A data tool being used to challenge voter registrations is raising many concerns

David Sumrall, the head of the Republican Party in Georgia's Bibb County, presents his case to challenge the eligibility of nearly 800 voters at a hearing in Macon in May.
Grant Blankenship
/
GPB
David Sumrall, the head of the Republican Party in Georgia's Bibb County, presents his case to challenge the eligibility of nearly 800 voters at a hearing in Macon in May.

Updated June 20, 2024 at 07:56 AM ET

MACON, Ga. — On the first day of early voting in the May primary, a conference room at the Bibb County Board of Elections was packed — spilling into the hall — to hear David Sumrall.

“My purpose is simply to help move us toward the cleanest voter roll possible, which lists only lawful voters,” Sumrall, head of the Bibb County Republican Party, said in the preamble to the case he was prepared to make.

Sumrall had come to challenge the validity of just under 800 county voter registrations — close to 1% of Bibb County voters.

In Georgia and most other states, individuals can challenge the eligibility of other people’s voter registrations. Many challengers say they are acting for the good of the community, even to save democracy.

But there are concerns that a new data system that's being pushed by conservative activists and is fueling many of these mass challenges could kick legitimate voters off the rolls.

On Sumrall’s list, there were 48 voters whose registered addresses were P.O. Boxes or UPS centers, 159 Mercer University students sharing the same on-campus address and 585 people he claimed were double-registered in two communities.

Sumrall had them all on a spreadsheet, which did not impress Board of Elections member Karen Evans-Daniels.

“Anybody can make a spreadsheet,” she said.

When the divided five-member board voted down the challenges, the packed room applauded.

The board said simply that none of what Sumrall brought was grounds for knocking a voter from the roll. Because everyone on the university campus shares the same address; P.O. Boxes are important for the unhoused or people leaving domestic abuse; and most of the changed addresses were for people who hadn’t even tried to vote in years.

Data sourced from Eagle AI

So where did Sumrall get his data?

“This information was compiled from state and federal source data using the Eagle AI network, an analysis tool,” he told the Bibb elections board.

Eagle AI (pronounced "Eagle Eye") is software developed by a Georgia doctor named John W. “Rick” Richards Jr. 

Under Georgia law, anybody can lodge a voter challenge in the county where they live — and some activists have individually challenged thousands of registrations. But the research can take a lot of work. Eagle AI promises to streamline and speed up the process, creating challenges at volume, by correlating searches across a number of public databases.

Sumrall's challenge of Bibb County voter registrations was met with opposition.
Grant Blankenship / GPB
/
GPB
Sumrall's challenge of Bibb County voter registrations was met with opposition.

Sumrall’s challenge was right out of the Eagle AI playbook.

Richards declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a Zoom call obtained by the investigative nonprofit Documented, Richards said Eagle AI is intended for three groups of people. 

First, he said, there’s the citizen who wants to verify the county voters rolls. The second is the county election board, which “is getting 15,000 challenges on a spreadsheet and doesn't know what to do with them.” The third would be the state.

Eagle AI is gaining ground among so-called “election integrity” activists, some of whom worked to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

But so far Georgia’s Republican-led secretary of state’s office doesn’t want it, said spokesperson Mike Hassinger. Because, he said, it’s not like his office leaves voter rolls untended. Every state does such voter list maintenance.

“We validate and check our voter registrations pretty much daily, on a daily basis,” Hassinger said.

And they don't need Eagle AI. “We have much, much better tools in the form of the Electronic Registration Information Center, ERIC,” Hassinger said.

The benefit of government data

ERIC was the accepted tool for states to check voter registrations until a few years ago, when far-right activists began discrediting it. Now a number of GOP-led states have pulled out of the interstate consortium.

ERIC helps states combat the rare instances of voter fraud. It can do that because it has access to what is otherwise private government data.

“We have access through ERIC, for instance, to the master death database from Social Security,” Hassinger said.

By Richards' own admission, Eagle AI does not. It scrapes online obituaries instead. He would like that to change.

“I want access to the data that ERIC gets automatically,” he said on another Zoom recording. “It would make our product and other people who work in it so much more effective."

"This narrative of mass ineligibility"

Under Georgia law, voter challenges must be heard.  And remember, Richards says he intends for county boards of elections to use Eagle AI to check those challenges.

That raises a real possibility of county boards fact-checking Eagle AI-generated voter challenges with Eagle AI.

Marisa Pyle of the group All Voting is Local, which supports expanded voter access, said that is a problem. 

“It's an ouroboros of, sort of, disinformation at this point,” Pyle said.

That’s a disinformed snake eating its own tail. Which, Pyle said, could empower those who believe election conspiracy theories.

“If we keep finding these programs that return faulty results, that support this narrative of mass ineligibility, it keeps those folks engaged," she said. “It keeps them angry about this perceived problem. And it fuels that fire.”

Hassinger said about a year ago, Richards tried to sell Eagle AI to the state, essentially claiming the software is the fire extinguisher to that fire.

“If I were trying to sell a product, in this political environment, where you have a significant percentage of the population of voters who don't trust the election process and wanted to scare them into purchasing my product, I'd make claims like that,” Hassinger said.

Still, mass voter challenges appear to be spreading — as is Eagle AI.

In Florida, the director of elections, Maria Matthews, recently instructed county election supervisors to take seriously a 10,000-name-long Eagle AI voter challenge list shared with her by what she described as “a concerned citizen."

In Georgia, a new law lays out rules for voter challenges. It’s set to go into effect in July. Many think it sets Eagle AI up as a legitimate tool for voter list maintenance.

And in Richards’ home of Columbia County, Ga., the local board of elections has signed a contract to use the Eagle AI platform. The only reason they hadn’t before the May primaries was because Richards had yet to sign, too. In an email, he said that was an acknowledgement that the officials were too busy at the time for the onboarding training.

A preview of what's to come?

It turns out, back in Macon, Sumrall’s challenge wasn’t his idea.

"I was sent this particular spreadsheet,” he said as the Bibb County Board of Elections room cleared out.

He wouldn’t say who sent him the list, only that they're “very smart people.” But to make the challenge legal, he just had to put his name on it.

And so if another Eagle AI list lands in his inbox, would he do it again?

“We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see. Maybe.”

Copyright 2024 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Grant came to public media after a career spent in newspaper photojournalism. As an all platform journalist he seeks to wed the values of public radio storytelling and the best of photojournalism online.
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