The judges met, in private, over a two-day period in May, for what might seem like a minor task: to choose the fifth member of an elections board in rural Spalding county, Georgia.
But the meetings were by no means routine. There is no record of their vote or their discussions. The interviews with Democratic and Republican applicants were conducted in private, via Zoom calls. And the position was only vacant because of a new law, specific only to Spalding county, recently introduced by the area’s two Republican state lawmakers.
In the end, the judges chose a Republican, someone who had never served in a government position related to elections, to be the fifth and deciding vote for the Spalding county board of elections and registration. Almost immediately, that Republican, James Newland, cast that deciding vote to cancel Sunday voting – a historically heavy turnout day for Black, largely Democratic voters.
It was just the latest blow to the county’s Democrats, and another loss for a party that is losing control of election boards across the state as Republican laws make GOP takeovers possible. But what happened in Spalding county is also just a fragment of GOP efforts nationwide to take over the apparatus of American elections. Their goal? To secure party control at every level of government – from the White House to state legislatures and election offices, all the way down to the precinct level, by employing thousands of poll watchers to potentially call into question Democratic votes.
Across the US, Republican legislatures have introduced more than 200 bills aimed at reducing local control over elections and restrict voting access, according to the States United Democracy Center. All of it is aimed at ensuring that Republicans will have control over voting and elections rules, in support of Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud in 2020.
And the Peach State is ground zero, thanks to its increasingly central roles – as a swing state, and as the center of bogus disputes over the 2020 election results.
The turn of events in Spalding county might have come as a shock to locals – a majority Democratic election board, with three Black women, becoming majority Republican, with two white men and another of Cherokee descent, virtually overnight – but Spalding county is no outlier. In at least five other Georgia counties, local election authorities have been restructured in favor of Republicans. It’s all part of the same story: the nationwide push to place GOP officials in positions of authority over elections.
“The news isn’t really covering it because it’s so local,” said Zachery Fuller, a political organizer and former Democratic candidate for office in Griffin, the county seat. “But when it happens to so many counties it’s the same thing, even though it’s different laws: it’s voter suppression.”
At the heart of what happened in Spalding county is that new law, which itself is an example of the tactics Republicans are pursuing across the country to ensure they control elections.
Passed in March, HB 769 changed the rules for determining the tie-breaking vote for Spalding ounty’s election board. The five-person board always has two Democrats and two Republicans; previously, Democrats and Republicans would often flip a coin to determine the fifth member. But Republican state representatives David Knight and Karen Mathiak introduced a law requiring that the fifth member be chosen by a majority vote of the county’s superior court judges.
Those judges – Chief Judge Fletcher Sams, Scott Ballard and Benjamin Coker – advertised the position in the local press for 30 days. All three judges are white; Sams said he identifies as an independent, while the other judges did not comment on their political affiliations. In the end, the judges chose the inexperienced Newland over at least two Black Democrats, including Vera McIntosh – who had been removed from her position on the board because HB 769 also required board members to live in Spalding county, which she did not – as well as Elbert Solomon, a longtime Democratic operative here.
“All they wanted to see was the fact that I was Black – because they couldn’t tell by looking at my résumé,” Solomon said. “I went to white colleges, I was an executive at Procter & Gamble, even my last name wouldn’t tell you that I was Black. That’s all they wanted to know.”
“I can’t help what people think but that’s ridiculous,” Sams said, denying that race played any role in the judges’ decision. “I was very impressed with at least one or two Democratic candidates, and they were seriously considered.”
Regardless, the new law didn’t come out of nowhere. Ever since election day of 2020, Republicans in Spalding county have used alleged problems with voting to justify their efforts to replace Democratic election officials. On election day 2020, some voters had initially been prevented from casting their ballots on machines equipped with software from Dominion Voting Systems. Marcia Ridley, the county’s former Democratic elections supervisor, said it was a temporary software problem caused by Dominion, but soon the Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, was calling for Ridley to step down, citing “serious management issues and poor decision-making”. Knight and Mathiak joined Raffensperger in calling for Ridley’s removal, and less than two weeks later asked the state’s attorney general to investigate her for failing to properly post information about board meetings.
It didn’t end there. After the election, local Republicans were up in arms over claims of mishandled ballots. Mathiak and a former Republican elections board member, Betty Bryant – who believes the 2020 election was “robbed” from Trump – both claimed they had heard from a person who had received 12 mail-in ballots. As a crowd gathered outside the board of elections, a Republican on the county commission recorded a video of the protesters, and posted it to Facebook. Later, he posted a picture of a ballot envelope that contained no ballot, apparently in an attempt to suggest electoral fraud. As the mood darkened, concerned for their safety, Glenda Henley, a former Democratic board member, asked police to escort election workers to their cars.
Next, the crowds started showing up at previously sleepy elections board meetings.
“We had so many people coming, and the audience would disrupt the meeting by shouting or saying ugly things,” Henley said. One particularly loud voice was Roy McClain, a shooting range coach with a lengthy military career who had replaced a previous Republican board member. McClain had ties to Mathiak: he had fundraised for her and appeared alongside her at numerous events.
McClain “was always loud, always negative”, according to Henley. “When he came in, it was just turmoil, anything to disrupt the business of elections.” (McClain did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Knight or Mathiak.)
Then, in April, just days before the end of the 2021 legislative session, Mathiak and Knight escalated the situation: they introduced HB 769. The bill caught some county officials off-guard, according to emails obtained by American Oversight. Former elections board members told the Guardian they had no prior warning that the bill was coming.
But Solomon said the bill’s purpose was obvious. He and others had worked in 2020 to register new county voters, most of them African American – a get-out-the-vote effort that produced results and nearly led to the election of the Democratic candidate Daa’ood Amin as mayor of Griffin.
“What happened is we increased registered voters here by 900 people in less than a year,” Solomon said. “We had a mayor’s race here and a Black person almost won – and only lost by 15 votes.”
Demographics in Spalding county are changing, according to Solomon and Fuller: what was solidly Republican territory is now becoming more Democratic-leaning.
“They see the writing on the wall,” Solomon said.
If the new law was intended to increase Republican power, it worked: Newman was swiftly installed on the elections board. In an interview, Newman said he was chosen by the judges because they believed he would be an impartial tie-breaking vote – despite the fact that he is a self-proclaimed Republican – and rejected the notion that race played a role, noting that he is of Cherokee descent.
Newland claimed the judges told him that they chose him “because I was the closest they could find, out of the people who applied to the job, to a neutral party.” As for why he voted to cancel Sunday voting, Newland claimed the county couldn’t afford a seventh day of voting.
Even less neutral is the man appointed by the local GOP to one of the other two Republican board positions: Ben Johnson, a former election board member who resigned as head of the county Republican party to take the job. Johnson, a fervent proponent of the false belief that the 2020 election was beset with widespread voter fraud, also runs an IT firm, Liberty Technology, that does maintenance for the county’s computer equipment.
Fuller calls it a clear conflict of interest for Johnson. “If his company has direct control over the servers for Spalding county and the city of Griffin, he can see all of the data from anyone who uses these public servers,” Fuller said. “[That] could be data collection used against voters to help organize – and that is data that other members of the board wouldn’t have access to.”
Asked whether there was a conflict of interest, Mike Windham, the county’s IT manager, said, “Off the top of my head, no, but the optics are a little funny.”
Johnson ignored repeated requests for comment, and at an election board meeting in early January responded to the Guardian’s questions by saying, “I don’t talk to fake news.”
But Johnson’s beliefs are well documented on his Facebook page. A little more than a year after Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election to Joe Biden, Johnson posted about the “hours upon hours of video-taped ballot harvesting in Georgia, the phantoms all over, the dirty voter rolls, the withholding of subpoenaed materials, the list goes on”.
In person, Johnson is generally known as an intelligent and capable member of the board of elections, according to current and former colleagues from both parties. But his social media posts show a different side than the calm and polite face he presents to election board meetings.
Specifically, Johnson has taken issue with Dominion Voting Systems, which handles election software throughout Georgia and is the frequent target of conspiracy theories about voter fraud. Only last month, Johnson attacked Dominion at a board meeting, making a false claim that a judge in a Georgia lawsuit, brought by a Republican, had ruled that its software in Georgia was “illegal”.
“[R]ight now, the judicial opinion is that the equipment we’re using is illegal, which blows my mind,” Johnson said.
That’s not true. The judge has not ruled on the matter; a trial is pending.
Then, last month, if all this turmoil weren’t enough, board members were hit with nearly 2,000 emails demanding yet another audit into the 2020 presidential election – despite three previous reviews, conducted by the Republican Raffensperger, which all confirmed the win for Biden.
While it remains unknown who prompted more than 1,900 people, all from outside Spalding county, to join the email deluge, some clues can be gleaned from the demands themselves. The emails were form letters and include references to a notorious conspiracy theorist, Jovan Hutton Pulitzer, who was involved with the controversial and unnecessary audit by the Cyber Ninjas firm in Maricopa ounty, Arizona (which again confirmed Biden won there). According to Jim O’Brien, one of the two Democratic board members in Spalding county, the campaign has all the markings of an organized effort.
It was a “cyber-attack intended to intimidate and harass”, O’Brien said. “I’d like to know if any local Republican officials knew about this.”
Slowly, the sense is dawning in these communities that individual cases like Spalding county’s are not one-offs but are part of a pattern emerging nationwide. Henley, too, is concerned about the way things are going, and who is behind it. After more than six years on the board, she wants to know why the new law that allowed a Republican takeover in Spalding county was passed when it did, and who might be pulling the strings even higher up than the state Republicans who made it happen.
“It was a sneak attack,” she said. “I think we were targeted, but I don’t have the evidence of what they were doing. I think it was even higher up. I think it’s more convoluted and embedded.”