Steven Rosenfeld

Trump's false stolen election claims sully a historic expansion in ballot access

The fallout from the insurrection at the Capitol is far from over, even as the House impeaches President Trump for a second time. But let's recall what is at the heart of this electoral crisis.

In 2020, a pandemic caused most states to pivot and offer voters more options to cast ballots. Tens of millions of voters opted for mailed-out absentee ballots. How those ballots were returned, how the voter's identity was verified, and how their ballots were counted broke new ground in many states — as did expanding early in-person voting options.

Rather than celebrating the 2020 election's record turnout, President Trump and his allies have used somewhat new and unfamiliar voting processes in key states as a cudgel to revive cynical cliches about stolen elections. Their cynical propaganda took advantage of the reality that many Americans do not understand the details of how elections work, and why access to a ballot—not the vaguer right to vote—is at the center of America's history's democratic struggles.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. repeatedly said on May 17, 1957, during a speech at the Lincoln Memorial, "Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights."

Access to a ballot during the pandemic was at the heart of most decisions in 2020 by state legislatures and election officials, and partisan lawsuits and rulings by state and federal judges. The pivot by tens of millions of Americans to voting by mailed-out absentee ballots or voting at early voting sites, made 2020's general election the highest turnout election in U.S. history, the MIT Election Data and Science Lab authoritatively reported. Those expanded voting options, which voters widely praised, also set turnout records during Georgia's Senate runoffs.

But weeks since 2020's Election Day, a louder narrative has prevailed. False claims that masses of Americans voted illegally have dominated Trump's tweets and speeches, his right-wing media coverage and filled the pages of 65 post-election lawsuits—64 of which were rejected by courts. Those claims were yelled by those storming the Capitol on January 6, heard in floor speeches from Republicans who opposed certifying the presidential election, and were again heard by President Trump's most ardent defenders during the Jan. 13 House impeachment debate.

The stolen election narrative was built on attacking the little-known steps to help voters to access a ballot in the pandemic, followed by how their ballots were processed. These attacks—that start with access to ballots—have continued as post-election politics have emerged.

Consider what is unfolding in Georgia after its Jan. 5 Senate runoffs elected a prominent Black minister and Jewish filmmaker over Republican incumbents by margins that kept growing as the final overseas ballots came in. The state's Republican-majority legislature is eying a list of reforms to make access to a ballot more difficult.

Two days after voting ended for Georgia's runoffs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Republican legislators had proposed a list of ways to make it harder to get a mailed-out ballot. They proposed reinstating the excuse needed to apply for an absentee ballot; banning absentee ballot drop boxes; mandating photo ID be included when returning an absentee ballot; banning mobile voting buses during early voting; and barring government agencies and outside groups from mailing absentee ballot applications to voters.

These kinds of details are the real features of elections that make the process harder or easier for all involved. There were some disagreements among Georgia's top Republicans. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who won national acclaim for rejecting Trump's demands to overturn Joe Biden's victory, has said that 2020's fall elections were too much work for county officials. He proposed reeling in absentee ballots by reinstating the excuse requirement (a disability, illness, travel, etc.) to obtain a ballot. Georgia's most powerful lawmaker, House Speaker David Ralston, disagreed, saying people have not "been getting the truth" about mailed-out ballots.

Some key voices are missing in this post-election jockeying. The first voices are those of local election officials. What do they think would make their task easier — following Raffensperger's rationale — when it comes to getting ballots to the voter and processing the returned ballots? County officials and poll workers spent 2020 learning how to use their new statewide voting system, which included implementing expanded absentee voting.

The second missing voice are from voters. What do they want? If their views are hard to discern because louder Republicans are calling for regressive reforms, what does the data show about who voted in 2020 (by age, race, party)? How did these voters choose to cast their ballot (by mail, via drop boxes, or voting early or on Election Day)? It may not be possible to silence powerful partisans, but one can factually describe America's 2020 elections.

With the fallout from the storming of the Capitol still unfolding, these key voices and facts are not front and center. But it would not be surprising if Georgia's local election officials opposed reviving the excuse requirement to obtain an absentee ballot. Why? Because processing more detailed applications adds work. Local officials might welcome reforms that streamlined the process, such as allowing voters to drop off an absentee ballot at any voting site.

States also can do more to inform the public about who voted — to dispel disinformation. Few states go as far as Oregon, which quickly released detailed 2020 data. In Multnomah County, where Portland is located and where controversial racial justice protests were held, 86 percent of registered Democrats aged 18-to-34 voted. Among registered Republicans aged 18-35, 76 percent voted. That is very high turnout. A Pew Research Center survey in mid-November found that nationally, 64 percent of whites voting for Biden voted by absentee ballots, versus 39 percent of Black voters. Such data raises the question of what's causing the discrepancy.

It is possible to ground discussions in who is getting access to a ballot—as opposed to hurling accusations of election fraud, and then claiming that the public demands a response to those false assertions. It is also possible to discuss legitimate GOP concerns about how the returned absentee ballot envelopes are verified. Concerns about validating the voter's signature on a ballot return envelope—which is akin to poll workers checking in a voter—can be answered. Some Democrats, too, can do better than refer to signature verification as "junk science."

In Georgia, Raffensperger — with the help of state police — audited the signatures on more than 15,000 ballot return envelopes in an Atlanta-area county to see if reams of absentee ballots had been illegally cast for president, as Trump has alleged. They found zero forgeries, meaning that every vote was legal.

"This audit disproves the only credible allegations the Trump campaign had against the strength of Georgia's signature match processes," his office said when releasing the audit report.

When peeling back the layers that led to January 6's storming of the Capitol, one can focus on cultural factors and societal traumas. But as states start their next legislative sessions and look to enact laws in response to their 2020 elections, the first question was the same question that faced election officials as the pandemic struck last year: how will citizens get their ballot? That question is followed by how will voters return their ballot, and then how will those ballots be verified and counted?

Rev. King's 1957 speech at the Lincoln Memorial did not demand the right to vote. Blacks were given that right by the Fifteen Amendment in 1870. King was more specific.

"Give us the ballot… And we will by the power of our vote write the law."

The 2020 presidential election may be over. But Trump’s lies and doubts linger

It was past midnight on Thursday, January 7, when the House began its debate on whether to accept Pennsylvania's 20 Electoral College votes.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Earlier on Wednesday, allegations of illegal and fraudulent voting in Pennsylvania and other swing states where President Trump lost led his supporters to storm the Capitol. The mob came after a Trump rally, where the president recited numerous falsehoods that long have been debunked.

It was a stunning spectacle. More than a dozen Republican congressmen rose and condemned the violence. Then, as if the cause of the rampage lay elsewhere, they opposed certifying Pennsylvania's votes by reciting many of the same allegations that Trump uttered that day—atop innuendo that Democrats had widely cheated.

"To sum it up, Pennsylvania officials illegally did three things," said Rep. Ted Budd, R-NC. "One, they radically expanded vote by mail for virtually any reason. Two, they removed restrictions when a ballot could be sent in. And three, they removed signature verification on those very ballots."

Budd did not mention that Pennsylvania's Republican majority legislature had approved the election reforms that laid the ground rules for 2020's election. Nor did he note that the Republican National Committee had pushed Pennsylvania's Republicans to vote with absentee ballots—and hundreds of thousands did.

Instead, Budd and other Republicans said that the election was illegitimate because Democratic officials—such as Pennsylvania's secretary of state—issued rules to make it easier for voters and election officials to manage in a pandemic. They said the Constitution had been violated because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had agreed with those steps. Only state legislatures could set election rules, they said, making a novel argument that ignored decades of election law and court rulings.

"I rise in support of this objection and to give voice to the 249,386 men and women of Ohio's 6th Congressional District," said Rep. Bill Johnson, R-OH, "who have had their voices silenced by the rogue political actors in Pennsylvania, who unilaterally and unconstitutionally altered voting methods to benefit the Democratic candidate for president."

"Secretaries of state and state supreme courts cannot simply ignore the rules governing elections set forth in the [U.S.] Constitution," he fumed. "They cannot choose to usurp their state legislatures to achieve a partisan end, Constitution be damned."

These representatives were joined by others who said that Trump's mob was "shameful," "unacceptable" and "un-American." Yet they went on to recite many of the same claims that Trump made before his mob acted. These claims filled the 60-plus lawsuits brought by Trump and his allies since the election—claims federal and state judges have overwhelmingly rejected as baseless and lacking in evidence.

Had these Republicans learned anything from the rampage? When the debate ended well past midnight, 138 Republicans voted to reject Pennsylvania's 20 Electoral College votes. Their dissents did not stop the chamber from accepting the state's Electoral College votes. Nor did it prevent a joint session of Congress later that morning from certifying Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the 2020 election's winners.

Yet the 138 votes, and the slippery arguments or misrepresentations that preceded them, are a dark sign of the times. When one-quarter of House members either lack sufficient knowledge of how elections are run or cling to specious arguments to overturn results, the undercurrents driving Trump's mob are still present. Looking ahead, voting rights advocates are starting to see these sentiments resurface as a new wave of anti-voting legislation in red-run state legislatures.

"We're deeply concerned the post-election lawsuits are now morphing into state-driven voter suppression schemes," said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, speaking during a press briefing during Georgia's runoffs on January 5. "These lawsuits failed universally… Now we see lawmakers seeking to exploit this moment [and] institute new restrictions on measures such as [repealing] no-excuse absentee voting."

Clarke is partly referring to a proposal by Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to reel in absentee voting. The 2020 election had overwhelmed local election officials, he has said, adding that future voting options needed to be streamlined. Record numbers of Georgians voted by mailed-out ballots in 2020, which was part of the wave that elected two Democratic U.S. senators and delivered a surprising Biden-Harris victory.

Raffensperger had been attacked by Trump as a RINO—Republican In Name Only—and pressured by Trump on January 2 to alter the certified vote count so Trump would emerge as the victor. On Thursday, the Trump campaign withdrew its suits in Georgia on the eve of scheduled court hearings. Raffensperger issued a detailed press release that noted Trump folded just before his legal team had to present evidence of illegal voting and rigged elections.

"On the eve of getting the day in court they supposedly were begging for, President Trump and [Georgia Republican Party] Chairman David Shafer's legal team folded Thursday and voluntarily dismissed their election contests against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger rather than submit their evidence to a court and to cross-examination," the secretary's release began.

"However, even in capitulation, they continue to spread disinformation," it said. "The President's legal team falsely characterizes the dismissal of their lawsuits as 'due to an out of court settlement agreement.' However, correspondence sent to Trump's legal team prior to the dismissals makes perfectly clear that there is no settlement agreement. The Trump legal [team] voluntarily dismissed their lawsuits rather than presenting their evidence in court in a trial scheduled for tomorrow in front of Cobb County Superior Court Judge Adele Grubbs."

The statement said that the "withdrawals came after Secretary Raffensperger sent a letter to Congress on Wednesday containing point-by-point refutation of the false claims made by the President and his allies. Late last night, Congress accepted Georgia's slate of electors without objection, as no Senator joined in [Republican] Congressman Jody Hice's objection to Georgia's electors."

Few Republicans probably read Raffensperger's memo as they sought shelter from Trump's mob. However, in the other chamber, Georgia's Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who lost to Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock a day before, said she could no longer oppose her state's certification of the presidential vote. The storming of the Capitol had changed her mind. The same could not be said of nearly one-third of the House.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

The storming of Congress ended — but it left a dark cloud

It was past midnight on Thursday, January 7, when the House began its debate on whether to accept Pennsylvania's 20 Electoral College votes.

Earlier on Wednesday, allegations of illegal and fraudulent voting in Pennsylvania and other swing states where President Trump lost led his supporters to storm the Capitol. The mob came after a Trump rally, where the president recited numerous falsehoods that long have been debunked.

It was a stunning spectacle. More than a dozen Republican congressmen rose and condemned the violence. Then, as if the cause of the rampage lay elsewhere, they opposed certifying Pennsylvania's votes by reciting many of the same allegations that Trump uttered that day—atop innuendo that Democrats had widely cheated.

"To sum it up, Pennsylvania officials illegally did three things," said Rep. Ted Budd, R-NC. "One, they radically expanded vote by mail for virtually any reason. Two, they removed restrictions when a ballot could be sent in. And three, they removed signature verification on those very ballots."

Budd did not mention that Pennsylvania's Republican majority legislature had approved the election reforms that laid the ground rules for 2020's election. Nor did he note that the Republican National Committee had pushed Pennsylvania's Republicans to vote with absentee ballots—and hundreds of thousands did.

Instead, Budd and other Republicans said that the election was illegitimate because Democratic officials—such as Pennsylvania's secretary of state—issued rules to make it easier for voters and election officials to manage in a pandemic. They said the Constitution had been violated because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had agreed with those steps. Only state legislatures could set election rules, they said, making a novel argument that ignored decades of election law and court rulings.

"I rise in support of this objection and to give voice to the 249,386 men and women of Ohio's 6th Congressional District," said Rep. Bill Johnson, R-OH, "who have had their voices silenced by the rogue political actors in Pennsylvania, who unilaterally and unconstitutionally altered voting methods to benefit the Democratic candidate for president."

"Secretaries of state and state supreme courts cannot simply ignore the rules governing elections set forth in the [U.S.] Constitution," he fumed. "They cannot choose to usurp their state legislatures to achieve a partisan end, Constitution be damned."

These representatives were joined by others who said that Trump's mob was "shameful," "unacceptable" and "un-American." Yet they went on to recite many of the same claims that Trump made before his mob acted. These claims filled the 60-plus lawsuits brought by Trump and his allies since the election—claims federal and state judges have overwhelmingly rejected as baseless and lacking in evidence.

Had these Republicans learned anything from the rampage? When the debate ended well past midnight, 138 Republicans voted to reject Pennsylvania's 20 Electoral College votes. Their dissents did not stop the chamber from accepting the state's Electoral College votes. Nor did it prevent a joint session of Congress later that morning from certifying Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the 2020 election's winners.

Yet the 138 votes, and the slippery arguments or misrepresentations that preceded them, are a dark sign of the times. When one-quarter of House members either lack sufficient knowledge of how elections are run or cling to specious arguments to overturn results, the undercurrents driving Trump's mob are still present. Looking ahead, voting rights advocates are starting to see these sentiments resurface as a new wave of anti-voting legislation in red-run state legislatures.

"We're deeply concerned the post-election lawsuits are now morphing into state-driven voter suppression schemes," said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, speaking during a press briefing during Georgia's runoffs on January 5. "These lawsuits failed universally… Now we see lawmakers seeking to exploit this moment [and] institute new restrictions on measures such as [repealing] no-excuse absentee voting."

Clarke is partly referring to a proposal by Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to reel in absentee voting. The 2020 election had overwhelmed local election officials, he has said, adding that future voting options needed to be streamlined. Record numbers of Georgians voted by mailed-out ballots in 2020, which was part of the wave that elected two Democratic U.S. senators and delivered a surprising Biden-Harris victory.

Raffensperger had been attacked by Trump as a RINO—Republican In Name Only—and pressured by Trump on January 2 to alter the certified vote count so Trump would emerge as the victor. On Thursday, the Trump campaign withdrew its suits in Georgia on the eve of scheduled court hearings. Raffensperger issued a detailed press release that noted Trump folded just before his legal team had to present evidence of illegal voting and rigged elections.

"On the eve of getting the day in court they supposedly were begging for, President Trump and [Georgia Republican Party] Chairman David Shafer's legal team folded Thursday and voluntarily dismissed their election contests against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger rather than submit their evidence to a court and to cross-examination," the secretary's release began.

"However, even in capitulation, they continue to spread disinformation," it said. "The President's legal team falsely characterizes the dismissal of their lawsuits as 'due to an out of court settlement agreement.' However, correspondence sent to Trump's legal team prior to the dismissals makes perfectly clear that there is no settlement agreement. The Trump legal [team] voluntarily dismissed their lawsuits rather than presenting their evidence in court in a trial scheduled for tomorrow in front of Cobb County Superior Court Judge Adele Grubbs."

The statement said that the "withdrawals came after Secretary Raffensperger sent a letter to Congress on Wednesday containing point-by-point refutation of the false claims made by the President and his allies. Late last night, Congress accepted Georgia's slate of electors without objection, as no Senator joined in [Republican] Congressman Jody Hice's objection to Georgia's electors."

Few Republicans probably read Raffensperger's memo as they sought shelter from Trump's mob. However, in the other chamber, Georgia's Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who lost to Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock a day before, said she could no longer oppose her state's certification of the presidential vote. The storming of the Capitol had changed her mind. The same could not be said of nearly one-third of the House.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Georgia runoffs' turnout could be record-breaking — as the GOP's voter suppression tactics fail

Across Georgia, turnout in the opening week of early voting for two U.S. Senate runoffs has been robust and may even set records, despite ongoing Republican efforts to disqualify voters — efforts that courts keep rejecting.

On Thursday, two federal courts dismissed GOP lawsuits to challenge the state's processing of returned absentee ballots. The suits, filed by local and national GOP organizations, attacked procedures that had been created by Georgia's elected Republican officeholders, who have overseen Georgia's elections for years.

The voter suppression efforts continue as the local Republicans are seeking to challenge 16,000 voter registrations in Cobb County, outside Atlanta, by citing porous data — the Postal Service's change of addresses. That database would generate false positives, voter registration experts said, because it only named heads of households and addresses, while state voter files list all registered voters. (Local officials are likely to reject the challenges, although they fit a pattern of seeking to impede voters and the process until the GOP wins.)

Meanwhile, across Georgia, early voting — called "advance voting" in the state — began on Monday, December 14, for the Senate runoffs and a seat on the Public Service Commission. That runoff is a locally important race as that body regulates utility rates and issues such as rural broadband. While the partisan jousting in the Senate runoffs has continued and become increasingly personal, more voters than typically participate in runoffs appear to be engaged and turning out.

"I feel more comfortable voting in person. There was so much controversy over the mail ballots, that we just wanted to come and vote," said Toni Kennelly, who was waiting in line with her husband on a brisk morning outside a library in Milton, a northeast Atlanta suburb in Fulton County.

"It happened to be a good day to come," said Shannon Kennelly, who has voted in every presidential election since 1964. "We took some Covid tests and both were negative... We figured we wouldn't stand in line very long."

The couple's dutiful and low-key approach was a frequent sight. More than 900,000 voters cast ballots in the first four days of early voting. The runoffs are seen as high-stakes elections, said voters, poll workers and party observers.

"When people understand how high the stakes are, people show up," said Angela Clark-Smith, a lawyer and Georgia Democrat Party observer stationed in a former Sam's Club department store which suburban Atlanta's DeKalb County converted into a voting center. "They're showing up and showing out. We had record voting that surpassed the presidential election. The first day, 168,000 Georgians showed up and voted [statewide]. That's amazing. People understand."

"They [voters] will be coming out saying, 'Hey, we want to make a difference,'" predicted Patricia Roberts, a Dekalb County poll worker at the same site and a longtime peace and justice activist. "With everything that's been going on, they are also educating their children… It's not so much the history of why they need to vote. It's imperative for them to live their everyday lives better."

"Whether it's read or blue, you're passionate," said Shannon Kennelly.

Georgia's runoff elections historically are low-turnout races where small blocs of voters can sway the outcome. In 2020's presidential election, 5 million Georgians voted, which was 57.3 percent of its registered voters. By Thursday, nearly 1.3 million Georgians had applied for an absentee ballot, the U.S. Elections Project reported. Those already voting represent a 12 percent turnout.

Of the requested absentee ballots, one-third have already been returned and accepted, which suggests the voter turnout will continue to rise. (About 1,600 of the returned 470,000 ballots were rejected, meaning that local officials and party volunteers will try to contact those voters to cure whatever was at issue).

Officials expect most of the outstanding 850,000 absentee ballots will be returned either via the mail, at official drop boxes, or taken to an early voting site where voters would exchange them for a regular ballot. Since the November 3 election, 76,000 Georgians have registered to vote for the runoffs.

Roberts, the DeKalb County poll worker, said that notable numbers of people who had received absentee ballots were choosing to surrender their mailed-out ballot and vote in person with a regular ballot. "They keep saying that they don't want any mistakes. They don't want any problems," she said.

Clarke-Smith, the Georgia Democratic Party observer in DeKalb, one of the state's most populous counties, said that voters appear to have learned how to navigate the voting process. She has specialized in helping voters with provisional ballots, she said, which are issued if voters were not listed in their precinct's poll books. So far, there have been very few voter registration problems, she said, which contrasts with Republican litigation claiming widespread fraudulent voting.

"In two days, this polling site only had one provisional ballot, which says to me that people really get it," Clarke-Smith said. "They have to be prepared to have all of their ducks in a row to come out and have their voices heard. They are doing that. I don't think that many other polling places are different from this one."

Not every poll worker had glowing reports. Two young men in the same voting center noted most of the people voting were middle-aged and older. They said that a lot of their peers didn't vote because they did not think that it mattered.

But across the state, various groups representing the state's increasingly diverse demographics were already engaged in get-out-the-vote efforts. Some of those efforts were discussed in video conference calls this week.

For example, Native Americans based at Standing Rock, North Dakota, were organizing efforts to urge 15,000 Native Americans in Georgia to turn out. Azka Mahmoud, the communications and outreach director for the Georgia chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said the chapter was trying to mobilize 71,000 registered voters.

In the southern part of the state, the Southwest Georgia Project was working with other women's groups to encourage turnout. In metro Atlanta, Asian-Americans Advancing Justice, was successfully turning out thousands of young voters.

"There is a lot of awareness," said Clark-Smith, who has had various roles working in and observing elections for three decades. "The southern parts of Georgia are probably no different because of one determinant, which is there is a lot of transition [underway] in Georgia. There are people who are coming here from lots of other states, which has really helped to make it a diverse state in general… We see it everywhere."

Reporting for this article from Georgia was contributed by Sue Dorfman, a photographer with the Documenting Democracy Project.

A small-town voter drive reveals how decades of inequality shadow voter turnout in rural Georgia

Commerce Street, once the heart of downtown Hawkinsville, Georgia, is easily overlooked. A visitor following state highways through the Pulaski County seat would glance at a row of faded brick buildings, awning-covered storefronts and dusty windows. Parking and getting out feels like stepping into an old postcard. In the sunlight's glare and morning quiet, you might not know that Black businesses were once barred from the street. Or that the Ku Klux Klan held some of its largest rallies in America nearby. Or the street's cluster of Black-owned businesses as a small-town triumph.

But quick assessments are out of sync with the rhythm of life and pace of change here. Below buildings painted in pastels, antique-style streetlamps and blue banners labeling Hawkinsville as a "Historic River Town" are two barbershops, a Southern bar and grill, a Caribbean takeout restaurant, clothes and gift shops, a small accounting firm, and a tobacco vape store. Most intriguing of all is what lies below the street's largest sign, "The Newberry Foundation."

The Hawkinsville African American Heritage Center is a Black history museum with a faded pine board saying "COLORED ENTRANCE" above its door. Next to it is the Plough and the Pew Reading Room, a ballroom-size space with a dozen large tables and shelves of leather-bound books. Its volumes range from Jet magazine, to the Journal of Negro Education, to The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. A block away is the county courthouse and its large Confederate monument.

On a recent Saturday before the December 7 registration deadline and the December 14 start of early voting, this crossroad of past and present rural Georgia was the setting for a voter registration drive for the upcoming Senate runoffs on January 5. That contest will determine which political party holds the Senate's majority and with it, the fate of legislation proposed by President-elect Joe Biden. While the biggest concentrations of Democratic voters surround Atlanta, voting rights groups believe that rural communities of color could tip the balance or cement Democratic wins, if they voted.

A small colorful caravan drove to the center of Pulaski County, where the early unofficial results showed that 4,081 of its 5,687 registered voters cast ballots in the November 3 election. Most were white voters backing Republicans. Like the 1960s' Freedom Riders, whose buses crossed the South to register voters, the registration drive had a similar task: engage and turn out voters.

The drive was led by Fenika Miller, a calm and focused activist who has been working for decades to empower nearby communities of color and women. Miller runs Black Voters Matter's middle-Georgia office, whose colorful van was parked in front of the museum. Its eye-catching red, green and black exterior announced the We Got the Power tour, with the words "Black Voters Matter" and "Love" printed on the side of the van. Parked behind them was a purple Winnebago from Vote Equality, a group that promotes the Equal Rights Amendment. It had come from Virginia to boost the drive's visibility.

Both teams, mostly women, set up tables and chairs on a brick sidewalk. They laid out registration forms, flyers, and cards with voting information. They had gifts, such as T-shirts and other items saying, "Black Voters Matter," "It's About Us" and "Vote Equality!" to give to anyone registering or who pledged to talk to friends and family about voting. Then they waited. Mid-morning on a Saturday was not Commerce Street's busiest hour.

A deputy sheriff arrived and pretended to be irked that he did not know about this event. He was happy to stick around. A few Black women quietly found seats in the shade below the awnings. They knew each other, were active locally and supported the cause. Within 15 minutes, a tall, broad, affable middle-aged man with a professorial manner brought a tray of McDonald's coffee and introduced himself. He was Julius Johnson, the Newberry Foundation's founder, museum's creator, reading room curator and former U.S. State Department worker. He returned from overseas with his family to Hawkinsville, his ancestral hometown, after his father died.

When I spoke with Johnson, he lit up when I said I had come to town to see people working on voter outreach for the runoffs and not just report on it via Zoom. "You know, we have 159 counties in Georgia," he said. "And each county has different population numbers. And if you look at the results of the last election, it will tell you a story in terms of voter participation, and that might be a starting point."

Miller chose Hawkinsville because of Pulaski County's turnout numbers, she explained while setting up. "I caught that 1,026 Black people… [were eligible to vote] in this town, but over 800 still did not," she said, referring to the presidential election. "We have a lot of work to do here, in small towns."

Other organizers eyeing the Senate runoffs reached similar conclusions. But they believed that overlooked rural voters of color could be an unexpected force in the runoffs, which are historically low-turnout races. Johnson, who briefly introduced himself after serving coffee, did not mention that he had just run for Georgia's state senate. He received 31,000 votes but did not win. Johnson listened to a summary of this runoff strategy.

"There's not a lot of time," he replied, cutting to the heart of the matter. "How do you activate those voters? One of the keys is to lean on the existing stimuli, like the churches, or this [drive], or other efforts."

The challenge is turning out historically marginalized voters, he said. It was too late for a big registration drive, especially as pastors and ministers were delivering Sunday sermons online in response to the pandemic. That meant that fewer people would hear announcements about voting. Johnson said that he had invited some parents to bring their children to register and had urged younger people to bring older relatives. That strategy seemed like scratching the surface. Was that going to work? He looked up.

"In rural Georgia, cultural norms and things are pretty entrenched," he said. "When you get down to these smaller counties, they are less subjected to the influences of the national sort of influencers. They still have community. They're getting their information on their porches. They get their information from their pastors, from neighbors at the supermarket, from the clubs they belong to. They pretty much know the way they're going to vote."

What Johnson was saying was important to understand, especially for Americans who want to help in the runoffs. Rural Georgians, especially voters of color, were unlikely to trust people outside their circle of family, friends and faith leaders. Distrust of outsiders is real. He patiently answered more questions, responding with unusual candor and detail in a state where it could be hard to get past congenial conversation or curt talk when the subject turned to politics. I asked to see his museum, which led to a conversation that unexpectedly revealed what many Black residents thought, but would not say aloud, about voting, race and power in middle Georgia.

Unlocking the Unspoken

Johnson walked into the museum. Displays of local history stood next to recreations of iconic moments in the civil rights struggle. He created the museum and the reading room because he was a collector and historian, he said, adding that he was working on a PhD from Howard University. There was a need to preserve Black local history, create educational settings and have safe civic spaces "for events like this," the voter drive.

"We want to be a model for other rural communities because in the rural South there aren't many spaces for civic interaction and engagement," Johnson explained. "It's not like in Washington, D.C., or Massachusetts where you have coffee shops and bookstores. In the rural South, the only public space where people talk is primarily at church or in their homes. If they go to a restaurant, it's really just to eat—they aren't there for analytical reasoning or anything like that."

In the few restaurants that were open on nearby streets, a handful of white diners were being served by Black employees. Miller said her canvassers went out in pairs—never alone. Johnson said that many people did not go out after dark. "There isn't protection." The resistance to change was present and lingering.

Inside the museum, Johnson passed a large basket of cotton and stopped before a memorial on a mantlepiece. He said that his full name was Julius Johnson Newberry and that this relic was his most prized possession. It was a tombstone eight inches wide and eight inches high that did not have a name on it. Its base read, "Mr. Charley Newberry, 1818-1880." This was his grandfather, seven generations ago. Near the tombstone's base were two dashes symbolizing chains from slavery. At the top were two stars above a line of dashes and dots, signifying broken chains and that he died a free man. In the 1870s, the Newberry family bought land from their former owners. "The worst 300 acres," Johnson said. They cleared the stony soil and grew cotton. White families with 19th-century roots in Hawkinsville knew the Newberrys.

"It's very complicated," Johnson said, referring to how the past shadows the present in this town and rural Georgia. "It's very complicated because there is a lot of trauma. There's a lot of terror. And in many respects, there's love, too, among some large groups in the rural South. I'm speaking of African Americans… But we also have a growing Spanish-speaking population here. They've been terrorized [by current authorities] and stay hidden."

Johnson spoke of legacies that outsiders would not know or recognize: The town's separate cemeteries for white people and Black people; family stories of how Black people who moved to the North were not permitted to unload their cars on Hawkinsville's streets into the 1960s, lest the local Black residents see their relative poverty; that Black people were whipped on nearby farms as late at the 1970s and 1980s; the reason why many Black people still don't swim in the nearby Ocmulgee River, as skeletons periodically surface or are dredged up.

"There's a lot of trauma here, and people in these rural towns have not accessed the local power structure effectively to represent their interests," Johnson said, returning to politics and elections. "They've been outsmarted by every trick in the book. And while people are resilient, they're fatigued. And people have adjusted to a lot of the inequality that exists."

Johnson's work for the State Department included trying to sway "hearts and minds" in Afghanistan. Inequality could still be seen locally, he said, as most of the leadership posts in county government, law enforcement and education were held by white people. Illiteracy was a real issue, he said, citing Vietnam veterans who could not fill out benefit forms. So was race-based intimidation. Those cultural currents and a rural economy with limited opportunities left many people of color contained, cautious and wary of outsiders. Many people of color stayed in their lane and kept quiet.

"It's like once you're identified to do something here, especially if a white person gives you an opportunity, you stick with it," Johnson said. "And to stick with it means you stay in your place and don't get involved in things that will jeopardize your income because jobs are hard to come by."

Johnson broke out of this mold. His roots, higher education, federal service and efforts to redevelop Hawkinsville's former commercial center were not openly criticized in a small county 25 miles from the interstate highway. He confided that he did not have many close local friends. The conversation continued in his office in Hawkinsville's first two-story brick building, where white lawyers, realtors and businessmen once worked. He and the other Commerce Street merchants were underwriting the voter drive and had invited people. He didn't expect many to show up. But word would get around.

"Most people have things to do on Saturday," Johnson said. "To ask them to come downtown for something like this is unusual. We have reached out to a cross-section of people and we'll see who turns up. There's a saying down here, 'Every shut eye ain't asleep.' So, although you don't see the numbers, [that] doesn't mean the numbers aren't seeing you."

Johnson's openness and insights were surprising. He explained what was widely understood but not often spoken in middle Georgia—and especially not spoken of to out-of-town journalists. His dissection of the culture had a direct bearing on how rural voters of color could—or should not—be reached for the Senate runoffs. His clear takeaway was that only known groups and people, relying on local volunteers or paying local people a small wage, would likely be effective messengers to motivate people who didn't plan to vote.

As Johnson showed his visitors the rest of his building that he hoped would become a democracy center—a hub readymade for organizers—a younger man ran up the staircase and said, "Mr. Way is outside and wants to see you." Johnson smiled and quickly headed down to Commerce Street.

The Way Forward

Sam Way, age 95, wore a flannel shirt, pressed jeans, and a surgical mask and walked with a cane. His Hawkinsville roots went back to pre-Civil War days. His family founded nearby banks that were still open and owned vast tracts of farmland and forests. Mr. Way, who is white, knew many leading Georgia politicians when Southern Democrats controlled the state, such as Jimmy Carter when he was governor and president. And Georgia's politicians knew him.

The handful of Black people sitting in chairs on the sidewalk stood to greet Way: Mary Colson, the only Black Board of Elections member; Bernice Banks, who moved back to town five years ago and this fall became the deputy chair of a newly revived county Democratic Party; and Black Voters Matter's Miller and her team.

Johnson greeted Way, who was surveying the colorful Black Voters Matter van and registration table and Vote Equality's RV and its table. "We could use more of this," Way said, pressing a folded $100 bill into Johnson's hand.

Johnson introduced Way to the Vote Equality crew as "one of the founders of this town." The women at the Vote Equality table said that they had come from Virginia to help the voter drive. Miller quickly organized a group photograph. Afterward, Way was asked what people could do to help efforts like this voter drive.

"The main thing you can do is identify people who live in this town who are not registered. And then follow it up and make sure they get to the polls on Election Day," he said. "It's that simple."

"Was that hard to do around here?" he was asked.

"It's not hard, if somebody is dedicated to get out there and work with it," he replied. "Just like Stacey [Abrams] has done. She's just gotten everybody to organize in Atlanta. Because 70 percent of the vote on November 3 was white in this county. Only 30 percent [of the vote] was Black. And yet the population is about 50-50. So that's the challenge."

After Way left, the registration drive continued. Miller felt that the trickle of people stopping by justified shifting to canvassing nearby streets. But Johnson's assessment had been spot on. Not one of the dozen people who showed up to register to vote shared their full name or said much more than voting was "a good thing."

Across the street inside Bryant's Barber Shop, people felt a bit freer to talk. It was a safer space, especially after Johnson's introductions. He praised Elgin Bryant as a "quiet guy who touches everybody's head in this town." Bryant's ancestors had also been slaves in Hawkinsville. He was retired from work at a nearby military base and cut hair at his father's old barbershop on weekends.

Bryant said he was pleased that Joe Biden had picked Kamala Harris as his running mate. He was pleased that Georgia's voters chose Biden. People were paying attention, he said, especially younger people.

"It's a great thing. I think it's going to make people realize we need to get out and vote," he said, cautiously optimistic. "I think the younger generation's really getting it. The older generation, they kind of thought it didn't matter… Over a period of years, you know, a lot of Black people have gotten less [than whites]. It's time now. This needs to change."

Shawn Nelson, a younger man and a truck driver in Bryant's seat, was eager to talk. He seemed genuinely excited about the runoffs.

"The outcome of the January 5 election is going to have an impact on the United States for years," he said. "We need to get those two Democrats in and start making a change. For health care, education…"

Nelson, too, wanted to believe that Biden's victory meant change could come.

"That's big progress for Georgia," he said. "I'm 40 years old and as far as I can remember, Georgia has been known as a racist state. Even though it still probably is, I think with these Democrats that are getting in office, I think we can look forward to seeing some change."

But back outside, the foot traffic had slowed as mid-afternoon approached. Elizabeth Small, who was sitting in a chair by the Black Voters Matter table and ready to help anyone register, seemed flustered. She was 79, and still a poll worker. She was not pleased with the Black turnout on November 3 and wanted to see more people show up for the registration drive.

"As you can see, there are not enough Blacks here for the event that's coming up that's so important," she said. "Blacks need to participate more. They are not here. I don't know where they are. Because they should participate… But we don't often get asked to participate."

Small admitted that she was frustrated. "Everything that you want to have happen takes too long," she said. "And the ones that you see today are the ones [that] are always present, for whatever, especially for the voter registration. It's always the same few people. Right? Always the same few."

By 3 p.m. the registration drive was over. The local newspaper did not show up. The Black Voters Matter crew drove back to Warner Robins, a small city nearby. The Vote Equality crew followed Johnson to his house. The January 5 runoffs were more than a month away. Voter registration would close on December 7. Early voting would start on December 14.

While the national media has been concentrating on suburban Atlanta's Biden voters who "tore down political fences," there are thousands and thousands of voters of color in rural Georgia who could play an outsized role—if they vote. At first glance, Hawkinsville looks like it has barely changed in decades. But its once-white business center is now filled with Black-owned businesses. Looking toward January 5, there is an election where its long-suppressed voices—like others across Georgia—could ring from coast to coast.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

Here's the key to activating voter turnout in Georgia

Commerce Street, once the heart of downtown Hawkinsville, Georgia, is easily overlooked. A visitor following state highways through the Pulaski County seat would glance at a row of faded brick buildings, awning-covered storefronts and dusty windows. Parking and getting out feels like stepping into an old postcard. In the sunlight's glare and morning quiet, you might not know that Black businesses were once barred from the street. Or that the Ku Klux Klan held some of its largest rallies in America nearby. Or the street's cluster of Black-owned businesses as a small-town triumph.

But quick assessments are out of sync with the rhythm of life and pace of change here. Below buildings painted in pastels, antique-style streetlamps and blue banners labeling Hawkinsville as a "Historic River Town" are two barbershops, a Southern bar and grill, a Caribbean takeout restaurant, clothes and gift shops, a small accounting firm, and a tobacco vape store. Most intriguing of all is what lies below the street's largest sign, "The Newberry Foundation."

The Hawkinsville African American Heritage Center is a Black history museum with a faded pine board saying "COLORED ENTRANCE" above its door. Next to it is the Plough and the Pew Reading Room, a ballroom-size space with a dozen large tables and shelves of leather-bound books. Its volumes range from Jet magazine, to the Journal of Negro Education, to The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. A block away is the county courthouse and its large Confederate monument.

On a recent Saturday before the December 7 registration deadline and the December 14 start of early voting, this crossroad of past and present rural Georgia was the setting for a voter registration drive for the upcoming Senate runoffs on January 5. That contest will determine which political party holds the Senate's majority and with it, the fate of legislation proposed by President-elect Joe Biden. While the biggest concentrations of Democratic voters surround Atlanta, voting rights groups believe that rural communities of color could tip the balance or cement Democratic wins, if they voted.

A small colorful caravan drove to the center of Pulaski County, where the early unofficial results showed that 4,081 of its 5,687 registered voters cast ballots in the November 3 election. Most were white voters backing Republicans. Like the 1960s' Freedom Riders, whose buses crossed the South to register voters, the registration drive had a similar task: engage and turn out voters.

The drive was led by Fenika Miller, a calm and focused activist who has been working for decades to empower nearby communities of color and women. Miller runs Black Voters Matter's middle-Georgia office, whose colorful van was parked in front of the museum. Its eye-catching red, green and black exterior announced the We Got the Power tour, with the words "Black Voters Matter" and "Love" printed on the side of the van. Parked behind them was a purple Winnebago from Vote Equality, a group that promotes the Equal Rights Amendment. It had come from Virginia to boost the drive's visibility.

Both teams, mostly women, set up tables and chairs on a brick sidewalk. They laid out registration forms, flyers, and cards with voting information. They had gifts, such as T-shirts and other items saying, "Black Voters Matter," "It's About Us" and "Vote Equality!" to give to anyone registering or who pledged to talk to friends and family about voting. Then they waited. Mid-morning on a Saturday was not Commerce Street's busiest hour.

A deputy sheriff arrived and pretended to be irked that he did not know about this event. He was happy to stick around. A few Black women quietly found seats in the shade below the awnings. They knew each other, were active locally and supported the cause. Within 15 minutes, a tall, broad, affable middle-aged man with a professorial manner brought a tray of McDonald's coffee and introduced himself. He was Julius Johnson, the Newberry Foundation's founder, museum's creator, reading room curator and former U.S. State Department worker. He returned from overseas with his family to Hawkinsville, his ancestral hometown, after his father died.

When I spoke with Johnson, he lit up when I said I had come to town to see people working on voter outreach for the runoffs and not just report on it via Zoom. "You know, we have 159 counties in Georgia," he said. "And each county has different population numbers. And if you look at the results of the last election, it will tell you a story in terms of voter participation, and that might be a starting point."

Miller chose Hawkinsville because of Pulaski County's turnout numbers, she explained while setting up. "I caught that 1,026 Black people… [were eligible to vote] in this town, but over 800 still did not," she said, referring to the presidential election. "We have a lot of work to do here, in small towns."

Other organizers eyeing the Senate runoffs reached similar conclusions. But they believed that overlooked rural voters of color could be an unexpected force in the runoffs, which are historically low-turnout races. Johnson, who briefly introduced himself after serving coffee, did not mention that he had just run for Georgia's state senate. He received 31,000 votes but did not win. Johnson listened to a summary of this runoff strategy.

"There's not a lot of time," he replied, cutting to the heart of the matter. "How do you activate those voters? One of the keys is to lean on the existing stimuli, like the churches, or this [drive], or other efforts."

The challenge is turning out historically marginalized voters, he said. It was too late for a big registration drive, especially as pastors and ministers were delivering Sunday sermons online in response to the pandemic. That meant that fewer people would hear announcements about voting. Johnson said that he had invited some parents to bring their children to register and had urged younger people to bring older relatives. That strategy seemed like scratching the surface. Was that going to work? He looked up.

"In rural Georgia, cultural norms and things are pretty entrenched," he said. "When you get down to these smaller counties, they are less subjected to the influences of the national sort of influencers. They still have community. They're getting their information on their porches. They get their information from their pastors, from neighbors at the supermarket, from the clubs they belong to. They pretty much know the way they're going to vote."

What Johnson was saying was important to understand, especially for Americans who want to help in the runoffs. Rural Georgians, especially voters of color, were unlikely to trust people outside their circle of family, friends and faith leaders. Distrust of outsiders is real. He patiently answered more questions, responding with unusual candor and detail in a state where it could be hard to get past congenial conversation or curt talk when the subject turned to politics. I asked to see his museum, which led to a conversation that unexpectedly revealed what many Black residents thought, but would not say aloud, about voting, race and power in middle Georgia.

Unlocking the Unspoken

Johnson walked into the museum. Displays of local history stood next to recreations of iconic moments in the civil rights struggle. He created the museum and the reading room because he was a collector and historian, he said, adding that he was working on a PhD from Howard University. There was a need to preserve Black local history, create educational settings and have safe civic spaces "for events like this," the voter drive.

"We want to be a model for other rural communities because in the rural South there aren't many spaces for civic interaction and engagement," Johnson explained. "It's not like in Washington, D.C., or Massachusetts where you have coffee shops and bookstores. In the rural South, the only public space where people talk is primarily at church or in their homes. If they go to a restaurant, it's really just to eat—they aren't there for analytical reasoning or anything like that."

In the few restaurants that were open on nearby streets, a handful of white diners were being served by Black employees. Miller said her canvassers went out in pairs—never alone. Johnson said that many people did not go out after dark. "There isn't protection." The resistance to change was present and lingering.

Inside the museum, Johnson passed a large basket of cotton and stopped before a memorial on a mantlepiece. He said that his full name was Julius Johnson Newberry and that this relic was his most prized possession. It was a tombstone eight inches wide and eight inches high that did not have a name on it. Its base read, "Mr. Charley Newberry, 1818-1880." This was his grandfather, seven generations ago. Near the tombstone's base were two dashes symbolizing chains from slavery. At the top were two stars above a line of dashes and dots, signifying broken chains and that he died a free man. In the 1870s, the Newberry family bought land from their former owners. "The worst 300 acres," Johnson said. They cleared the stony soil and grew cotton. White families with 19th-century roots in Hawkinsville knew the Newberrys.

"It's very complicated," Johnson said, referring to how the past shadows the present in this town and rural Georgia. "It's very complicated because there is a lot of trauma. There's a lot of terror. And in many respects, there's love, too, among some large groups in the rural South. I'm speaking of African Americans… But we also have a growing Spanish-speaking population here. They've been terrorized [by current authorities] and stay hidden."

Johnson spoke of legacies that outsiders would not know or recognize: The town's separate cemeteries for white people and Black people; family stories of how Black people who moved to the North were not permitted to unload their cars on Hawkinsville's streets into the 1960s, lest the local Black residents see their relative poverty; that Black people were whipped on nearby farms as late at the 1970s and 1980s; the reason why many Black people still don't swim in the nearby Ocmulgee River, as skeletons periodically surface or are dredged up.

"There's a lot of trauma here, and people in these rural towns have not accessed the local power structure effectively to represent their interests," Johnson said, returning to politics and elections. "They've been outsmarted by every trick in the book. And while people are resilient, they're fatigued. And people have adjusted to a lot of the inequality that exists."

Johnson's work for the State Department included trying to sway "hearts and minds" in Afghanistan. Inequality could still be seen locally, he said, as most of the leadership posts in county government, law enforcement and education were held by white people. Illiteracy was a real issue, he said, citing Vietnam veterans who could not fill out benefit forms. So was race-based intimidation. Those cultural currents and a rural economy with limited opportunities left many people of color contained, cautious and wary of outsiders. Many people of color stayed in their lane and kept quiet.

"It's like once you're identified to do something here, especially if a white person gives you an opportunity, you stick with it," Johnson said. "And to stick with it means you stay in your place and don't get involved in things that will jeopardize your income because jobs are hard to come by."

Johnson broke out of this mold. His roots, higher education, federal service and efforts to redevelop Hawkinsville's former commercial center were not openly criticized in a small county 25 miles from the interstate highway. He confided that he did not have many close local friends. The conversation continued in his office in Hawkinsville's first two-story brick building, where white lawyers, realtors and businessmen once worked. He and the other Commerce Street merchants were underwriting the voter drive and had invited people. He didn't expect many to show up. But word would get around.

"Most people have things to do on Saturday," Johnson said. "To ask them to come downtown for something like this is unusual. We have reached out to a cross-section of people and we'll see who turns up. There's a saying down here, 'Every shut eye ain't asleep.' So, although you don't see the numbers, [that] doesn't mean the numbers aren't seeing you."

Johnson's openness and insights were surprising. He explained what was widely understood but not often spoken in middle Georgia—and especially not spoken of to out-of-town journalists. His dissection of the culture had a direct bearing on how rural voters of color could—or should not—be reached for the Senate runoffs. His clear takeaway was that only known groups and people, relying on local volunteers or paying local people a small wage, would likely be effective messengers to motivate people who didn't plan to vote.

As Johnson showed his visitors the rest of his building that he hoped would become a democracy center—a hub readymade for organizers—a younger man ran up the staircase and said, "Mr. Way is outside and wants to see you." Johnson smiled and quickly headed down to Commerce Street.

The Way Forward

Sam Way, age 95, wore a flannel shirt, pressed jeans, and a surgical mask and walked with a cane. His Hawkinsville roots went back to pre-Civil War days. His family founded nearby banks that were still open and owned vast tracts of farmland and forests. Mr. Way, who is white, knew many leading Georgia politicians when Southern Democrats controlled the state, such as Jimmy Carter when he was governor and president. And Georgia's politicians knew him.

The handful of Black people sitting in chairs on the sidewalk stood to greet Way: Mary Colson, the only Black Board of Elections member; Bernice Banks, who moved back to town five years ago and this fall became the deputy chair of a newly revived county Democratic Party; and Black Voters Matter's Miller and her team.

Johnson greeted Way, who was surveying the colorful Black Voters Matter van and registration table and Vote Equality's RV and its table. "We could use more of this," Way said, pressing a folded $100 bill into Johnson's hand.

Johnson introduced Way to the Vote Equality crew as "one of the founders of this town." The women at the Vote Equality table said that they had come from Virginia to help the voter drive. Miller quickly organized a group photograph. Afterward, Way was asked what people could do to help efforts like this voter drive.

"The main thing you can do is identify people who live in this town who are not registered. And then follow it up and make sure they get to the polls on Election Day," he said. "It's that simple."

"Was that hard to do around here?" he was asked.

"It's not hard, if somebody is dedicated to get out there and work with it," he replied. "Just like Stacey [Abrams] has done. She's just gotten everybody to organize in Atlanta. Because 70 percent of the vote on November 3 was white in this county. Only 30 percent [of the vote] was Black. And yet the population is about 50-50. So that's the challenge."

After Way left, the registration drive continued. Miller felt that the trickle of people stopping by justified shifting to canvassing nearby streets. But Johnson's assessment had been spot on. Not one of the dozen people who showed up to register to vote shared their full name or said much more than voting was "a good thing."

Across the street inside Bryant's Barber Shop, people felt a bit freer to talk. It was a safer space, especially after Johnson's introductions. He praised Elgin Bryant as a "quiet guy who touches everybody's head in this town." Bryant's ancestors had also been slaves in Hawkinsville. He was retired from work at a nearby military base and cut hair at his father's old barbershop on weekends.

Bryant said he was pleased that Joe Biden had picked Kamala Harris as his running mate. He was pleased that Georgia's voters chose Biden. People were paying attention, he said, especially younger people.

"It's a great thing. I think it's going to make people realize we need to get out and vote," he said, cautiously optimistic. "I think the younger generation's really getting it. The older generation, they kind of thought it didn't matter… Over a period of years, you know, a lot of Black people have gotten less [than whites]. It's time now. This needs to change."

Shawn Nelson, a younger man and a truck driver in Bryant's seat, was eager to talk. He seemed genuinely excited about the runoffs.

"The outcome of the January 5 election is going to have an impact on the United States for years," he said. "We need to get those two Democrats in and start making a change. For health care, education…"

Nelson, too, wanted to believe that Biden's victory meant change could come.

"That's big progress for Georgia," he said. "I'm 40 years old and as far as I can remember, Georgia has been known as a racist state. Even though it still probably is, I think with these Democrats that are getting in office, I think we can look forward to seeing some change."

But back outside, the foot traffic had slowed as mid-afternoon approached. Elizabeth Small, who was sitting in a chair by the Black Voters Matter table and ready to help anyone register, seemed flustered. She was 79, and still a poll worker. She was not pleased with the Black turnout on November 3 and wanted to see more people show up for the registration drive.

"As you can see, there are not enough Blacks here for the event that's coming up that's so important," she said. "Blacks need to participate more. They are not here. I don't know where they are. Because they should participate… But we don't often get asked to participate."

Small admitted that she was frustrated. "Everything that you want to have happen takes too long," she said. "And the ones that you see today are the ones [that] are always present, for whatever, especially for the voter registration. It's always the same few people. Right? Always the same few."

By 3 p.m. the registration drive was over. The local newspaper did not show up. The Black Voters Matter crew drove back to Warner Robins, a small city nearby. The Vote Equality crew followed Johnson to his house. The January 5 runoffs were more than a month away. Voter registration would close on December 7. Early voting would start on December 14.

While the national media has been concentrating on suburban Atlanta's Biden voters who "tore down political fences," there are thousands and thousands of voters of color in rural Georgia who could play an outsized role—if they vote. At first glance, Hawkinsville looks like it has barely changed in decades. But its once-white business center is now filled with Black-owned businesses. Looking toward January 5, there is an election where its long-suppressed voices—like others across Georgia—could ring from coast to coast.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Trump's attacks on the Georgia election are failing miserably — but show no sign of slowing down

The rapidly unfolding events in Georgia this past weekend showcased the lengths that President Trump will go to overturn the 2020 general election's popular vote, the depth of disinformation that he is pushing and many partisans are accepting, and the fortitude of a handful of Georgia's constitutional officers who did not bend under pressure.

On Monday, Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the recount found that Democrat Joe Biden had won his state's 2020 presidential election by nearly 12,000 votes. It was the third statewide tally of the presidential election, following a manual hand count of 5 million paper ballots after Election Day, and the Election Day tally. No other battleground state in 2020 conducted as thorough an examination to verify its vote.

Georgia's governor, Republican Brian Kemp, who served as secretary of state before being elected governor in 2018—a race that his opponent, Democrat Stacy Abrams, said was marred by a catalog of voter suppression—has said that he will certify the presidential results. Trump has repeatedly called on Kemp to convene a legislative session to select a pro-Trump Electoral College slate, rather than have the slate reflect Georgia's popular vote.

But as President Trump made clear on Saturday at a rally in Valdosta, Georgia, he will not stop trying to muscle his way to a second term—even if it means ignoring the popular vote, urging Republican governors in other swing states, such as Arizona, to convene special sessions to anoint him, and filing lawsuits that he hopes will end up before the Supreme Court, where Trump expects that conservative justices will to elevate to a second term.

The Valdosta rally, Trump's first major event since the November election, had attendees from across the county who supported Trump and fanned his unfounded claims of a stolen election. The event's advertised purpose was to promote Georgia's two Republican senators who face January 5 runoffs, where, should they lose, that body would return to a Democratic majority. But from the start, Trump said that he won, listed grievances, showed videos purporting to prove electoral theft, slammed skeptics in his party, and pledged to emerge victorious.

"We're all victims. Everybody here, all these thousands of people here tonight, they're all victims," Trump said 90 minutes into the rally filled with mounting cheers of "Stop the Steal" and "Fight for Trump." Trump leaned on podium, relishing the cheers and holding forth.

"The next great victory for our movement begins right here on January 5th [the Senate runoffs] and then we are going to win back the White House," he continued. "We're going to win it back. And we're going to win back the House in 2022. And then in 2024, and hopefully I won't have to be a candidate, we're gonna win back the White House again. A friend of mine said, 'Oh, don't worry about it, sir. You are way up in the polls, you'll win in 2024.' I said, I don't want to win in 2024, I want to go back in three weeks."

Trump's strategy is to keep pressuring any official who has authority to interrupt certifying their state's vote or impact their state's Electoral College slate to act on his behalf. He mocked Kemp for not being tough enough and encouraged Rep. Doug Collins, R-GA, a loyalist, to run against Kemp in two years. He mused that maybe Arizona's GOP governor would be tougher, meaning he would be the first to convene a special session to select a pro-Trump slate.

Trump periodically returned to the rally's ostensible purpose, to boost the Republicans in the state's January runoffs, but not without repeating his desire to stay in power and modeling the tough-minded stance that he expected Republicans to take in this fight.

"If they [Georgia's incumbent Republican senators] get in—and add me to this group if you don't mind—we will be greater than ever before," Trump said toward the end to loud cheers. "America's destiny has just begun. We will not bend. We will not break. We will not give. We will never give in. We will never give up. And we will never back down. We will never ever surrender. Because we are Americans and our hearts bleed red, white and blue."

Trump's passionate attacks on the 2020 election are not just urging Republicans to override millions of legally cast votes and delegitimize Joe Biden's presidency before it has begun. He has weaponized the voting system in such a way that no matter what any election official says, including top Republican state officials in Georgia, election outcomes cannot be trusted.

Georgia is a red-run state where Republicans hold all constitutional offices and both legislative chambers. In the days before Trump's rally, Republican legislators convened hearings to build a case to reject the popular vote. Much of their rationale was based on what their party's largely untrained citizen election observers saw during the post-Election Day counting process. These observers thought they saw systemic breakdowns, which is a result of their unfamiliarity with election administration's intricacies and a process that often lacks transparency to be easily understood. But Trump observers were predisposed to believe that the process was rigged, that local election officials could not be trusted, that poll workers were part of a vast plan to steal the presidency. No one noticed that Republican officials had oversight of Georgia's elections—its technology, its procedures and eligibility rules—for years.

One of the witnesses who expected to testify before the Georgia Senate late last week was seen by this reporter during the presidential ballot hand count making unfounded claims of ballot forgery, ballot box stuffing and falsified counting. Yet there he was, issuing press releases with the same claims to legislators who seemed primed to override the popular vote.

Over the weekend, a handful of Republican state senators circulated a petition that they hoped would force Gov. Kemp to hold a special session. The petition claimed that every category of illegal election crime occurred due to "systemic failure."

Allegedly, votes were cast by felons, underage youth, non-state residents, residents of different counties and dead people, the petition said. Voter registrations illegally contained post office boxes, not street addresses, it said. Signatures on absentee ballot return envelopes allegedly had not been properly authenticated. Election observers could not see every step to validate ballots. The petition, needless to say, did not note that Georgia's 2020 elections were the first elections in two decades to use a paper ballot. Nor did it say that the state was the only 2020 battleground that counted its presidential votes three times.

The recent developments in Georgia suggest the 2020 election is not yet over. Despite the responsible steps by its secretary of state and governor to defend their electoral system and the popular vote outcome—even if it meant their candidate lost—the fight will continue.

One can expect more fights over Electoral College slates. There are deadlines that will be a focal point for more legal fights and partisan bluster—if not disinformation. States that certify their presidential results by December 8 cannot have those results overturned by Congress when it convenes on January 6 to ratify the Electoral College vote. (Each state's presidential electors meet on December 14 to officially certify the winner.)

On January 6th, one should expect some Republicans in Congress to challenge Biden's election. That would be no different than in 2004, when two Democrats, California Sen. Barbara Boxer and Ohio Rep. Cynthia Tubbs Jones, rejected, George W. Bush's nomination. Their objections, citing GOP-led voter suppression, forced each chamber to debate for two hours. When the joint session reconvened, the Congress ratified Bush's second term.

It is unlikely that Trump will block Biden's presidency, as he keeps losing in federal court—including two more lawsuits on Monday.

"They want this court to substitute its judgment for that of two and a half million Georgia voters who voted for Joe Biden -- and this I am unwilling to do," said U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Batten on Monday, dismissing the latest litigation in Georgia to overturn the election's results, while issuing his ruling from the bench.

In Michigan, another pro-Trump lawsuit was rejected for similar reasons.

"Plaintiffs ask this Court to ignore the orderly statutory scheme established to challenge elections and to ignore the will of millions of voters," wrote U.S. District Judge Linda A. Parker on Monday. "This, the Court cannot, and will not, do."

Nonetheless, one should expect Trump's supporters to drag out the fight for Georgia's senate seats. Unlike the presidency, there are no congressional deadlines for seating senators. It could be months before the newest senators were seated, if the results were close and challenged. Recall that in Minnesota in 2008, the senatorial recount took six months to resolve before Democrat Al Franken was finally seated in mid-2009.

If a similar trajectory unfurled in 2021, it would keep a Republican majority in the Senate. Sen. Mitch McConnell would remain majority leader. He would oversee committee assignments and the legislative agenda in the early months in the Biden presidency, even if the two Democrats in Georgia eventually prevailed.

The key to the Senate majority could come down to overlooked voters in Georgia

Immediately after Joe Biden's surprise victory in Georgia, analysts parsing voter turnout patterns concluded that many of the state's conservatives and independents have had enough of President Trump. Many pundits affirmed that conclusion by noting that Sen. David Perdue, the Republican incumbent, had won more votes than the president in Atlanta's tonier suburbs, a weather vane for the GOP.

But civil rights groups based elsewhere in Georgia and their out-of-state allies saw a different pattern when studying 2020's voter turnout. Whether looking at Atlanta, which also contains lower-income areas, or across Georgia's 159 counties where towns look little changed from the mid-20th century, they saw that voters in many communities of color did not turn out in the volumes they had expected.

"There were really scary numbers in Atlanta," said Andrea Miller, whose Virginia-based nonprofit, Center for Common Ground, focuses on empowering underrepresented voters across the South. Through Election Day, its volunteers sent 875,000 postcards to Georgians and followed up with phone calls and texts. "Look at DeKalb County," she said. "173,000 voters did not show up."

Five million Georgians voted in the presidential election, a million more than the 2018 governor's race, and a reflection of a state whose politics and demographics are changing and sparking participation across the political spectrum. Against this backdrop, Georgia's voters of color could play a crucial role in upcoming U.S. Senate runoffs on January 5, contests that could change national politics.

If Georgia's incumbent Republican senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, are defeated by Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Senate majority would return to Democrats. That shift, should it occur, would allow President-elect Joe Biden to govern without gridlock and possibly enact broad reforms.

There has not been an election of greater national significance in Georgia in years. The political parties, candidates and political activists across America know this. Whether Georgia's communities of color have reason to believe that this election or their votes will matter, perhaps in numbers to tip the outcome, is another question. Georgia runoffs are among the state's lowest-turnout elections.

Much of the political money flowing into the state for the runoffs is buying ads targeting voters in the biggest cities and suburbs. But Miller and like-minded civil rights organizers with visibly active operations across Georgia—such as Black Voters Matter, the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, the NAACP and the New Georgia Project—say that voters of color, particularly in smaller cities and rural areas, won't be moved by political advertising. But they could turn out in unexpected numbers if asked by trusted friends, family and clergy.

"They are not on anybody's lists," said Miller, in a mid-November interview. "We have already postcarded all 2.7 million community of color voters in Georgia to let them know that this runoff is coming up."

"We've been out registering people," Ray McClendon, a lead organizer with Atlanta's NAACP, said the first week of December. The chapter has been coordinating with other NAACP chapters and business and community groups in 19 counties where 77 percent of the state's Black voters live. "We registered 300,000 people between the November 3 election and this past weekend."

The NAACP hopes that it can prompt 25 percent of registered voters in its targeted counties to vote in the runoffs, said Richard Rose, the Atlanta NAACP president. "We want to get about 500,000 Black voters back to the polls… Part of our job is education. Putting forth the issues, to say, 'Hey, these are the issues that should concern you. And you need to vote to express your interest.'"

But it will be hard to motivate people to vote in the Senate runoffs, Rose said. The national stakes matter less than issues that touch daily lives, he said, such as the possibility for better health care options, a COVID-19 stimulus check or a small business loan. There's also a runoff for a seat on the Public Service Commission, which regulates utility costs, which has never been held by a Black person or a woman.

"Health care, fair wages, justice," Rose said. "You've got to have a list that people can grab and hold on to… So our door hanger deals with those issues. The flip side talks about [the voting] process."

Still, many voters of color have taken notice that Georgia has become a national battleground after Biden narrowly beat Trump, meaning their votes have greater weight. And Rev. Warnock is an African American pastor who led the Atlanta church where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.

"We have to continue to demonstrate the message," Rose said. "Remember, a big problem of voter turnout in the Black community is the reaction to the generations of oppression, where Black voters didn't matter—really didn't matter."

'Demonstrate the Message'

Georgia has many voting rights groups, including some with national reputations such as Stacey Abrams' Fair Fight Action and the New Georgia Project. Abrams' efforts have been praised for their outreach to voters—especially younger people in Atlanta as part of her unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial bid. But as the fights over Georgia's 2020 presidential results continued after Election Day, only a few groups could be seen in mid-November reaching out to voters for the runoffs.

One group was the Center for Common Ground. By Thanksgiving, it had booked 15 billboards across Georgia, had 40,000 volunteers from across the country write postcards to millions of Georgians and was buying cell phone numbers for use in get-out-the-vote phone and text banks to be staffed by local Georgians.

A partner of the center, Vote Equality, sent an eye-grabbing purple Winnebago RV—labeled "The Notorious RVG" above the front window, which stands for Ruthless Vote-Getter—to the small city of Warner Robins in middle Georgia. Vote Equality promotes passage of the Equal Rights Amendment granting full rights to women. Its role is complementing regional organizers for Black Voters Matter, a Georgia-based group with regional offices. One of its colorful "We Got the Power" vans and local volunteers were registering voters before a December 7 deadline.

Crucially, Black Voters Matter's organizers were poised to listen to people's concerns and to start a conversation that subtly reminded them that their issues were on the runoff ballot. As the NAACP's Rose said on a Zoom call the first week of December about the coalition's efforts, "You have to have a relational strategy; broad broadcast advertising for political ads does not work. You have to have a grassroots, on-the-ground, relational campaign."

One such campaign could be seen on a Saturday morning before Thanksgiving in Hawkinsville, a town about a half-hour drive from Warner Robins.

"Hey! How y'all doing? How are you?" said Fenika Miller, Black Voters Matter's organizer for middle Georgia. Miller—no relation to Andrea Miller—was greeting a trickle of people who came by to see what was going on at a table on which a banner read, "BLACK VOTERS MATTER" and "IT'S ABOUT US." Pulaski County, where Hawkinsville is located, has equal numbers of white and non-white voters, but more white people voted this fall.

Besides paper forms and electronic tablets to register voters, update registration information or request an absentee ballot, Miller's table had bags, T-shirts and sweatshirts to give away—all with Black Voters Matter in big letters. The items were free, once people were registered and said they would plan to vote—and promised to tell their friends and family to do the same.

"Visibility is everything," Fenika Miller said. "That's why we do what we do. That's why we have these vans. That's why they [Vote Equality] have the [purple] RV. Because this year has been different. We haven't been able to engage people in the same way due to COVID. It's also about people seeing that someone has not forgotten about their community, has not forgotten about their issues, has not forgotten that they matter, and they have power."

Not Quite Swing Counties

Seen from out of state, Georgia has joined the ranks of states where elections of national consequence can be determined by small voting blocs that lean left or right. But seen locally, such as in Warner Robins, a city that anchors Houston County, where 30,000 registered voters skipped the November election and where Fenika Miller grew up and is based, communities of color still lack political representation—although their momentum has been slowly building.

Houston County is one of the many counties in Georgia where civil rights groups hope to turn out voters who are not on the national political radar. Its population is 160,000 and it calls itself "Georgia's Most Progressive County." It was little more than cotton fields and two-lane roads before the Robins Air Force Base was built in the early 1940s. Warner Robins, its commercial center, is next to the base and is touted locally as "The International City." The main street is a four-lane boulevard with a medical center, small businesses, restaurants, chain stores and city offices near the base. There are few vacancies or boarded-up buildings.

But behind the boulevard are pockets of poverty. Inside old subdivisions of small homes are families in which people often have several jobs to make ends meet, said Fenika Miller. The public schools are good, but they lack funds to ensure that every child has a computer, which is crucial for remote learning during the pandemic. Meanwhile, federal pandemic relief has not trickled down to the city's small businesses. These tensions, which are not unique, shape daily life and are baselines for Miller's organizing to uplift local communities of color.

The local power structure has produced some of Georgia's most notable white politicians. Former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat, is from here. So is Sen. Perdue, whose first cousin, Sonny Perdue, is a former Republican governor of Georgia who switched parties from Democrat—at a time when many establishment Democrats became Republicans. Regardless of party, most local officials, from school boards to city hall to state legislators, still are held by white men. But that pattern was being challenged, Fenika Miller said. This is partly because organizers like Miller and groups like Black Voters Matter have become steady presences to empower their community.

In 2020, a full slate of candidates, many of them people of color and women, ran for local office, she said. While they lost, some, such as in the district attorney race, came close to winning. That was a sign that her community's voters were paying attention. In the run-up to the 2020 general election, Black Voters Matter was the only group "with boots on the ground" in middle Georgia, she said.

Voters took notice and were surprised by some of the election's results.

"We worked really hard, but we were surprised, as was the rest of the country and the state, when our vote-by-mail applications came in," Miller said, referring to the volume of voters who applied for an absentee ballot this fall. "In Houston County, Biden won our vote by mail. We gave him the first bump in the state. People said, 'Oh my goodness.' First, people didn't know there were that many [absentee ballots] out there. And then they saw Biden win a traditionally red county, the home of [former] Gov. Sonny Perdue."

Organizers like Fenika Miller hope that voters in Georgia's communities of color can feel they are building momentum that translates into political power. As a December 7 voter registration deadline for the runoff nears and early voting starts a week later, Republicans have dominated the airwaves with negative ads that acknowledge that new political currents are challenging the GOP.

The TV ads are "dog whistles," Miller said, meaning they have implicit race-based messages that don't need any explanation, such as claiming that Rev. Warnock was dangerous because, among other things, he stood by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, an outspoken pastor whom President Obama knew but distanced himself from in 2008. Drawing lines between "good" and "bad" Black people was not new in Georgia, Miller said, but it also was not on the minds of the would-be voters she was reaching out to.

"My job is to make sure that our community understands fact-based issues around how we can build power, why we need to engage in the process, and what's at stake," Fenika Miller said. "How we frame that, and help our communities to understand that, and show up for them, while, in turn, they show up for all of us, is going to be completely important."

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Here's how Trump supporters are reacting to his losses on the ground as distrust in the election festers

Georgia's Trump supporters are not giving up. On Saturday, scores massed outside the statehouse in Atlanta, a small sea of mostly men in red MAGA hats hoisting signs hurling accusations against Joe Biden and wearing campaign tee-shirts saying "STOP the STEAL."

It barely mattered that Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had certified Biden's unexpected nearly 13,000-vote victory one day before. Also irrelevant was Georgia's unprecedented manual hand count of presidential votes on 5 million paper ballots, which was more than any 2020 swing state has done since Election Day to verify its votes.

Instead, Trump supporters in Georgia, like many across the country, are not just embracing a growing catalog of vote-counting conspiracy theories as the president pressures state officials to reject the popular vote and select him, via Electoral College slates, for another term. Among Trump's ranks are activists who witnessed the latest vote-counting steps as credentialed GOP observers and have studied these steps via social media and online forums. These activists appear to be coalescing into a new right-facing election reform movement, much like left-leaning activists launched a progressive "election integrity" movement after the fraught presidential elections in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004.

"Oh my God, where do I begin?" exclaimed Stacey, an official Republican Party observer during Georgia's hand count last week in DeKalb County near Atlanta. Stacey, who didn't want her last names used, was a blond woman in her 40s wearing an American flag sweatshirt and a bracelet with red, white and blue rhinestones and Trump's name spelled out in baby beads. She was taking a break with a friend, another GOP observer.

The pair, like many Trump supporters watching Georgia's audit, said they were citizens who cared about democracy and honest elections. But instead of appreciating that Georgia's first-ever hand count of millions of paper ballots had found and fixed mistakes that added more than 1,000 votes to Trump's total, they were increasingly incensed by the fine print in the election process they witnessed. Their discovery that election administration was under-resourced, complex, opaque and at times, mistake-prone, only affirmed their belief that the process had conspired to defeat Trump. Election officials across Georgia might have been counting every ballot, but that exercise and the overall process lacked the tools to convince a slice of the public that was critical and cynical.

"We're not allowed to talk to anybody—so you can't even ask questions," Stacey said, when asked what concerned her, as she sat in the viewing area inside a vacant department store that DeKalb County had converted into an early voting center and then used for the hand count.

"There's a lot of things," she said. "Like here's a box [of paper ballots]. What is this box? What is it that you're doing? You can't tell. You can't see anything. They're supposed to sort them first, according to the person they voted for, and then they're supposed to count them… But I can't see, because I'm so far away, if that really is a Biden vote going for Biden in the Biden pile—or was a Trump vote, or a Jorgensen vote."

"There's so many unknowns," her friend and fellow GOP observer added. "We don't know where they're bringing them from. We don't know where they're taking them to. Who's watching? Who's watching?" She sighed. "There's a lot of question marks. We feel really powerless. We want to be here with good intentions. But we feel powerless."

There's a direct line between campaign observers such as these women and the affidavits—or sworn statements by witnesses in lawsuits—that Trump's lead lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was waving at a widely ridiculed 90-minute news conference on Thursday, November 19. Giuliani reeled off allegations of dishonest election administration and vote-counting processes in other states that Biden won—denying Trump another term. Giuliani's affidavits, often based on what people thought they saw, which was not necessarily accurate nor the full picture, were from Republican observers like Stacey and her friend.

This sprint by Trump's team to get witness statements from allies and activists on the frontlines in 2020's swing states was what Green and Libertarian Party lawyers did in Ohio in 2004, when they assumed that the election had been stolen for President George W. Bush—not just won by brazen GOP voter suppression tactics. That scramble in Ohio and its aftermath sparked a left-leaning election integrity movement that endures to this day. That movement has helped push every state (including Georgia) to recently replace the all-electronic voting systems acquired a dozen years ago with more accountable paper ballot-based voting. In Georgia, the type of audit that was be done before certifying the general election's winners—which turned into the hand count that drew Trump observers—also emerged in the aftermath of Florida and Ohio.

But now, in 2020, it looks like Trump supporters are discovering election administration issues and may be changing the script that emerged after Ohio's election in 2004 and was embraced in red-run states. That playbook greatly exaggerated the threat of voter fraud—or one person repeatedly voting—to overly police the voting process. State-level responses, such as passing stricter voter ID laws, happened to impede more voters in blue than red epicenters.

Since 2020's Election Day, Trump's supporters have discovered a palette of problems focused less on individuals and more on systemic issues with how elections are run, including Trump supporters discovering how much privatized technology, paid consultants and frustratingly opaque administrative procedures undergird American elections.

For example, after Guiliani spoke, Sydney Powell, a Trump team lawyer, echoed and amplified the kinds of suspicions heard from Trump supporters on Georgia's frontlines. Powell declared that the firms that made America's voting systems were infiltrated with leftist foreigners who could sabotage results. Beyond an operatic performance that caused her to be dismissed by the weekend, that screed was an example of disinformation based on taking a small thread of truth (foreign investment among America's handful of voting system vendors) and layering fearful partisan clichés on top. Where did her claim originate? A blogger active in progressive election integrity circles since Ohio said that it had been "bastardized" from his website.

"This is stunning, heartbreaking, infuriating and the most unpatriotic acts I can even imagine for people in this country to have participated in," Powell declared, speaking of the hidden hands and local election officials who conspired and acted to deprive Trump of a second term.

"It's completely pointless," said Stacey, the Trump observer in Dekalb County, Georgia, saying much the same thing though not on national television. "This is optics. Take a look around you. I don't care what side of the fence you're on. You can just feel the attitude. There are too many cooks in this stew. They're too many things going on. They bring in ballots to the ballot room. Where's the ballot room?"

"People are assuming that what they are counting is valid," she said, referring to the assembled paper ballots with votes for president. "Where did that come from?"

A New Cause

These sentiments and a growing distrust of election administration and voting technology are not likely to vanish. Legal scholars, such as the University of California Irvine's Rick Hasen, who curates the country's most influential election law blog, have focused on the higher altitude impacts of Trump's failing legal strategies. The president's attacks and smears, though not succeeding in court, were eroding public trust in the democratic process and could even pressure some courts and legislatures to embrace new anti-voting measures.

"The good news is that there is no real prospect that Mr. Trump can avoid a reluctant handover of power on Jan. 20," Hasen wrote for the New York Times. "The bad news is that Mr. Trump's wildly unsubstantiated claims of a vast voter fraud conspiracy and the litigation he has brought against voting rights have done — and will increasingly do — serious damage to our democracy. Our problems will deepen, in particular, because Mr. Trump's litigation strategy has led to the emergence of a voter-hostile jurisprudence in the federal courts."

At the grassroots level, hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters are discovering eye-popping features about the mechanics of America's voting systems that are fueling more doubt, speculation and outrage. One video that went viral explained that an unadvertised feature in the software used to compile a spreadsheet of all of the votes cast in a county could apply a fractional value to any column of vote totals. That feature, called weighted voting, was put there by the country's biggest voting system makers for use in private-sector elections, such as counting different classes of stock in shareholder elections. If someone knew how to use this application, which can multiply any vote total by a fractional value that's greater or less than one, and were not caught doing so, they could possibly alter the reported results. Trump's supporters are seizing such tidbits as revelations of how invisible strings can be pulled.

"Those who pretend to be for Election Integrity but mock the many intelligent and passionate voices calling into question the veracity of our election system simply because they are pro-Trump are themselves making a mockery of the topic," commented one activist on an email thread. "The media, and many of the pretenders in this group, were all for looking into hacking and other forms of election fraud, until...Orange Man Bad. Now, for the first time there is incredible grassroots support to make a real impact on our entire election system."

Meanwhile, broader statements from voting system manufacturers denying that their systems were vulnerable to manipulation and errors are not persuading many Trump supporters. Nor were daily assertions from top statewide election officials in Georgia that the discovery of uncounted Trump votes during the state's hand count were caused by human errors, not the underlying technology or system design.

Since last week's hand count in Georgia, where Voting Booth profiled how Trump observers kept raising claims of stolen votes without producing any evidence, this reporter has heard new details and explanations for behind the scene breakdowns that occurred during the hand count audit. (The presidential recount that begins on Tuesday will use high-speed scanners).

Why were memory cards with uncounted votes left in precinct scanners? Because the state's new machinery from Dominion Voting Systems does not alert poll workers if vote count data on thumb drives in precinct scanners has been successfully uploaded, a longtime voting consultant who was in touch with contractors hired for Georgia's audit said. That exact same problem has roiled countywide elections in Florida, he added.

Did local officials in one Georgia county panic after they could not find 600 paper ballots, but not tell state officials? Yes, this same source said, adding that they found the missing ballots not by recounting every batch of ballots by hand (the audit's protocol), but by weighing the sealed bags containing ballots —one bag was too heavy.

This design flaw (not confirming precinct vote-count data was sent) and panic moment (due to a ballot inventory error that should have been caught before the audit began) were kept hidden from the press and public during the audit. But they are part of an election administration landscape that a cadre of Trump supporters have been discovering.

As Georgia's hand count began, election integrity activist Garland Favorito, who has worked with progressives for 15 years, said that he sympathized with the Trump activists. There were "three top things" driving Trump's supporters, he explained. They did not understand how a candidate who could fill arenas lost to a candidate who had barely left home. They did not trust that millions of mailed-out ballots had not been tampered with somewhere along the line. And they felt abused by mainstream media, who they despised more than Democrats.

Trump's frontline election observers had little appreciation that Georgia's hand count, which was not without flaws, was still more transparent than anything that had been done before. They had little appreciation for the thousands of people who were spending days counting 5 million paper ballots by hand. They did not think that Trump's ongoing efforts to smear the process was at odds with their quest for truth and honest elections. They also did not like Voting Booth's profile of their efforts, they said, because they looked foolish. They did not contest its accuracy, nor realize that reporters from the New York Times, PBS and other media stood near them during the hand count and could have written the same account.

But the cadre of Trump supporters who have discovered the world of election administration are not going away. They don't like what they have seen, even if they do not fully understand what they are looking at. Meanwhile, they and the president are fueling dizzying conspiracies where Americans who don't follow the arcana of elections do not know what to believe. And election officials are not helping to clear the air. Their systems, procedures and technologies do not easily convey ground truths—how votes are cast, counted, secured and verified—apart from noise from campaigns and the backdrop of partisan rules affecting who can vote.

Deep new currents are stirring, despite what many policy experts have said was a well-run election—given the pandemic, unprecedented attacks on the post office and millions of people voting by mail for the first time. How the festering distrust among Trump's supporters evolves into a new right-facing election reform movement is not yet clear. The seeds are planted.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The phantom fears of Trump supporters haunt the Georgia presidential election audit

By 7 a.m. on Saturday, November 14, the windowless, cavernous hall six flights below street level at the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta was bustling. Hundreds of county government employees wearing face masks were seated in pairs at 170 tables with pens, forms and bottles of hand sanitizer. They had come to manually count every vote for president in Fulton County, the epicenter of Joe Biden's still unofficial 14,000-vote victory over President Trump.

Their task was sorting and counting more than half-a-million paper ballots cast in Georgia's most populous county. As observers from political parties, campaigns and voting rights groups roved, watched and sometimes leered, the assembled librarians, social workers and other civil servants proceeded.

They started by first counting absentee ballots, where voters filled in ovals next to a candidate's name. By midday, they turned to votes cast in person on Georgia's new voting system, where voters used a touch screen to make their choices and a ballot was printed out with their votes in readable text and a scannable code.

"It couldn't be more transparent what we are doing," Matthew Tyler, a broad-shouldered man and victim-witness advocate for the Fulton County District Attorney's office, said afterward. "I count them three times. I count them five times. I am happy to spend my weekend like this."

Throughout the day, supervisors wheeled suitcase-like storage cases to his table and the other counting stations. Reams of paper ballots were taken out. The ballots first were sorted into piles by the presidential choice. The piles were then counted and stacked 10 ballots at a time. When finished, an orange reporting sheet for that batch was filled out. The supervisor brought it to an official at a computer at one side of the hall, who sent each batch's results to Georgia's secretary of state.

"I just think that democracy is so serious and so reverent," Tyler said, reflecting on a process that was slow, steady and careful. "As a young Black man, I know that so many people died before me literally for the right to vote. It's my responsibility. I take it very personally."

Tyler wasn't the only one taking the next phase in Georgia's election personally. Two days earlier, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican with an engineering background, abruptly decided that the state's 159 counties could not do a statistical audit required by a 2019 law that he had helped write. The audit's goal was ensuring that the electronics in a new statewide voting system were accurately counting the hand- and machine-marked paper ballots.

That statistical process, called a risk-limiting audit (RLA), is not the same as a recount—which comes later and only if the official results are close. A recount is a different legal process, one where candidates' lawyers can challenge the ballots. An audit is not adversarial, but more of a quality-control exercise.

Georgia's RLA was promoted as an efficient way to double-check vote counts. If the results are not close, several hundred randomly chosen ballots can assess the vote-counting accuracy in a big urban county. But because 14,000 votes divided Biden and Trump in an election of nearly 5 million votes in the state, the mathematical efficiencies evaporated. Raffensperger's decision to manually count every ballot to satisfy the state's RLA law left almost everyone involved in the process feeling some heat.

After the hand count was announced, Raffensperger was attacked by President Trump. Georgia's two Republican senators called for his resignation. Trump supporters followed the cues from Trump's tweets and Fox News' hosts who stridently supported the president, including some supporters who converged on Fulton County's audit with credentials as Republican and Libertarian Party observers. Meanwhile, the county's election officials had work to do.

"We were preparing for an RLA on Thursday, which probably would have pulled 200 to 250 ballots," Fulton County Registration and Elections Director Richard Barron recounted at a press conference on Sunday, November 15. "We found out on Wednesday that we were going to do a full hand tally [of] 528,777 ballots. That's quite a difference from 200 to 250. To put this together that quickly was onerous."

But Barron's staff were not the only ones scrambling. Local supporters of President Trump—assisted by a longtime election integrity activist and critic of Georgia's voting systems, including its newest system, Garland Favorito of Voter GA—were determined to find evidence that could be used in court to challenge Biden's win.

On Friday, November 13, as the Congress Center was being set up, Favorito, a retired information technology professional, issued a statement saying that he saw Biden's total jump ahead by 20,000 votes—while Trump's decreased by 1,000 votes—as Fulton County's results were updated. He wanted to see data transmission logs, saying a programming error of the same voting system in a rural Michigan county had "erroneously swapped" 6,000 votes from Trump to Biden.

The Michigan incident, which was caught and corrected, alarmed Trump supporters and became part of a growing partisan narrative that unseen dark forces had stolen the election from the president.

Skeptical Observers

By midday Saturday, Favorito and a dozen pro-Trump observers had seen enough to confirm what they had feared and believed, that Georgia's most vote-rich county had nefariously tipped the scales for Biden. As the hand counting proceeded, they saw stacks of ballots on counting stations that were almost entirely for Biden. Few Trump votes were piled up. (Fulton County's latest results, posted a day before the audit, showed Biden had 72.65 percent and Trump had 26.16 percent of the vote.) Favorito said he and his monitors had been tracking this trend all morning.

"I live in Fulton County. That's ballot box stuffing," he said. "There's no place in Fulton County that's going to be 100 percent for Joe Biden or even 99 percent. Seventy-thirty, maybe. Eighty-twenty? Something's wrong."

After walking through the rows of tables, Garland's team of a dozen observers had been noting which counting stations had the disproportionate piles. They were not allowed to talk to the audit board workers. They copied the ballot batch numbers on the storage cases. After taking notes, a small group huddled on the side.

"I don't know how to report this when there are huge discrepancies," said the wife of a GOP legislator who didn't want her name used.

"I've written the precincts down," she said.

"There is no way in hell that's correct," replied Favorito, who was usually soft-spoken and courtly.

"I've taken pictures," she continued, pulling out a legal pad. "These are all of my batch numbers where I saw huge discrepancies."

How did they know that these were discrepancies?

"These are 95-5," Favorito said.

"Is there a Republican lawyer here, Garland?" the legislator's wife asked.

Another woman (who didn't want to be named) broke into the conversation. At one table, she said that the absentee ballots looked "too white and they didn't look like they were crinkled at all—like they didn't go through a machine or anything."

"Did you write that down?" Favorito asked. "That has to be a legal challenge."

A few minutes later, the two women said that they did not fully understand what they were seeing. They were flustered that they could not ask the counters any questions. They did not trust the county election officials, who they suspected somehow had fabricated ballots. They did not seem to realize that the audit was a small part of a larger post-Election Day sequence. They believed that the audit boards were accurately counting ballots, but they didn't trust the ballots.

The audit's narrowly focused tasks flustered other Trump supporters who joined the conversation. The night before, Trump attacked Raffensperger on Twitter, calling him a "RINO"—Republican in name only—and said that he "won't let the people checking the ballots see the signatures for fraud," which is not part of this audit's process. Ballots do not have signatures on them. Absentee ballot return envelopes have signatures and other identifying information that is verified before the ballots are taken out and counted. That two-step process ensures that one's ballot remains secret, and it occurred before the November 14 audit.

"It's ridiculous," groused another woman. "They don't do the audit of the signature to match the mail-in ballot? So why are they counting?"

When it was pointed out that the signature verification was done earlier, she replied, "How do they explain dead people voting then?"

When asked to explain how she knew if votes had been cast in the names of the deceased, she replied, "How do you know they weren't?" After a pause, she continued, "Because it happens in other countries. Come on, is America the first country where dead people don't vote? This happens in every country."

"There were people who voted in this election who were over 100 years old," said David Turner, a computer programmer and colleague of Favorito's. "They died years ago. But their names [are on voter rolls]. They [state officials] haven't cleaned up the database, the voter rolls. They [dead people] keep voting."

The night before the audit, Fox News' Tucker Carlson apologized on air, saying, "One of the people who voted in last week's [Georgia] election isn't dead… A whole bunch of dead people did vote… but James Blalock was not among them. … So apologies for that and of course we're always going to correct when we're wrong."

Fulton County's Audit

Claims of fraudulent voting are neither new nor confined to Fulton County, where election officials rejected the allegations of fabricated ballots sullying the process. Voter fraud claims are cliches that have been promoted by Republicans for many years. They have been raised in Trump's post-election litigation and have been widely rejected by numerous state and federal judges. The angst behind these accusations is clearly born of frustration that their candidate did not emerge victorious in Georgia's first unofficial presidential election results.

However, the perception that Fulton County was counting illegally manufactured ballots—because there were much bigger piles of Biden votes and seemingly too few Trump votes—deserves scrutiny. It turns out that these partisan observers misunderstood what they thought they were seeing.

The batches of ballots brought to the counting tables were not all of the votes that had been cast in a neighborhood, explained several county election officials on November 15. However, the Trump supporters assumed that every labeled batch of ballots represented a local neighborhood's precinct.

"They don't necessarily correspond to the precincts," Barron said, at a press conference.

"The reason that they are not sorted by precinct is that Fulton County had much higher percentages of absentee [ballots] and [in-person] early voting," explained Jessica Corbitt, Fulton County's director of external affairs. "Over 80 percent of our voters cast their ballot before Election Day. Those processes, especially in early voting, [are] where the bulk of the votes were cast. At State Farm Arena, more than 30,000 people voted. So every 3,000 or so votes, you batch the ballots."

Across Fulton County, voters from the same neighborhood chose different ways to cast their ballots. Some people voted early at the in-person voting centers, creating batches of ballots that were bundled as they came in. Some people returned their mailed-out absentee ballot in the mail, which was vetted and counted separately. Some people did not trust mail delivery, so they took their absentee ballot to a voting center, where it was canceled, and they used the new touch screen system. Some people waited until Election Day and voted in person at a local precinct.

In other words, the Trump supporters mistakenly assumed that they were seeing all of the ballots from a neighborhood—or precinct—being counted at the same time. What they were seeing, instead, were piles from different slices of the process.

"We had 30 early voting locations all over the county," Corbitt said. "The Alpharetta Library was the second-highest [turnout], which was in a more Republican-voting part of the county. There are a lot of stereotypes of where people in different parties live. One of these stacks somewhere [in this hall] is the Alpharetta Library… Across the county, we had high turnout, high early voting participation, high absentee ballot participation."

Corbitt's explanation was unlikely to sway Trump supporters—who had other complaints. A young reporter for America's Voice, a conservative outlet, said that she did not trust county employees to accurately count votes because they most likely were Democrats. She asked Barron at the November 15 press conference why he hadn't assembled more bipartisan teams. The county election director said that he turned to county employees and precinct managers to quickly assemble hundreds of needed workers and to minimize the county's cost.

Corbitt and Barron's explanations underscored that election observers are not always familiar with the intricacies of the process that they came to observe.

"Some of it is genuine misunderstanding," Corbitt said. "Not everyone is an election professional. Not everyone has the same experience observing elections. If someone is relatively new to this, it is a relatively multifaceted process. I think there's a lot of innocent misunderstanding. I do think there is intentional misinformation, which is what I'm more concerned about. I think that's dangerous and irresponsible. But if people just don't know, we are more than willing to be transparent and explain the process."

Favorito said that the hand count, as far as it went, was a step in the right direction. Fulton County was on track to finish counting on November 15—sooner than expected. Across the state, one-third of the counties had finished. The rest faced a late November 18 deadline.

"I'm really pleased that the secretary ordered the full hand count," Favorito said afterward. "There are people [some Trump supporters and observers] who don't understand that this is the first step in the process. The first step is to verify the electronic totals are correct. Then we have to decide if there are illegal ballots, and how to challenge them. That's the next step."

Other election integrity activists from out of state had sharper criticisms of Georgia's hand count audit—such as asking why it couldn't produce easily understood precinct-based vote results, and why hand count totals were being input into a computer at every county and sent to the secretary of state to compile, which seemed at cross-purposes to counting every paper ballot by hand.

But answering those questions would wait until after 2020's elections were finished. In the meantime, Favorito had another worry. A colleague, Scott Hall, had stayed up until 2 a.m. on November 15 to crunch Fulton County's voter registration data. After Barron's press conference, he held forth with reporters for PBS NewsHour, the New York Times and right-wing outlets and insisted that his analysis showed that 52,000 Fulton County residents voted more than once for president.

"I've heard that gentleman who was one of the observers," Corbitt said. "We obviously don't believe that's true. I'm sure you knew that."

Several hours later, Hall reran the numbers and retracted his assertion, Favorito said. "We were collecting evidence, and he goes and blurts it out before we confirmed it."

Georgia's deadline to certify 2020's election results is Friday, November 20. After certification, losing candidates in very close races can request a recount. That's a different procedure, legally, from the audit. If there is a recount, each county's paper ballots would be counted by high-speed electronic scanners.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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