In the wake of Trump’s lies, a brain drain of local election experience in Georgia
Desperate to hold on to power, Donald Trump gripped the lectern bearing the presidential seal and prepared to deliver another election lie.
He had helicoptered to Dalton, Ga., to hold a rally for Republican candidates on the eve of the state’s Jan. 5, 2021, Senate runoff election.
But instead of talking about the candidates Trump spent much of his nearly 90-minute speech spreading lies about fraud in the presidential election he had lost two months earlier.
“Anybody live in Bibb County?” he asked the crowd. “Bibb. Bibb. Bibb. B-I-B-B.”
He asserted that more than 12,000 votes had been switched there from him to Joe Biden on Election Night. “It was like a miracle!” Trump bellowed, stretching his arms sarcastically after the rallygoers booed.
It also was completely untrue.
Trump devoted less than a minute of his screed to that particular allegation, but it was enough to unleash a cascade of problems roughly three hours to the south in Macon-Bibb County.
Threats and intimidation. The elections supervisor’s resignation. A controversial search for a permanent replacement that ended up in court.
The job remains unfilled just days before the November midterms, putting an interim elections supervisor in charge at a time when there’s more pressure on the system and the people who run it than ever before.
The tumultuous 2020 presidential election and its misinformation-filled aftermath overwhelmed many local elections supervisors.
They’ve quit in droves around the country, chased away by harassment, burnout, stress, a blizzard of time-consuming public records requests from election deniers, and, in multiple states, new election rules that made the already difficult and often thankless job too much to handle.
The turnover has been dramatic in the tightly contested states that decided the presidential election two years ago: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
An analysis of those states found that about 30 percent of top local election officials have left their jobs since 2020.
That was a significant increase compared to the 18 percent turnover in the two years after the 2016 presidential election. In Georgia, at least 57 of the state’s 159 county elections supervisors — about 36 percent — have left since 2020. That’s up from the roughly 21 percent who left the jobs after the 2016 presidential election.
It’s not surprising. Georgia arguably has been the eye of the political storm in the aftermath of the 2020 election. The state has been rocked by controversy after controversy, and may, once againthis year, prove to be pivotal in deciding which party will control the US Senate.
Nowhere, in other words, is there a greater need for an experienced, nonpartisan corps of local elections officials. And in Georgia, that corps has been severely depleted as early voting has already begun ahead of another crucial Election Day on Nov. 8.
President Biden won the state by just 11,779 votes, an upset that drew the wrath of Trump and his supporters. A barrage of unproven fraud allegationsfollowed andspurred death threats against elections officials, an ongoing criminal investigation into potential election interference in Georgia by Trump’s allies, and a new more restrictive state election law that has triggered protests and boycotts.
After helping swing the 2020 presidential election to Biden, the state held a Senate runoff election in early 2021 that delivered narrow control of the chamber to the Democrats. Georgia will be in the spotlight again on Nov. 8, when its closely contested Senate race once more could be a majority-maker — and possibly force election workers here to go into overtime again with a Dec. 6 runoff if neither candidate tops 50 percent as required by state law.
“It’s like the world’s watching Georgia,” said Deidre Holden, theelections supervisor in Paulding County and the former co-president of the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Election Officials. “Some people can’t take that pressure. They don’t want to be put under a microscope. They don’t want their every little move to be questioned.”
Macon-Bibb County’s longtime elections supervisor, Jeanetta Watson, joined the exodus this past January. She stepped down after nearly a decade in the position, citing the “overwhelmingly stressful” demands of a job that since 2020 has involved “rapidly changing election laws, policies, and procedures” that have “taken a toll on my mental health.”
“Election officials throughout the state share these same sentiments and have also decided to resign, retire, and or pursue other careers,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
Finding permanent replacements for these critical workers in this environment has not been easy.
“People read what’s happening,” said Mike Kaplan, the chair of the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections. “We don’t have a lot of people dying to become an elections supervisor, and it’s not just here. It’s everywhere.”
Macon-Bibb County’s elections are run out of a former Shoe Carnival outlet in Macon, across the street from a pawn shop and a Krispy Kreme store. Since she departed, Watson’s former office there has morphed into a temporary storage room.
One day last month, multicolored binders wereclustered on a corner of the L shaped, dark wood desk. A quartet of white bankers boxes were on a folding table set up in the middle of the room. And standing sentinel inside the door was a silver metal absentee ballot drop box that the county no longer can deploy because of the new state law restricting its use.
The county’s interim elections supervisor, Thomas Gillon, walks past the vacant office when he arrives each morning a little after 8 a.m. He prefers the smaller, windowless space just down the hallway where he has worked since 2013 as the county’s election officer, a catchall position that includes responsibility for poll workers, candidate campaign filings, and even jumping in to run a polling place on Election Day if needed.
This year, he’s had to jump in to run the entire elections operation in this county of about 157,000 residents roughly 90 miles south of Atlanta — all while still performing his old responsibilities.
“It’s certainly not a stress-free job,” said Gillon, 52, a lifelong Macon resident with a graying beard, ponytail, and a penchant for understatement. As he sat at his desk under the low hum of the HVAC system one September morning, Gillon explained that he received valuable experience this spring after running the county’s primary elections. Aside from one minor problem — a misspelled candidate’s name on the ballot — he said his first time running the whole processin this hyper-sensitive environment went well.
“Phew, you survived with no lawsuits, nobody coming up with pitchforks and flaming torches or anything like that,” Gillon said, describing his feelings once the primary was over. “If we did that one, we can do another one.”
Hundreds of local officials across the country are in the same position. They’re running elections for the first time this year after departures that have drained expertise and experience fromthe nation’s highly decentralized system of election managementjust as it faces intense new scrutiny because of the continued lies of Trump and his supporters.
“It’s the institutional knowledge that walks out the door that you can’t really replace for years,” said Richard Barron, who stepped down late last year as the elections supervisor in Fulton County, the most populous in the state. He and his staff faced death threats after Trump and his supporters focused much of their anger about his Georgia loss on the county, which is home to Atlanta.
“If experienced election officials across this country continue to quit or are run out of their jobs because of this ridiculous harassment, who’s going to take their place? The answer: It’s inexperienced people,” Lisa Marra, the elections director in Cochise County, Ariz., warned at a roundtable in August on election misinformation held by the US House Oversight and Reform Committee. “And that’s not going to help us move the needle to increase voter confidence in America.”
The inexperience takes different forms: people who’ve never worked in the field but were drawn even in this environment to perform a crucial role for democracy; those with experience but from a job in another state with different election laws and procedures; and local election workers who’ve been elevated to the top position for the first time either permanently or temporarily because of a struggle to fill vacancies. Fulton County, for example, has not been able to find a permanent elections supervisor for nearly a year.