Georgia Today: What One Reporter Saw As Clayton County Flipped Georgia For Biden
More than a week after the presidential election, Georgia is headed for an election audit including a hand recount prompted in part by allegations of election fraud — despite no evidence. How did we get here? On Georgia Today, Clayton Crescent founder Robin Kemp shares what she saw in the days after the election as the votes that put Joe Biden over the top in Georgia were counted.
RELATED: The Clayton Crescent
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Nov. 13th, 2020.
Newscast: Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announcing a recount of all five million ballots by hand to verify the results of the presidential race, where President-elect Joe Biden is ahead by 14,000 votes.
Steve Fennessy: More than a week after the presidential election, Georgia is headed for a recount. Not just any recount, but a hand recount prompted in part by allegations of electoral fraud — allegations that have been accompanied by zero evidence. How did we get here?
This week, Robin Kemp, the founder of the online news outlet Clayton Crescent, on what she saw in the days after the election as the votes that put Joe Biden over the top in Georgia were counted. So, Robin Kemp, what is the Clayton Crescent?
Robin Kemp: Well, the Clayton Crescent is kind of an emergency broadcast system for Clayton County, at this point. I was laid off of the Clayton News because of COVID-19 back in April. And the paper was already, you know, like many small county papers and municipal papers around the country, very understaffed. And I was doing a whole lot of reporting. I used to joke that I was doing 12 people's jobs because my title was Crime and Safety Reporter, but I was also covering, you know, seven police jurisdictions, plus a county jurisdiction, plus a sheriff's office, plus trying to cover as many government meetings as possible in Clayton. And it's impossible to cover them all.
So when they cut me loose, that meant there wasn't going to be that coverage anymore. And so I immediately got up one in the next room and started just doing what I always do, which is covering it. And I just was doing it from a different place, so.
Steve Fennessy: OK, so it's — you start your site almost immediately after being laid off by the Clayton News Daily in April, the general election is Nov. 3rd, which in our sort of expanded time space continuum feels like several years ago at this point. What is your plan from a reporting standpoint at that point?
Robin Kemp: Gee gosh, I guess I'd better go on down to where they're counting the ballots and see who wins the sheriff's race, the presidential contest, these Senate races. That's basically where my head was at.
Steve Fennessy: And over in Clayton County, things are really heating up on Thursday, Nov. 5th, two days after the election.
Robin Kemp: Good morning, Clayton County and environs, this is Robin Kemp with the Clayton Crescent. I'm just about to pull up here on where they're doing the counting of the ballots.
Steve Fennessy: And so where do you go? Where is this happening?
Robin Kemp: Well, there is a place — the nickname for it is The Bunker. It's the former 911 center that is next to the Clayton County Police Department headquarters in Jonesboro. And it's very low to the ground. It really is like a bunker. It's kind of behind a big earth berm.
And you walk in, there's a little tiny hallway that's probably — when you close the door to the rest of the hallway — about as big as a big bathroom. To your left is a small classroom, like they probably did police training or something in there, is my guess. And to the right is an office behind some kind of a glass window. And that main office space, you can see them counting and scanning in ballots, paper ballots.
In the other classroom, they call that “the Duplication Room.” because apparently when you cut open the ballot envelope with a paper ballot, it can sometimes cut the actual ballot. So they take ballots and they — by three people checking each other as they do it — they re-mark a blank ballot so that that can then be scanned in.
Steve Fennessy: OK, interesting. So is there a machine that — that opens these absentee ballot envelopes?
Robin Kemp: Yeah, there's it's like, you know, it's like office machinery. It's a high-speed envelope opener. It probably has like a little razor blade tip and it just zips them through really quickly like a postmarking machine. It goes zip, zip, zip, zip, zip it and spits them out.
Steve Fennessy: And occasionally that opener will slice into the ballot itself. And that requires workers to what, examine that ballot and then create a duplicate based upon that voter's choices?
Robin Kemp: That is my understanding. I did not personally see any, but I also wasn't in a position to see all of those. And that is one of the complaints that some of the Republican observers had. They felt that they were not close enough to what was happening in that room to see specifically signature validation. But I'm not sure that signature validation is something that was happening in that room.
Steve Fennessy: And how many people were there who were, like you, observing?
Robin Kemp: I was the only reporter there until something like 3:00 in the morning. There was one person who identified herself as a Democratic observer later in the evening and everyone else was Republican. There were more than a dozen folks from the GOP there over the course of the day. It began with the one gentleman who had an ID badge on from the county, which meant that he was an official poll watcher. Everyone else is what they call an observer. And observers don't need a badge. It's basically — the public can come in and watch. It's their right.
Early in the day, a couple of other people came in and joined him. One young gentleman thought he saw something untoward. And the guy with the badge said, “Well, if you think you see something, maybe you better call somebody.” So he went out and called somebody, and who came but a fellow by the name of Manuel Iglesias.
Iglesias is a lawyer. It turns out that he is extremely, extremely powerful and very high placed in the Republican Party. He was on the Reagan and the George Bush presidential transition teams. I believe he worked in George W. Bush's gubernatorial campaign, and lives in Miami. And that's who they sent out to Clayton County to see if there was any issue with the count going on.
Steve Fennessy: And was there?
Robin Kemp: Well, this is just it. He was making these allegations that “Oh, we witnessed improprieties.” And I and another reporter from a Norwegian outlet that was there — it was really her interview that I walked up on — we were questioning him and saying, “Well, how do you know this? What — what proof do you have? What evidence? Can you tell us what you saw?” And he wouldn't say and he couldn't say. Then later I pressed him and I said, “Are you planning to file suit in Clayton County to back up these allegations?” And he wouldn't say that, either.
Robin Kemp: And what did you see? What did you observe in here today that looked improper?
Manuel Iglesias: I can't address that in public right now.
Robin Kemp: So you didn't see anything or you saw something?
Manuel Iglesias: We saw things that are improper. And we’re gonna give that information to a legal team.
Robin Kemp: And I've been checking the court filings ever since, and I found nothing; they found nothing.
Steve Fennessy: So — so he arrived on scene based upon a phone call that he received from one of the observers who had dropped by. So it was that observer who saw something, but we don't know what he saw — or she.
Robin Kemp: Right. Well, I heard different things. Overall, the perception that I got was that either people were mistaken or jumping to conclusions. For example, one young man said something about, oh, “I think I saw some co-mingling of ballots.” He saw a woman bend down and reach into an open ballot box where they were pulling ballots out of and handing them to someone at another table to count. And he said he thought he saw her add a handful in or take a handful out, I forget which. But to me, it was just — they were counting ballots. It wasn't sleight of hand or anything like that.
As the morning progressed, all of a sudden, more and more of these young GOP, young Republican types are coming in, and doing things like pacing around and really kind of making a big show of the fact that they were watching. It wasn't that they were just merely observing. It was completely a different thing.
Steve Fennessy: And what are you looking for? I mean, you're there from, 9, 10 in the morning till whenever. What is it you're — why are you there?
Robin Kemp: I'm not looking for anything. I'm just looking. So I'm just watching and literally observing what is going on. I'm not looking for something to be happening. I'm watching. And whatever I see is what I see. And that's what you know, it's a long, drawn-out, dull but necessary process.
Steve Fennessy: So you're being a witness.
Robin Kemp: I’m being a witness. That's my job. I didn't see anything untoward, I have to be honest with you. I truly did not. It's possible I missed something. Of course it's always possible, but I saw nothing personally to give any indication that anything strange was going on. But at one point, there was this fella who hollers, he says, “Team A get in here! Team B, go over there!” Like he's directing the Valkyries are coming in.
And, you know, at one point there were eight people — I kid you not — you know, eight people crammed in this one space. They were fussing at a guy to quit leaning over a table where two police officers were sitting and saying he had to get back behind the line, he couldn't lean over the line. Earlier in the day, there was a young lady who told this group, “Watch this, I'm about to get thrown out of here.” And then she proceeded to start pretty ostentatiously making cellphone video through one of the two doors to the Duplication Room. One of the employees kind of plucked her by the sleeve and said, “Oh, no, ma'am, you cannot do that in here.” And a police officer very quickly moved her back. Well, she turned and ran to the other door and continued to film. And then they threw her out of the building. She was still there. She stayed and she came back in around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. It was very strange.
Steve Fennessy: Well, let's step back a second and talk about Clayton County. Talk a little bit about where Clayton County falls on political lines.
Robin Kemp: It's highly, highly blue. It's — I need to look up the exact stat, but it's over 70% Democratic. It's also over 70% African American. We're not talking about a narrow margin. So I'm not really sure why the Republicans were so obsessed with making this big stand in Clayton County. And I've asked a political scientist about it, and his opinion was that they were doing it because they wanted to make a statement.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah.
Robin Kemp: Not because they thought it would accomplish anything. Because, to me, why would you waste all those kinds of high-powered resources and people and time and energy on something that, you know, is not going to be effective for your victory?
Newscast: Good evening, everyone. Day 3 in America's election drama. A drawn-out count across five battleground states tonight, still leaving the door to victory open for both Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Although the passage is considerably more narrow right now for the president, all day we've been watching incredibly tiny margins between the two men, especially in Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada.
Steve Fennessy: So what was interesting as that day progressed is that I started noticing more and more retweets of Robin Kemp tweets or more likes. And your job as witness became not just a witness for your readers in Clayton County, but as a witness for everyone interested in the outcome of this election. When did that start to become apparent to you?
Robin Kemp: Not until after I think around eight o'clock, maybe on Nov. 5th. I got a phone call from a radio host for a show or an outfit called Leading Britain's Conversation, LBC. And he called and said, well, you know, I'm calling from London and can you go on in a couple of minutes? And I told him, “Uh, OK.”
LBC Host: Because we think the results are coming in from more votes that have been counted that would put Joe Biden over the top of Donald Trump, irreversibly, in the swing state of Georgia. And given that the eyes of the world are on it, LBC is in it. Robin Kemp is the founder of the Clayton Crescent and joins me live on the program this morning, thank you very much.
Robin Kemp: And no, I mean, that was — that was the first I heard of it. So then I went back in and looked at Twitter, which I have been feeding but not consuming, and saw that people were following me. And then all of a sudden I had all these followers around 2:45 in the morning. The audience was growing. Here’s what I live streamed.
Robin Kemp [LIVESTREAM]: Hi, it's me, Robin Kemp from Clayton Crescent. It's something like 2:40 in the morning on Friday and many things have happened since you saw me last, but not the least of which is I kind of became Internet famous, which is really weird, but anyway...
Robin Kemp: Then it got really crazy because some guy I do not know found an old, dead GoFundMe page where I had said, hey, I'm going to do this project. I'm asking personally and separately from the Clayton Crescent, if you guys would kick in and help me with the expenses I'd put out of my own pocket. I don't think it ever got more than $1,400. Well, this nice guy from wherever found the old GoFundMe page, put it on Twitter, and started encouraging people to put money in it. I didn't know that. So like it's 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning and I opened it and had over $8,000 and it almost had a heart attack. So yeah, they're still giving money. It's like over $30,000. I checked it today. It's insane.
Steve Fennessy: There's an anonymous donor who gave you $10,000.
Robin Kemp: Oh, Jesus. I saw that last night. I don't even know who that it is. I — whoever you are, thank you very much. You know, I hope that this will establish a permanent nonprofit news site that will far outlast me when I'm gone.
Steve Fennessy: Just ahead: As the votes are counted and Joe Biden takes the lead over Donald Trump, some Republicans attack the integrity of the election based on no evidence. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm talking with Robin Kemp, a journalist with the Clayton Crescent. She followed election night results closely in Clayton County. Robin, in the early hours of Friday morning, you live streamed to Facebook that Biden had taken the lead over Trump in Clayton County.
Robin Kemp [LIVESTREAM]: Good morning, Clayton County. This is Robin Kemp with the ClaytonCrescent.org. And the time is now something like 4:40 in the morning. And Biden just took the lead over Trump. So there's still yes, they are still counting, no, they're not done.
Steve Fennessy: So in Clayton County, how many votes were cast total and, of that total, what's the percentage roughly that were absentee?
Robin Kemp: OK, absentee-by-mail, which are the paper ones, Clayton County counted 31,979. There were a total of 112,985 ballots cast in this election in Clayton County. But the turnout was only 58.44%.
Steve Fennessy: OK, so it was a bit less than the national turnout average.
Robin Kemp: Yeah.
Steve Fennessy: So, they have the ballots and then they count them and the Board of Elections signs off on those counts. What's done with the ballots then? Are they — they put under lock and key somewhere?
Robin Kemp: You know, that's — I don't know about the chain of custody, and I'm ashamed to say that. I should. And that is also another issue that some of the Republican observers were concerned about. I feel bad that I can't answer all of your perfectly reasonable questions.
Steve Fennessy: That's OK.
Robin Kemp: No, no, let me explain, though, because everybody should know the answers to these questions. It should be easy for people in the media to be able to explain this process, which is very detailed and has changed in the past year or two.
This election really shows the importance of paying attention to what your government is doing and paying attention to what people who don't live in your county, who come in from outside, are up to, especially regarding your vote. My understanding is that this large group of observers was sent up from basically Savannah after they kind of called for reinforcement. That's fine, yes — citizens in Georgia have a right to watch these ballot counts, but I'm not sure what the value is of sending in a dozen people from a whole other county to come look in a separate county to the point where, you know, it's almost disruptive.
Steve Fennessy: So there's been talk of so-called illegal votes, some of that talk coming from Georgia Republican Doug Collins.
Doug Collins: You know, there's an interesting saying and I want you to understand it clearly. Every illegal vote cast suppresses a legal vote. You got to understand, you know….
Steve Fennessy: Since Joe Biden has taken a lead over Donald Trump in Georgia, we have been led to believe that there may be some fraud going on in the state when it comes to tabulating the votes. But there is zero evidence, Robin, for any allegations of fraud, correct?
Robin Kemp: To the best of my knowledge, that is correct, I personally did not see anything that looked irregular during the count. I repeatedly asked people who were present from the GOP observing. None of them would substantiate anything. None of them would give specifics.
Now, it is possible — statistically speaking — when you have, for example, in Clayton County, 503 provisional ballots, maybe one, maybe two may not be, quote-unquote “illegal” votes, but they may have been cast by somebody who actually was not registered. Or they may have been cast by someone who ordered an absentee ballot and then went and voted at their precinct but never invalidated or wrote spoiled on their ballot and turned it in. That vote would be thrown out. But you're talking about one, maybe two out of 112,985 in Clayton. I think that none of this would rise to a level where any result would be flipped.
What's also interesting is that the voting machines, the voting processes, especially this going back and checking — these were all put through by Republicans in the Gold Dome, Republicans in the administration, and Republicans and Secretary of State's office over two administrations, including Gov. Kemp when he was Secretary of State. So I'm not really understanding why all of a sudden they feel that the process is invalid.
Steve Fennessy: What do you make of millions of people who still believe that the outcome of this election is in doubt and more than a few of those are elected officials? What does that tell us?
Robin Kemp: Well, you know, elected officials aren't keepers of any particular special knowledge. I think it tells us a lot about the sorry state of civic education in this country, that you cannot substitute partisanship or ideology for basic civic functional education, how things work, the nuts and bolts.
And this is the problem with democracy. One of its great things and one of its biggest failings is that you really have to be educated to participate fully. And because people really just don't know how their basic government functions, they don't know their basic rights, they don't know — they don't understand the importance of voting. We get all this other ancillary noise. And unfortunately, there are people who understand the system extremely well, who turn that to their advantage and use that noise and marshal those troops for their own political purposes. And that's what's dangerous. And that's what people really need to be aware of.
Steve Fennessy: Our thanks to Robin Kemp, a journalist with the Clayton Crescent, an online-only news outlet that covers Clayton County and parts of neighboring counties. President-elect Joe Biden maintains a narrow lead over Donald Trump in the presidential race here in Georgia. This week, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger unveiled plans to perform a hand recount of nearly five million ballots cast in the state.
Brad Raffensperger: This will help build confidence. It will be an audit, a recount, and a recanvas all at once. It will be a heavy lift, but we will work with the counties to get this done in time for our state certification.
Steve Fennessy: State law requires a risk-limiting audit, which uses statistics to determine the minimum number of ballots that need to be reexamined to have confidence in the results. This presidential race, that number is about all of them.
Brad Raffensperger: We've had great cooperation and dedication from the county election officials. That's why we have so many here. We have professionals out there. At the end of the day, I know that — I haven't asked them — but I know that there's some folks back here that maybe vote this way and other folks vote that way and some go this way, that way, on different elections. At the end of the day, though, they're following a process and that what they want is they never want you to be able to question their integrity. Integrity still matters.
Steve Fennessy: Raffensperger also defended his staff in the wake of calls for his resignation amid unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. Those calls came from the Republican Party of Georgia, the state's Republican U.S. House delegation, and Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Meanwhile, counties across the state have until next Friday to finish the recount. For more on how that process is going, visit our Elections Blog at GPB.org/Elections. You can also subscribe to the GPB voting podcast called Battleground: Ballot Box. It's available wherever you get podcasts.
I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcast. Have a story idea? Connect with us at GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. Our producers are Sean Powers and Pria Mahadevan. Our intern is Eva Rothenberg. We'll see you next week.
Transcript by Eva Rothenberg