Hancock County cut ties with a lawmaker over Georgia's new voting bill. Residents in the majority-Black area said Barry Fleming's work as county attorney was incompatible with the bills he supported.



Republicans in Georgia this week enacted sweeping changes to the state's election law. The overhaul sets new limitations on mail-in ballots and further inflames the state's debate over voting rights. One of the architects of the measure has also faced opposition locally. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler brings us this report from rural Hancock County, which cut ties with that lawmaker.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: About 100 miles east of Atlanta, Hancock County is one of the poorest in the country. About three-quarters of its residents are Black. About three-quarters vote Democratic. And until a few weeks ago, its county attorney was a white Republican lawmaker.

Representative Barry Fleming from nearby Harlem chairs a state House committee on voting bills. His day job is an attorney, where he specializes in representing local governments like Hancock County. Johnny Thornton, a retired DEA agent who owns a sprawling catfish farm just outside the county seat of Sparta, said there was a growing conflict between Fleming's work as a lawmaker and for Hancock County.

JOHNNY THORNTON: And he goes and introduced legislation to make it harder, more difficult for the very people to vote that are paying him as their county attorney.

FOWLER: So earlier this month, Hancock County commissioners voted 4-0 to show him the door. Fleming declined to comment for this story but has said his legislation was aimed at restoring confidence in Georgia's election system. One bill he introduced, HB 531, would have curbed Sunday early voting, restricted mail-in voting, even made handing out food and water to voters a misdemeanor crime.

Sitting between the courthouse and a Confederate monument in downtown Sparta, Marion Warren said that bill got people talking.

MARION WARREN: We realized that Mayor Fleming was indeed the representative that was passing all the - trying to shuffle 531. And I said, well, hell, I've been fighting him since 2015.

FOWLER: Fleming was county attorney that year when about 20% of Sparta's voters, all Black, had their voter registrations challenged. Only a small handful were purged, thanks in part to a federal lawsuit filed by Black voters. Warren is also a former voter registrar from majority-Black Sparta until, he says, a 2018 law authored by Barry Fleming got rid of that position, too. While Republicans have proposed hundreds of restrictive bills across the country, Marion Warren says the measures here are personal.

WARREN: See, I've been here long enough to see that we have experienced 1963, 4, 5 out here. And now I'm here again, 50 years later, going to do the same thing again. You got to stop (laughter). It got to end.

FOWLER: Johnny Thornton said ousting a state lawmaker as their county attorney might not accomplish much long-term. But he hopes it sends a message that voters are paying attention to efforts to block the ballot.

THORNTON: We might be disadvantaged and underserved. But we are not complete fools in Hancock County, Ga. So we felt like to make a mark in history, we wanted to be the front end of this donkey and not the rear end.

FOWLER: In the short term at least, it appears that some Republicans are paying attention. The bill signed into law Thursday reversed course on some of the harshest measures. It keeps no-excuse absentee voting and actually expands in-person early voting access. Democrats and voting rights groups have vowed to fight the changes this year and during the 2022 election cycle. At least one lawsuit is already filed in federal court. For NPR News, I'm Stephen Fowler in Sparta, Ga.

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