Battleground: Ballot Box | Checking in with Georgia's 'election superheroes'
Last month, hundreds of Georgia’s elections officials gathered in Athens for training, camaraderie and preparations for the busy year ahead.
Since the last time we checked in with the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Elections Officials last fall, many things have changed.
Several election officials have stepped down, citing stress and a toxic 2020 election.
Because of that, there’s an influx of new people joining the ranks of poll workers, board members and staff. Along with new people there are new voting rules and procedures that must be followed with precision.
“And I’ll tell you that one of the things that I love about elections is that you feel like you’re starting a new job all the time," Athens-Clarke County supervisor Charlotte Sosebee said. "It’s never boring, right?”
This week, we take a temperature check on the people who make our elections run.
The Classic Center in Athens is a bustling convention hall just off the campus of the University of Georgia. It’s late March, just a couple months before the May 24 primary and more than 500 of the state’s elections officials including supervisors, staff, and board members are wrapping up three days of training before the frenzy of primary preparations begin in earnest.
Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who is running for reelection, just finished addressing the group, praising their “tremendous” work in 2020 in the face of a pandemic, harassment and growing mistrust of the voting process.
“This is one of the things that I know is probably a challenge for you, because you are as honest as the day is long," Raffensperger said. "But right now, there's not a lot of trust. And you say, 'Why isn't there? I know these people, I know them at church, I know them from my kids when they played baseball or basketball.' And there just doesn't seem to be a lot of trust. But what I would tell you and what I'd encourage you is please make sure you explain, explain and explain so that they understand exactly what's going on.”
The theme of this year’s conference is “Elections superheroes: protecting our democracy,” and those in attendance just might need a dose of super powers in 2022. At last year’s gathering on Jekyll Island, many local elections officials were still reeling from the bruising 2020 election.
But this year, this time, things felt different. Some of it came from a fresh sea of new faces that have, against all odds (or better judgment, one could say) joined the professional side of elections.
Dorothy Glisson of Screven County, head of the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Elections Officials group, conducted a little exercise to show the Raffensperger who’s in attendance.
“For Brad’s information, I would like to ask you all to do this for me, the first time attendees, please stand," she said.
When people rise to their feet, it’s obvious grizzled veterans of election administration are few and far between.
In fact, Glisson says there were probably as many first-time conference attendees and newer folks than all the others put together.
Technically, it’s Deidrea Collins’s second conference — since she went to training last fall on Jekyll Island very soon after being sworn in to the Henry County elections board in Atlanta’s southern suburbs.
Then, and now, she was surprised at the sheer volume of things elections workers do that the average voter never sees.
“I was inundated with so much information and how much detail that is involved in the elections process," she said. "To the public, you go in, you want to cast your vote. You want to be able to do that as simple as possible to exercise your right. And I know the majority of the public, like myself, was totally unaware of all the processes that were involved in carrying out the election, how much work is involved. But it did not surprise me, the integrity of the people who work in this department.”
Henry County has an experienced elections supervisor, plenty of staff and polling places and few of the issues that have plagued other parts of the state.
But even so it’s still a lot to manage, between local redistricting, a transition to a new voter registration system, candidate qualifying and other never-ending tasks.
“I was quickly made aware of how the workers who work in elections actually felt, and all the pressures that they felt from being a part of it," she said. "But it did not intimidate me. It did not scare me. And it didn't really deter me or make me think twice about being a part of this process.”
These everyday elections superheroes like Collins don’t do their jobs for the money — board members don’t get paid and supervisors don’t get paid that much — for fame, or to manipulate the elections outcomes.
They’re everyday people, like retired teacher Mary Kay Clyburn, a new election board member in Morgan County.
Clyburn has been more involved than your average person: serving as a poll worker and manager and volunteering with the League of Women Voters. But after local legislation remade the elections board and opened up several vacancies last year, something prompted her to take that next step.
It also didn’t hurt that she saw the impacts that false claims of voter fraud had firsthand.
“I knew people in my family talking about what they thought was possible election fraud, and I said ‘You’re saying I do that," she said. "'I’m a poll worker, do you think I would do that?’"
Elections boards are a big deal in Georgia. They’re in the legal driver’s seat when it comes to elections: given power to certify results, hear voter challenges and — like Clyburn saw firsthand earlier this year — choose polling locations.
She was the lone "no" vote against a plan to shutter two small, little-used voting locations in her rural county, and said that experience — plus the three-day training sessions she just finished — were eye-opening about what goes into a never-ending list of things to do to make elections run.
“Even though I was knowledgeable about the process, there are so many things I didn’t know," she said.
While many Republicans locally and nationally continue to question Joe Biden’s victory and the thrice-counted results in Georgia, these local officials are quietly toiling in the background to make elections run smoothly. And they are now taking a more active role in trying to regain the trust of voters who’ve been influenced by disinformation often spread by politicians.
Clyburn says being a member of her local elections board is also about serving her community.
“And having people that are interested, that can be unbiased, that are going to do the very best they can — they can support their election director, they can support their election workers [and] that can help the public feel more comfortable again, I guess, or have more confidence in us — that's part of it," she said.
Throughout the week, Georgia’s elections officials received refreshers on new absentee ballot rules, how to finish out local redistricting to ensure voters are assigned to the right districts, and encouraging reminders to double and triple-check processes to show their work, as state Election Director Blake Evans told them.
“You guys ran a dadgum good election in 2020 and you're going to keep doing it," he said. "But we've got to make sure that we have the evidence to show we did it. I have confidence that you're going to do it, but we got to make sure that we have the evidence and that we're ready to present the evidence as to why we do it, because we will be asked and we will be challenged by members of the public.”
The tone of the conference was clearly more optimistic than the last gathering in the fall, and the influx of new workers brought an infectious spirit that, after making it through 2020, anything is possible. While longtime veterans serve as a wealth of institutional knowledge, younger people like Tyrell Golden are stepping up and stepping in to lead the future generations of voting professionals.
“There is just a big turnover in leadership in elections, just like I’m sure there are in other industries," Golden said. "And so it’s just the time now for my generation and even the ones after me and older than me to step up into these positions because without voting and elections, I don’t see how democracy will carry on.”
He’s 28, the registrr manager in Clayton County and is optimistically preparing for the midterms.
“You know, that's part of the elections, " Golden said. "You're kind of never really ready because something is always changing ... you always stay on ready, to be honest."
2020 was a struggle for elections officials, but Golden sees a silver lining that his colleagues can take away.
“I think it has brought a lot of attention to one of the processes that are very important and essential to our democracy," he said about Georgia's central role in fights over voting and politics. "If anything, the silver lining would be improvement on processes, improvement on recruiting, competent qualified individuals in the election office and just to overall improve the processes.”
Golden also said it’s a reminder to bring extra patience if things aren’t flawless or there’s bumps along the way.
“The people that are there from 6 a.m. to midnight every day for two or three months straight are the same people you see every day at church and the same people you see at the grocery store, so I just think it’s important to extend grace because at the end of the day, everyone is just there to complete their job, to do so accurately and within constitutional statutes," he said.
A recent Brennan Center survey finds there’s a need for more people like Tyrell Golden, Mary Kay Clyburn and Deidre Collins to join the ranks sooner than later. 20% of local elections officials polled say they are unlikely to continue serving through the 2024 election cycle.
For those who are left, and are new to the fold, Glisson the longtime election worker offered this fitting prayer to see them through:
“Lord, when we are confused, guide us. When we become weary, energize us. When we feel burned out, infuse us with the light of the Holy Spirit. May the work that we do and the way that we do it bring faith, joy and a smile to all that we come in contact with each and every day.”
Battleground: Ballot Box from Georgia Public Broadcasting is produced by Stephen Fowler. Our editor is Josephine Bennett, our engineers are Jake Cook and Jesse Nighswonger, who also wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.