The effort to install local election officials who promote Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen has seen particular success in the crucial swing state of Georgia, where at least eight county election officials are promoters of the falsehood, a Guardian investigation has found.
The officials span the state, from suburban counties outside Atlanta to rural counties near the Tennessee and Alabama borders. All have substantial power over the administration of local, state and national elections in their counties, often with little oversight beyond scantly attended public meetings and small-town newspapers.
one election official who has posted in support of a discredited election conspiracist who believes the alleged presence of bamboo in paper ballots is proof they came from Asia, and thus show interference from China;
two officials who tried, on the basis of bogus fraud allegations, to decertify the results of the January 2021 runoff that resulted in the election of the state’s first Black senator;
one official who insisted that Georgia’s election laws needed to change if Republicans were going to “have a shot” at winning future elections.
All continue to serve in their appointed positions as county election board officials in Floyd, Forsyth, Gwinnett, Hall, Jackson, Lumpkin and Spalding counties. None responded to requests for comment from the Guardian.
The investigation looked at seven counties out of 159, meaning the number of election officials who support election conspiracy theories could be much higher.
“These disturbing facts bring to light what we’ve known for a while: support for the big lie is growing – the result of powerful political actors stoking a dangerous fire,” the voting rights group New Georgia Project said in a statement.
“There is absolutely no place on our boards of elections, or in any of our elected offices, for leaders who refuse to accept the results of fair and certified elections.”
Election boards have access to voter rolls, and make rules about polling places, ballots and voter registration. They also make determinations on ballots in which the voters’ intention is unclear.
The boards seat between four and five members, usually split evenly between the two main parties with a tie-breaking, “non-partisan” member often chosen by the county commission or a local judge.
With 159 counties, Georgia therefore has hundreds of county election board officials, creating and changing election policy on a weekly basis with little other than local activists and press to track them.
Among them is Dottie Krull, a 79-year-old Republican on the Lumpkin county election board, located a little over an hour north of Atlanta. Shortly after the 2020 election, Krull began posting about the big lie on her personal Facebook page.
“I guess we all know why Biden stayed in his basement and didn’t campaign,” Krull quoted a friend as saying. “He knew he didn’t need to.”
In Forsyth county, elections board member Joel Natt was present on a conference call with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and other election officials when he blamed unspecified election “irregularities” as a reason why Georgians of both parties were becoming “less and less trusting” of Raffensperger’s office.
In Floyd county, Pam Peters was described by an election conspiracy theorist who spoke to the Washington Post as an “investigative partner.” Days before election day, Peters volunteered for Trump in Rome, Georgia.
In Hall county, elections board member Tom Smiley said he took issue with claims that the 2020 election saw no fraud, saying he would amend it to “NO FRAUD DISCOVERED”.
Perhaps no elections board official has been the subject of as much controversy as Alice O’Lenick, chair of the Gwinnett county board of registration.
O’Lenick has been a vocal supporter of restrictions to poll access and voting rights, her critics say. In 2016, O’Lenick opposed the use of Spanish-language ballots. (The county was eventually forced to include them by the US Census Bureau under the Voting Rights Act.)
She has also supported the abolition of so-called “no excuse” absentee voting, in which only the elderly or infirm would be allowed to fill out an absentee ballot; opposed the use of drop boxes, alleging spurious claims of ballot harvesting; served on a task force that recommended sweeping changes to voting rights so Republicans could “at least have a shot” at winning elections; and alleged without providing direct evidence that Gwinnett county saw an uptick in attempted voting by undocumented immigrants.
In Spalding county, election board chair Ben Johnson continues to post prolifically about a wide variety of far-right conspiracy theories, including those involving alleged ballot harvesting and Dominion voting machines. In late April, Johnson shared a photo from a Canadian news outlet that had been altered to proclaim that conspiracy theorists “keep getting things right”.
In Jackson county, Republican election board officials Larry Ewing and Jeff Hughes, following a campaign by the national conservative group True the Vote, forced an investigation into 211 people who had voted after recently changing their address, in the unsubstantiated belief that up to 2,000 Jackson county residents who had recently changed their addresses could have voted illegally.
The pair also refused to certify the runoff election of Raphael Warnock, the state’s first Black senator, until the 211 names were passed on to the secretary of state for further investigation. The results were eventually certified with their dissent.
“I can’t stress enough how widespread the election fraud lies have taken hold in the area,” said Pete Fuller, chair of the Jackson county Democratic party. “It’s very disconcerting how effective the misinformation has been.”