ANGELO CARUSONE What happened was just a couple of fringe people just sort of doing what comes to them naturally. But because they're tapped into this infrastructure that has been designed to attack the election to undermine the results, it took off.
MICAH LOEWINGER The conspiracy machine has roared to life after the attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger. On this week's show. In Georgia, there are concerted efforts to purge the voter rolls.
EUGENE WILLIAMS Do these people even exist? They're just names. I mean, you can't find them.
MICAH LOEWINGER Plus, a conservative election's director finds herself in the crosshairs of the big lie.
ANNE DOVER These people want a revolution, but they want me to break the law to cause their revolution. If they want a revolution, they can break the law.
MICAH LOEWINGER It's all coming up after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York. This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
MICAH LOEWINGER And I'm Micah Loewinger. I'm helping out on this week's show, and later in the hour, you'll hear about my trip to Georgia where I went to investigate how the Big Lie is shaping next week's elections. But first:
NEWS CLIP We begin tonight with the brutal attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband Paul Pelosi
NEWS CLIP Investigators say David de Pape had zip ties and duct tape when he broke into Pelosi's home on Friday. He told police he wanted to hold the speaker hostage and, quote, break her kneecaps.
NEWS CLIP Our officers observed Mr. Pelosi and the suspect both holding a hammer. The suspect pulled the hammer away from Mr. Pelosi and violently assaulted him with it. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Within hours of the break in, the Internet was seething with false narratives and ludicrous lies, like the attacker and his victim were both in underwear. Or there were two hammers and there was broken glass outside the shattered window. And worst of all, it was a sexual rendezvous gone wrong. On Fox News, though, at least initially, the story was covered as just another example of the perceived left wing weakness on crime. In other words: business as usual.
FOX NEWS Crime does not discriminate. Rich or poor, black or white, city suburbs. It’s everywhere. It’s the number one issue in this country and I think what democrats need to do…. it’s a wake up call.
TUCKER CARLSON What happened to Paul Pelosi is not so unusual anymore. Attacks by the mentally ill homeless — they're a feature of life in our cities. In fact, of every part of this country controlled by the Democratic Party. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER But according to Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters, a liberal watchdog organization that monitors right wing media, the focus on crime didn't last long.
ANGELO CARUSONE Within 48 Hours, just two days – Fox changed from their large crime narrative to a conspiracy theory that you shouldn't believe that this was an actual attack that was motivated by politics.
MICAH LOEWINGER Carusone says that while there are daily outrages in the right wing media, the Pelosi attack story is one we should pay attention to. He told me how it all started.
ANGELO CARUSONE Shortly after the attack, there was a local TV affiliate in California that had reported that the assailant was wearing only their underwear. That report was quickly retracted, and it was not confirmed by either outlet, but it did exist in print for a really short period of time. That one nugget started to then percolate across parts of the online fever swamp. So that's message boards, Telegram, some other messaging apps – you know Truth Social, Parler. They start to cede the ground that something is off here.
MICAH LOEWINGER And Paul Pelosi was wearing pajamas. So that image of a man attacking him in his underwear and the man being attacked, you know, basically in his PJs, that kind of indicated what.
ANGELO CARUSONE They took the reports about Paul Pelosi's call to 911 where he described the attacker as a friend — because he remembers in the bathroom, he was trying to be very cryptic about it. And he was speaking in code to the 911 dispatcher in hopes that they would send law enforcement over. People picked up on that and pointed to the fact that that was another thread of evidence that they had known each other, that they had had a friendship because he described them as a friend. What they really made the argument about is that it was a Grindr hookup gone awry. That they had had previous interactions and a history. So all of those different threads start to then get seeded around the ground within the first few hours of this happening. And then you get publications like The Santa Monica Observer or people like Dinesh D'Souza who take these ideas that are percolating out there and turn them into stories. You know, you can't share a bunch of random posts from a message board thread. Fox News can't do anything with that. You can't echo various threats, but what you can echo is a story.
MICAH LOEWINGER Tell me how Fox News people like Tucker Carlson came to cover the event.
ANGELO CARUSONE What Tucker did was reflect back to his audience the stuff that had already reached pretty heavy scale within the larger right wing media. He didn't fact-check it. He didn't push back on it.
TUCKER CARLSON Local KTVU investigative reporter Evan Sernoffsky, for example, initially reported that De Pape was quote, found in underwear when police arrived. Today's Sernoffsky made a specific point of retracting that claim. Well, okay, fair enough. But you can't blame people watching all of this at home for thinking that maybe there's something weird going on here. [END CLIP]
He became a validator for the very idea that there was more here to the story, which in turn, encourages people or gives them permission structure to ignore the facts and to latch on to one of these alternative conspiracy theories. And why I think it matters is that Fox News accepted the election results in 2024 for ten days before they turned on a dime and did 774 segments over the following two weeks in late November attacking the election results, undermining them, concocting conspiracy theories about dominion and a whole range of other voting machines and results. And the reason why they made that turn is because they couldn't sustain not being in that position anymore. Their audience had been saturated with these lies and these ideas, and at some point, because they were getting so much pressure from their own audience to talk about what had become their reality, they started to engage in it. They started to echo back to their audience the very thing that they wanted. It took ten days the last time for them to do that. Tucker — he had less than 48 hours.
MICAH LOEWINGER And then there was Elon Musk, who questioned the facts of the story through his own Twitter account by retweeting an article from The Santa Monica Observer titled, quote, "The Awful Truth: Paul Pelosi Was Drunk Again and in a Dispute with a Male Prostitute Early Friday Morning.”
ANGELO CARUSONE He's citing that article because he himself is just a creature of this consumption pipeline. That was one of the most traffic articles in right wing circles in the 20 hours or so before he shared it. Even though he took that down, it doesn't matter because now the predominant narrative on Fox News is:
FOX NEWS There's no security. Where are the cameras?
FOX NEWS Where's the body cam video? Where's the security video?
FOX NEWS Police came to the door. Someone else opened the door. Who opened the door?
FOX NEWS The glass appears to be broken outward.
FOX NEWS What about the broken glass?
FOX NEWS What was that about?
FOX NEWS It doesn't add up. [END CLIP]
ANGELO CARUSONE All these basic things that they can keep perpetuating the idea that maybe there's much more to that story than people want to believe.
MICAH LOEWINGER What about Republican politicians? I mean, they know Nancy Pelosi. I mean, as members of Congress, they must understand the gravity of somebody breaking into the home of one of their colleagues. What have they said?
ANGELO CARUSONE They've either not said anything super contradictory to the conspiracy theories or they've engaged in them. And that to me — it's not one in the same, but they're certainly closer than just getting out there and saying this is absolutely horrible and reinforcing the truth, but they can't because it's politically sensitive. Just like with the election denial, the echo chamber, the broader right wing media is able to saturate the audience, either with total misinformation and fabrications or extremism, or hop them up on something that their own base gets consumed by it. And that puts them in a position to either be, you know, the next Liz Cheney, right. Or to, at best, just say nothing and hope that nobody pressures you into endorsing the lie or the conspiracy. And that is the best that we can hope for right now from a lot of them. And then you see some examples of the worst. Clay Higgins, who's a congressman, a member of the Homeland Security Committee, Republican member of Congress, one of the things that he did, for example, is he sent out this post where Nancy Pelosi puts her hands on her forehead and the comment that he had that he made, it wasn't even like he was just posting in. He actually thought this up himself, which was…
MICAH LOEWINGER Let me read it: "that moment you realize the nudist hippie male prostitute LSD guy was the reason your husband didn't make it to your fundraiser."
ANGELO CARUSONE Yeah, sure he took it down after he posted it because he got pressure and the blowback. But I would say that this is where they're at these days. Right. You know, they'll get just as much blowback if they were to go out there and say that this was actually just somebody that got radicalized. One of the things that Fox News in particular, but the larger right wing echo chamber does is they say the reason why the media wants to claim this person is a conservative or right-leaning or was radicalized is because the second we validate that, they're going to tell us that we can't say this stuff anymore. They're going to crack down on us, they're going to come after us. So in a way, what they do to buttress their lies and their extremism is to then set up the conditions whereby if any Republican leader were to step up and say what is plainly true, that what they're actually then accused of is somehow giving ammunition or fuel to Democrats to then turn around and silence them.
MICAH LOEWINGER Part of me is kind of numb to this. Part of me is deeply shocked. And in our editorial meeting, we were debating the question of whether or not this indicates something is getting worse — that no one is saying, ‘hey, let's pump the brakes on these conspiracy theories because there's a human toll to this stuff.’ Are things getting worse?
ANGELO CARUSONE I'm with you on the fatigue and the numbness to it. That is a natural thing. It's called, you know, calluses. If you do the same work over and over again, your hands or the part you use tends to get calloused. That's how we adapt. That's a part of living in this atmosphere right now where the stimulation and the intensity is so high. So I'm not surprised about the numbness and I feel it, too. What I would say, though, is that what happened with the Pelosi stuff was just a couple, you know, fringe people just sort of doing what comes to them naturally. But because that stuff tapped into that pretty well running ecosystem and infrastructure right now. It took off. And this wasn't on purpose. This was just an accident. What happens when this infrastructure that has been optimized and designed specifically to do nothing but attack the election to undermine the results is operationalized after the vote. That to me, is really what this is about. And so I am numb to the Paul Pelosi thing, too. I'm numb to a lot of the extremism. But I'm also mindful of the fact that what we're experiencing is just a little bit of an engine that is pretty much ready to roar.
MICAH LOEWINGER Angelo, thank you very much.
ANGELO CARUSONE Thank you.
MICAH LOEWINGER Angelo Carusone is the president and CEO of Media Matters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, with the midterms just days away, all eyes are on Georgia.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is On the Media.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Around the country, new laws are making it harder for people to vote.
FOX NEWS A 2018 Florida amendment restored the right to vote for many felons in Florida. But new video is raising questions showing people with felony convictions being arrested by Governor Ron DeSantis’s new office of Election Crimes and Security. Take a look:
ELECTION CRIMES & SECURITY Apparently, I guess you have a warrant.
CITIZEN For what?
ELECTION CRIMES & SECURITY I'm not sure voter stuff man.
CITIZEN Why are you doing this now, and this happened years ago.
ELECTION CRIMES & SECURITY I don't know. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Many of those arrests have since been overturned. Meanwhile, in Texas, their Senate Bill 1 passed in September 2021.
NEWS CLIP First, it puts a ban on drive-thru voting and brings an end to 24-hour voting.
NEWS CLIP Early voting is now restricted to a window of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
NEWS CLIP It also makes it illegal for the elections administrator to send mail ballot applications to anyone who hasn't requested one. And it creates new I.D. requirements for voting by mail. Voters will be asked to provide their full driver's license number on the ballot application and the envelope used to return their completed ballot. That information must match what is already on file and their voter record. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And in Georgia, where voters may very well decide which party takes control of the Senate, the state's Republican legislature packed a bunch of hurdles into a law known locally as SB 202.
NEWS CLIP In Georgia, Republicans passed a law that cuts the number of drop boxes in heavily populated areas, imposes new ID requirements to vote by mail, and makes it a crime to offer voters snacks or water while on line. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Among the changes was a provision that has led to voters challenging the eligibility of other voters in their county. Prior to SB 202, citizen challenges were rare. They came primarily from Republican operatives and do-gooder neighbors.
HAMPTON STALL This is based off of an election rule that was originally intended to be used for if your grandfather dies, so you informed the local board of Elections that they can be removed from the voter rolls.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Hampton Stall, senior research specialist with Princeton's Bridging Divides Initiative Lab, where he focuses on Georgia. If his name and voice sound familiar, it's because I've worked with him before on other OTM stories, including our investigation into the use of Zello on January 6th. Hampton tipped me off to this part of SB 202, which now explicitly allows or perhaps encourages citizens to challenge an unlimited number of voters.
HAMPTON STALL It has been such a ludicrous expansion of scale that really cannot be underscored enough.
MICAH LOEWINGER In a state that Biden won by less than 12,000 votes. There have been tens of thousands of challenges since the law was passed. I was fascinated by these voter challenges because of what they demonstrate about how the language and activism surrounding the Big Lie have evolved. From a cynical narrative exploited by politicians to a call to action for local activists. From a reactive conspiracy theory to a preemptive one.
MATT BRAYNARD The problem in 2020 was that we tried to fix the problem after the votes have been cast and counted. We're trying to do it now ahead of the election. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER That's Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign aide who runs one of the organizations currently training activists to file challenges with their local election boards. He was on Steve Bannon's War Room podcast in October, calling on people to help remove names from the voter rolls. The idea being that dead people, people who've moved away or so called 'fake voters,' create an opportunity for fraud.
MATT BRAYNARD We need everybody all over the registrars to make sure that these people cannot vote and these votes don't count. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Georgia's 159 counties are more or less on their own with this stuff. State lawmakers have provided virtually no guidance on how to review and interpret the legality of challenges, many of which are said to be riddled with errors. In the lead up to our first major election since these conspiracy theories went mainstream in the GOP. I was curious to see how and where this disinformation was having real world effects.
EUGENE WILLIAMS I just do a very small process myself. I'm an individual. It's totally nonpartisan.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Eugene Williams. He's a middle aged, semi-retired, real estate agent and investor living in Cobb County. We met at the top of a hill in Maybury Park, a beautiful green space in an affluent Atlanta suburb. Williams has submitted about 300 challenges to his county's Board of Elections. All 300 are people he says he's never met. He sent letters to voters registered at an apartment complex and two college campuses, which he says bounced back, suggesting to him that these people might not be real. The same tactic, which voting rights advocates call “voter caging,” has been used by Republican politicians who have tried to block voters in 13 states.
EUGENE WILLIAMS Do these people even exist. They're just names. I mean, you can't find them. Yeah, I don't want to disenfranchise anyone that's legitimately able to vote, but by gosh, let's follow the laws. If you don't live here, you should not be on the voter rolls. Pure and simple.
MICAH LOEWINGER He says he's been interested in what he calls “voter integrity” for many years across several elections and that he believes there was election fraud in 2020. Online records show that he attended Zoom meetings hosted by a local right wing group linked to some of the other challenges in Georgia. But Williams told me he learned how to investigate the voter rolls on his own.
EUGENE WILLIAMS I'm working independently on this.
MICAH LOEWINGER Just 100% by yourself.
EUGENE WILLIAMS Yeah, yeah. I just go in there in my office and pull this data.
MICAH LOEWINGER Can you describe some of the research that you've done?
EUGENE WILLIAMS Yeah, I started off with what they called the “national change of address list” from the post office. People, when they move, they contact the post office to have their mail forwarded to their new location.
MICAH LOEWINGER Williams told me he would then compare these names against his county's voter rolls, which Georgia sells on the secretary of state's website. Williams told me he focused mostly on people who moved to the Sunshine State.
EUGENE WILLIAMS I see they've just recently registered to vote in Florida. I provide that information to the election board.
MICAH LOEWINGER How much time would you say you've spent looking into the voter eligibility challenges that you've submitted?
EUGENE WILLIAMS Oh, I started in like June or July, so maybe 20 hours a week somewhere in there. But it's a good bit of time.
MICAH LOEWINGER The Cobb County Board of Elections rejected Eugene Williams’s voter challenges, saying that a list of names and addresses wasn't sufficient to prove the registrations were invalid. Election workers that I've spoken with say these out-of-state challenges are redundant because Georgia automatically removes people from the rolls who haven't voted after two election cycles. That and if someone really tried to vote in Florida and Georgia, they'd be caught immediately.
HAMPTON STALL It's a federal felony, and they're flagged by an interstate elections organization every time.
MICAH LOEWINGER Do you think these challengers are consciously trying to make it harder for people to vote in an effort to close the already very narrow gap between what might be perceived as a slight edge Democrats have over Republicans in the state?
HAMPTON STALL That's hard to know. I think it's probably not something that's conscious. A lot of the narratives are sort of this like mutually reinforcing cycle of, ‘Oh, there was fraud in the election, so we need to take action to remove that fraud. And by taking action, we're finding cases that we believe to be fraud,’ which is then reinforcing that first narrative. And it's this circle.
MICAH LOEWINGER Hampton and I dug into data provided to us by a nonpartisan group called All Voting Is Local, which found that Eugene Williams was one of fewer than 40 activists across the state who've submitted over 75,000 challenges in the past year. And while Williams failed to convince his county board to remove voters from the rolls, other challengers have hit their mark.
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. I couldn't wait till I was 18 to cast my first ballot. Ever since then, I've been voting.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Major Gamaliel Warren Turner Sr.. He's a 69 year old Department of Defense contractor working at the port, winning a Navy base in Southern California. When he moved there in 2019, he chose not to register in California because he wanted to continue voting in Georgia, where he grew up, where he pays taxes.
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. First thing that I did was to put a joint address and make sure that all my mail was received here and put in [a] absentee ballot request. During the early primary was the local elections. No problem.
MICAH LOEWINGER Unbeknownst to Major Turner Senior, a conservative politician living in Muskogee County, had challenged his eligibility ten days before the 2021 runoff between Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Kelly Loeffler. After his absentee ballot never showed up in the mail. He called the Muskogee Board of Elections.
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. Said, Mr. we have a problem. I said, What's that? Is that you've been challenged. I said, What does that mean? I don't know.
MICAH LOEWINGER She said, I don't know?
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. I do not know. And that is when we realized down in Muskogee County that approximately 3000 of us have been challenged, simply that I had put in a change of address at the post office. That was the only reason for the challenge.
MICAH LOEWINGER Who challenged you?
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. In my case, it was a resident of Muskogee County that just so happens to be the head of the Republican Party in Muskogee County.
MICAH LOEWINGER What's his name?
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. Austin.
MICAH LOEWINGER Austin what?
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. I don't remember it right off the bat that tried to erase him out of my thought process.
MICAH LOEWINGER Why are you trying to erase some of your thought process?
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. People of color, especially in my age group, that has seen and they've gone through every possible thing that could be done to them — steal our vote, scare from voting, stop us from voting, convince us that our vote doesn't count. There is PTSD in people of color trying to vote.
MICAH LOEWINGER Major Gamaliel Warren Turner Sr. ended up suing the Muskogee Board of Elections. His story is featured prominently in a new documentary film titled Vigilante: Georgia's Vote Suppression Hit Man. Ultimately, the court put a stay on his challenge, and he was able to vote for Raphael Warnock in the 2021 runoff.
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. Raphael Warnock’s middle name is Gamaliel. That's why I call it a Gamaliel thing.
MICAH LOEWINGER What is a Gamaliel thing?
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. Is those things where you try hard, and then opposition comes to try to stop you. But you already know that it's coming. You've already prayed on it, and it's not able to hold you back.
MICAH LOEWINGER It's overcoming a foreseeable obstacle.
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. Yes.
MICAH LOEWINGER Is that your mantra?
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. Yeah, that's my mantra.
MICAH LOEWINGER How many Gamaliel things would you say you've encountered in your life?
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. Thousands. Thousands. Trying to vote in my local Fort Valley community. We've been running the train back and forth to make sure that we can't get across the train to vote. Those are Gamaliel moments. They'd be called the N-word by those in the military or by my senior leadership and told me that I just didn't understand where my place was. Those are Gamaliel moments. To be denied housing when your peers are being shown houses in a particular neighborhood, having to come back 25 years later and buy the house across the street, because in the seventies you weren't allowed to stay in that neighborhood. Those are Gamliel moments. That's why when I look at adversity and I look at these obstacles in life: it's a Gamaliel thing.
MICAH LOEWINGER According to advocates and election workers that I spoke to, the majority of voters targeted recently by activists appear to be living in counties with high populations of people of color. But there's another group uniquely vulnerable to these challenges.
BARBARA HELM I got evicted at midnight, New Year's Eve, December 31st. I lost everything I owned and I became homeless so…
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Barbara Helm. She showed up during early voting on October 17th, hoping to vote for Democratic lawmakers.
BARBARA HELM It's a big ticket item with the Supreme Court in Roe versus Wade.
MICAH LOEWINGER But when she arrived at her polling place, an election worker told her she wouldn't be able to vote this time because her eligibility had been challenged.
BARBARA HELM I was very angry because I didn't even know it's possible to block a voter. But she told me the name of the first guy that blocked me was Frank Schneider back in March. She said, I've been blocked again in May and then again in June.
MICAH LOEWINGER These challengers likely flagged her name on the voter rolls because she was registered to a commercial address, not a residential address. I can see how that would seem suspicious if you're looking for evidence of so-called phantom voters. But with a bit of context, it's not suspicious at all. For one, the commercial address was a post office.
BARBARA HELM Sometime before I was evicted. I went down there and did illegal address change there.
MICAH LOEWINGER According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. It's legal for an unhoused person in the state to register to vote at an empty lot or a street corner or wherever they lay their head. They told me the Forsyth County Board of Elections should have done more to investigate whether this was a voter experiencing homelessness before voting to remove her.
STACEY ABRAMS Just today, a homeless woman was denied the right to vote in Forsyth County. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Democratic Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaking in her first debate against Republican Governor Brian Kemp.
STACEY ABRAMS She did not receive a provisional ballot because she had been challenged. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Did you know that Stacey Abrams referenced you in her debate?
BARBARA HELM I did. I was told that by my Democratic Party.
MICAH LOEWINGER How did you feel about that, that your story was used by the Democrats?
BARBARA HELM I was actually lad that she brought that up, especially since it's a problem here in the county I live in, in the state of Georgia.
DELE LOMAN SMITH This is a major threat to people's ability to fully participate in this democracy.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Dele Loman Smith, one of two Democrats and the chair of the five person Board of Registration in elections in DeKalb County. During the day, she works as senior vice president of a company called Gov HR, but she's been involved in local elections for years. She and the board have rejected every challenge brought by activists. According to the data we got from All Voting Is Local, of the roughly 75,000 voters challenged in Georgia over the past year, roughly 2000 challenges have been successful. And processing these challenges has strained local election offices.
DELE LOMAN SMITH SB 202 requires us to grant a hearing for them within ten days of receiving those challenges. Our staff, thankfully, get paid not nearly as much as they deserve to get paid, but they are employees. Board members who are required to jump when somebody shows up with challenges are not paid. We have jobs. We have families and other responsibilities.
MICAH LOEWINGER How many hours would you say you've spent on – your face right now. That was the most extreme eyeroll I think I've ever seen in my life.
DELE LOMAN SMITH I don't know if I could quantify. I'd have to really sit down and think about how many hours we have collectively spent on this.
MICAH LOEWINGER Another election worker in Gwinnett County told me his team spent 1,920 hours in September processing 22,000 challenges, all of which were ultimately thrown out. If you live in Georgia, that's your tax dollars right there. And here's the kicker SB 202 includes a rule that allows the state's Republican legislature to replace the entire board if they're deemed to be underperforming. So rejecting the challenges could very well have repercussions. For Loman Smith. SB 202 is a reminder of how her family history informs her work today.
DELE LOMAN SMITH What I'm left with in this process is the humbling realization that I am once again on the front lines of a fight that my grandfather fought before I was ever born. We should not be relitigating people's access to the ballot in the 21st century in this country.
RICHARD DONER Every time African-Americans expanded their political voice, what you saw was a reaction by white conservatives to constrain or to otherwise limit this growing black political activity.
MICAH LOEWINGER Richard Doner is a professor emeritus of political science at Emory University. He recently wrote a piece for the Atlanta Journal Constitution titled “Voter Challenges Have Troubling History in Georgia.” He says SB 202 reminds him of a disenfranchisement effort that began in Georgia in the 1940s, when black political participation surged after the state lowered the voting age to 18.
RICHARD DONER Black voter registration rose from about 20,000 in Georgia in 1940 to around 125,000, which was 18% of the population in 1946.
MICAH LOEWINGER At that time, this is before the political realignment following the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s, the ideologies of the Democratic and Republican parties were the reverse of what they are now. The Democrats were the party of slavery in the South, and the introduction of black voters presented a threat.
RICHARD DONER Especially to the leader of the Democratic Party, Eugene Talmadge, who was running for governor. [CLIP]
EUGENE TALMADGE My state, the sovereign state of Georgia, is the only state in the Union that has never voted a Republican ticket.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's Talmadge speaking at the DNC in 1952, at a time when he had successfully taken over the party. The way he seized power, says Doner, was through the use of voter suppression tactics ahead of the 1946 governor's race.
RICHARD DONER In Augusta and Savannah, thousands of black voters couldn't vote before the polls closed. There was also intimidation. There were cross burnings by the Klan, written threats to the black community. All of this is well-documented, but the main thing that he did was mass purging. Shortly before the 1946 primaries, Talmadge launched a broad campaign to challenge and disqualify black voters.
MICAH LOEWINGER Writing in a political newspaper, The Statesman, Talmadge wrote, “If the white citizens of the state of Georgia will wake up, they can disqualify and mark off the voters list. Three fourths of the Negro vote in this state.” His campaign sent out thousands of forms to their supporters, featuring a blank space where they could write in the name of a voter whose eligibility they wanted to challenge, along with justification for the challenge.
RICHARD DONER In some cases, they did it based on the local judgment of “good character and understanding of citizenship obligations.”
MICAH LOEWINGER What does that mean?
RICHARD DONER It means what they want it to mean. So an estimated 15 to 25,000 black voters were dropped from the rolls and Talmadge won, despite the fact that his opponent won 16,000 more popular votes.
MICAH LOEWINGER The long shadow of this history is in the minds of voters and organizers who, despite the obstacles, have helped drive historic turnout during early voting in Georgia this year.
MAJOR GAMALIEL WARREN-TURNER SR. I'm angry.
MICAH LOEWINGER Major Gamaliel Warren-Turner, Sr.
RICHARD DONER I am angry, but I know for certain. I wish others understood that this is serious. Their vote is serious. Their vote is powerful to take power from those that are in power, and they don't want to give it up. So guess what? They are busy doing everything in the world they can to take your vote one way or the other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, Micah meets a conservative elections director going head to head with the big lie in Georgia.
ANNE DOVER These people want a revolution, but they want me to break the law to cause their revolution.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
MICAH LOEWINGER And I'm Micah Loewinger. Before the break, we heard from some of the people I spoke to when I went to Georgia to report on how the repercussions of the Big Lie were playing out in the lead up to next week's elections. I discovered that conspiracy theories about election fraud in Georgia have made life really difficult for some election workers in counties that went for Democrats in 2020. But local officials in Republican areas have had their own issues.
ANNE DOVER Enough is enough. We're not sitting up here any longer allowing anyone to belittle our office, staff, our county or us. It's wrong.
MICAH LOEWINGER You're listening to a Cherokee County elections board member addressing a group of right wing activists on October 3rd. I discovered the audio, which appears to have been secretly recorded because it was shared in a “election integrity” Facebook group.
ANNE DOVER Last month with the breaking point for me. We will not be intimidated. We will not and cannot break election laws for you or anyone else.
MICAH LOEWINGER I wanted to figure out what was going on here. So I drove out to the Cherokee County Elections Office to meet with this woman.
ANNE DOVER I'm Anne Dover. I'm the director of Cherokee County Elections.
MICAH LOEWINGER And how long have you been working here?
ANNE DOVER I just had my 15 year anniversary.
MICAH LOEWINGER Wow. Congratulations. You're a veteran.
ANNE DOVER Afraid so.
MICAH LOEWINGER When I met and she was wearing huge golden cross earrings, we spoke in her office, which is decked out with American flags, vintage elections posters, and framed sheet music.
ANNE DOVER So I've got “Amazing Grace” over here on the wall.
MICAH LOEWINGER If you listen really carefully, you might be able to hear the gurgle of her aquarium. Home to a red, white and blue betta fish.
ANNE DOVER So I'm a very patriotic person.
MICAH LOEWINGER I know. I'm impressed. She seems confident in her role as director. Even though this is her first time in charge of a major election.
ANNE DOVER I sort of got thrown into this position at the end of 2020 because our director and our assistant director, who were my dear friends, they had just had enough. 2020 was very, very tiring, stressful.
MICAH LOEWINGER Anne says that some people in Cherokee County, which is one of the most conservative counties in the Atlanta metropolitan area, have had a hard time with Trump's loss in 2020. She put up a sign in her office lobby stating there was zero tolerance for profanity, verbal threats or any act of violence.
ANNE DOVER You can yell at me and that's fine, but don't curse at me.
MICAH LOEWINGER And this summer, she got a troubling phone call.
ANNE DOVER We received on our voicemail. Someone called and said that “you people should be dragged out in the streets and beaten.” We did turn that over to the authorities. The FBI responded almost immediately.
MICAH LOEWINGER She says she's comfortable with the idea of defending herself if she had to. She keeps a rifle and a nine millimeter handgun in her car. But there's an emotional toll to all of this. And some activists have gotten under her skin.
ANNE DOVER They are very, very, very passionate people. And they're basically demanding that we do what they tell us to do.
MICAH LOEWINGER She didn't want to name names for fear that it might add to the tension. But she says some of the activists informally refer to themselves as the “truth seekers” and the “Cherokee Warriors.” Many of them are associated with a statewide group called Voter GA.
GARLAND FAVORITO Well, we've been working on this issue for 20 years. We've built up a lot of support.
MICAH LOEWINGER Anne was cool with me reaching out to this man, Garland Favorito, the founder of Voter GA.
GARLAND FAVORITO I've got 40 years of I.T. experience, information technology, and then about 20 years of part time research into electronic voting equipment.
MICAH LOEWINGER And I had read online that your group is affiliated with Michael Flynn. Is that true?
ANNE DOVER They made like one donation to us. That's pretty much it.
MICAH LOEWINGER Okay. Can I ask for how much it was for?
GARLAND FAVORITO No, we don't discuss donors.
MICAH LOEWINGER I asked because former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a well-known Q Anon supporter, reportedly encouraged Donald Trump to try to deploy the military to rerun the 2020 elections. According to the New York Times, Favorito is no stranger to fringe theories. He wrote a book questioning the cause of the September 11th attacks and has, quote, trafficked in unproven theories about the Kennedy assassination. Recently, Favorito and his followers have become focused on what they consider to be a vulnerability in Georgia's voting system: the QR codes. Let me explain this a little bit. Georgia uses Dominion voting machines. That's the company that sued Fox News and Trump allies for defamation. When you vote on these machines, you choose your candidates on a touchscreen. Georgia Public Broadcasting did an explainer on this.
DOMINION INSTRUCTIONS Once you have reviewed your choices, you will press a button that says print ballot. This will print out a piece of paper. That paper will have a QR code and the top left corner that contains all of the races and your selections. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Then you scan the QR code using a different machine, which records the actual vote and saves the paper, which can be reviewed later. It's a security feature.
DOMINION INSTRUCTIONS The text on the paper ballot is designed to reassure voters that the choice selected on the machine will be what is scanned in through the QR code. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER But Garland isn't reassured, despite the multiple audits in Georgia and the failed court cases, which appear to debunk conspiracy theories about Dominion and election fraud.
GARLAND FAVORITO These QR Codes are quick response codes which you as a voter can't read.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Favorito on a right wing podcast in February.
GARLAND FAVORITO So this is particularly egregious. Because it's just a new way to have an unverifiable system where the water cannot really determine what's actually happening in an election
RIGHT WING PODCAST I mean, a QR code is a foreign language and it's like nobody can understand it.
GARLAND FAVORITO Exactly. We call it where. [END CLIP]
LOCAL VOTING ACTIVISTS I know that it just takes one little line, one little algorithm. That's all it takes.
MICAH LOEWINGER These are some of the complaints that local activists have brought before the Cherokee Board of Commissioners, which, unlike Anne Dover's board of election meetings, are filmed and posted online.
LOCAL VOTING ACTIVISTS So even if an unreadable QR code was legal, which it is not, it is definitely able to be changed and therefore corrupt the results of an election.
LOCAL VOTING ACTIVISTS If we have machines in November, I'm not voting. And I don't think I'm alone, and I hope that that matters to you. I want it to bother you. I want it to bother every elected official.
ANNE DOVER I try to be very understanding of their concerns. I've written letters to our local legislators. I wrote a letter in June asking them to consider removing the QR code because we do have a number of Cherokee County citizens that do not like that QR code.
MICAH LOEWINGER Do you believe there was election fraud in 2020?
ANNE DOVER I do not believe there was election fraud in Cherokee County. You can see the results of that on the secretary of state's website. I feel like everything's great here in Cherokee County because I was here, I worked it, I lived it. I did it. You can ask Garland about Cherokee County. He came to our audit. He's been very complimentary of Cherokee County.
MICAH LOEWINGER But it's possible that some people, like in his crew, are less trustful.
ANNE DOVER Exactly. Yeah. They say they want transparency. I don't know how much more transparent that we can be. We sat, and we talked. They had pages of questions. We answered every one of their questions. We've answered every open records request possible. Misinformation is rampant. Whatever it is, they read it and they believe it no matter what. And that's dangerous. Very dangerous.
MICAH LOEWINGER It seems like a certain kind of misinformation. It's like falling on the shoulders of people like you.
ANNE DOVER Yes. Yes, I'm afraid so.
MICAH LOEWINGER Anne has found herself watching Garland Favorito's live stream, an online watering hole that draws in some of the familiar local activists.
ANNE DOVER Just so I could see what we were going to be hit with. They are a group that says ‘we are we the people.’ And I understand that I'm a very patriotic person. My husband was in the military. He was a police officer. I'm your grassroots patriotic person, but I'm not going to break the law.
MICAH LOEWINGER I'm assuming that many of the people who are coming after you are also voting the same way as you. I mean, you probably agree on most things. Is that fair to say?
ANNE DOVER It is fair to say.
MICAH LOEWINGER How does that feel?
ANNE DOVER It's hard to understand. I'm not here to throw an election.
MICAH LOEWINGER You said they're asking you to break the law. What is it that they are advocating for?
ANNE DOVER The main thing is they want us to count the ballots on election night at the polling locations.
LOCAL VOTING ACTIVISTS For the coming election. If the machines are still used, then the ballots should be hand-counted immediately after the polls closed and before they are sealed for storage. [END CLIP]
ANNE DOVER Because they're fearful that after they leave the polling location that something's going to happen.
MICAH LOEWINGER Anne says she's tried to explain that counting the ballots by hand would take all night and that the polling places have to close after voting is done. That there's no budget for this kind of thing and that it's illegal. Anne says that they've offered multiple times to assemble a group of volunteers to count the ballots themselves if she just let them.
ANNE DOVER We can't just have a group of people come in, throw ballots out on the folded table and start counting the races. We have to protect the ballots. I can't do anything about what they want me to do, and neither can our board, and neither can our board of commissioners.
MICAH LOEWINGER Anne may present herself as powerless in this situation. But that's not quite right. She's using her authority to prevent a breakdown in the election process.
EMMA BROWN This is a concern all around the country that experts are seeing. Local election officials come under great pressure to give access to voting systems, machines and documents that are usually tightly guarded.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Emma Brown, an investigative reporter with The Washington Post. Her latest piece is about another election official in Georgia named Misty Hampton, who appears to have allowed things to get way out of hand.
EMMA BROWN It really begins shortly after Election Day in 2020. There was a meeting of the county board of elections in Coffee County. It's a rural county that went for Trump. He won in a landslide there. So the county board of elections meets and the county elections supervisor, Misty Hampton, who's basically in charge of the day to day running of the election, tells the board that it's possible to very easily flip votes from one candidate to another using a function of the Dominion machines.
MICAH LOEWINGER Here's a viral video from December 2020 of Misty Hampton handling ballots and showcasing what she considered to be the vulnerability. [CLIP]
MISTY HAMPTON Well, when you look at it, it's tore. So we're going to set it to the side because we're going to have to look at it with the review panel. [END CLIP]
EMMA BROWN What she was talking about was something called adjudication and it's for mail ballots. So, you know, if you fill out your mail ballot and you do a sloppy job, you have some stray marks on your ballot, or maybe somebody voted for two candidates instead of one, something like that. The machine can't read that. It doesn't know how to count your vote. So then it goes to humans. A bipartisan panel of people look at that. They decide if they can agree on the voter's intent. Then they tell the computer how to mark it. And her claim was, ‘Look, I can just go in there and tell the computer to count that vote however I want.’
ELECTION SKEPTIC So you made a vote for someone where someone did not vote?
MISTY HAMPTON I did, didn't I? [END CLIP]
EMMA BROWN She was essentially saying, you know, I didn't do this, but a rogue election worker somewhere else could have done it. So had that actually happened in Georgia, it should have been caught in the statewide recount of all the ballots that was done in mid-November. And instead, that recount found that the machines had essentially tabulated accurately.
MICAH LOEWINGER This wasn't evidence of election fraud. But in late 2020, the Trump campaign was looking for anything that might seem like evidence. They got in touch with Misty Hampton.
EMMA BROWN On January 7th, the day after the attack on the Capitol, this group of forensics experts from a data forensics firm in Atlanta, along with Republican activists and businessmen, came to Coffee County and Misty Hampton allowed them into her office.
NEWS CLIP Surveillance video from January 2021 showed unauthorized people in a secure area of Coffee County's election office, where they appeared to be accessing election equipment and computers. [END CLIP]
EMMA BROWN They were allowed to copy almost every component of Coffee County's voting system that day. All of that has come to light in court records and in the surveillance video I mentioned and in other records and documents. They were working under a contract with Sidney Powell, who's the pro-Trump lawyer who had made many false claims about widespread fraud in the election, in the media and also in court in lawsuits that were tossed. She paid through her nonprofit $26,000 to these folks to do this work. They then uploaded it onto the Internet password protected site where it was downloaded by several election deniers around the country. What happened in Coffee County is just one of several alleged breaches that are now under criminal investigation around the country.
MICAH LOEWINGER Back in Cherokee County, Anne Dover has refused to give in to the illegal demands of local activists, and she's paid a price for standing up for the law.
ANNE DOVER These people want a revolution, but they want me to break the law, to cause their revolution. If they want a revolution, they can break the law. I'm not going to. When somebody says ‘I'm going to pray for you that you'll have a change of heart,’ and I'm like, ‘my heart's fine because I'm following the law.’ I mean, we're all Christians in this office. We pray together. We pray before our meals, when we go to lunch, when we're having extra tough days, we'll gather and have prayer. What bothers me is that they do it in the name of Christ, but then you exit the meeting and you get to the parking lot and people start yelling at you.
MICAH LOEWINGER What have they yelled?
ANNE DOVER We have a combat war veteran here that works for us, and he was yelled at. ‘You should be hung for treason.’ He's a big fella, big heart, great guy. And it was very hurtful to all of us because they fought for our country.
MICAH LOEWINGER I'm sorry for what you've gone through. I mean, it sounds very painful.
ANNE DOVER It's very upsetting. I have been at my grandson's ballgame, and somebody recognize me.
MICAH LOEWINGER What did they do?
ANNE DOVER They whisper. I could hear them saying, ‘She's the director at the elections office.’ It's like we actually made a shirt that said "Cherokee County Elections. Serving With Kindness and Integrity." We don't even wear them anymore because it causes too much attention, you know? And we don't really want people to know we're elections workers.
MICAH LOEWINGER I don't think that you're the only election worker in the state who has experienced abuse.
ANNE DOVER Absolutely not. It's definitely not a Cherokee County problem. It's a Georgia problem. It really is.
MICAH LOEWINGER Why Georgia?
ANNE DOVER Because they don't believe the results of 2020. Somebody has to lose an election. There is a winner, and there is a loser. It's been that way all through history. You have to accept who wins and be a gracious loser. We joke and say 2020 is never going to go away. It's got to be put behind us. A lot of Republicans won't agree with me on that, but we got to move forward.
MICAH LOEWINGER I think it's fair to say that this isn't what Anne Dover signed up for when she took her first job at the Cherokee County elections office 15 years ago. She's struggled as of late, but she has no intention of retiring early.
ANNE DOVER An investigator with the state, he said to me, “It's not your job to worry about all of this stuff that they're worrying about with the machines. You can't change that. That's not your job.” And I really have appreciated that comment because it keeps me focused on I need to do my job and that's different elections. We have a lot of nice Cherokee County citizens and I would say they probably outweigh the bad. But the bad are so bad sometimes that you forget the good. Like the kid that's voting for the first time or the 100 year old lady that did her best to come in and vote in person. The senior citizens that call here and want to vote by mail. Can you help me over the phone? There are so many people like that that appreciate us. So I try to remain focused on that.
MICAH LOEWINGER Anne became director after her predecessor quit. The New York Times found that in 14 Ohio counties, one in four elections, directors or deputy auditors resigned from their posts after the 2020 race. There was a similar count in Kansas and in Pennsylvania, and when mistrust, intense working conditions powered by disinformation, push out the next wave of officials who will be left to run our democracy at the county level. Will they be Anne Dover’s or will they be Misty Hampton's?
BROOKE GLADSTONE And that's the show. On The Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondeau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clarke-Callendar, Candice Wong and Suzanne Garber with help from Temi George. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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