For Helen Butler, who said she was forced from her seat on a Georgia county elections board by local Republicans after the 2020 presidential election, Monday’s indictments against former president Donald Trump and 18 others for alleged election interference were encouraging.
“I do believe in justice. I believe that if you did wrong, then you should be held accountable,” she said. In particular, Butler cited three people charged with allegedly harassing local election workers Ruby Freeman and Wandrea ArShaye “Shaye” Moss, heroes to Black women who have worked for decades to expand voting rights and political engagement in their communities.
“They think that will stop us. They think that will put a damper on us. But it doesn’t always work,” said Butler, executive director of Atlanta-based nonprofit Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda.
Black women organizers like Butler and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams helped deliver Georgia for Biden in 2020, a state Democrats had not won in nearly three decades. Black women were Biden’s strongest backers; 92 percent of them voted for him, boosting his margin against Trump, who lost by fewer than 12,000 votes. Black voters were also instrumental in flipping both Georgia Senate seats for Democrats, giving them control of the U.S. Senate.
Since then, they have faced a backlash from conservatives, especially backers of the former president, who falsely claimed massive voter fraud in Georgia — Atlanta specifically — and demanded state officials reject the results.
Black women elections officials and workers say they have faced harassment, threats and criminal charges that forced some from their jobs. Across the country, elections officials and workers of all races and political stripes have similarly reported being targeted by election deniers and conspiracy theorists.
Now some Black female election workers and political activists say they are encouraged to see the Atlanta-area grand jury bring charges against Trump and his allies.
“I feel hopeful that maybe some things will begin to change since the indictment,” said Linda Gail, 69, a Black election worker in Ware County, located in the southeastern part of the state.
Although Republican Gov. Brian Kemp publicly rejected Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen, the next year he signed a sweeping election law granting the Republican-controlled state election board the power to take over “failing” county boards. The legislature also passed county-specific election laws that allowed Republican-controlled county commissions to replace members of local election boards like Butler.
GOP lawmakers insisted the new measures were meant to improve the boards’ performance and reduce the influence of political parties.
In Morgan County, where Butler had served on the elections board since 2010, elections director Jennifer Doran said Butler’s removal was not related to her race or party affiliation.
“No, the entire board was removed per the new BOER legislation,” Doran said in an email, referring to the county’s board of elections and registration.
But many of those removed from Georgia’s county election boards under the new laws have been Black Democrats, stoking concerns of disenfranchisement. Of about 15 counties that changed election boards under the state laws, at least a half dozen have removed Black female board members.
Politically active Black women said they also faced harassment, and were shaken by attacks on Freeman and Moss, her daughter, both election workers in Fulton County. The indictment cites three people who were charged with allegedly harassing Freeman, including a former publicist for R&B singer R. Kelly, who was sentenced last year to 30 years in prison for racketeering and sex trafficking, who is also an associate of the rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, a Trump supporter.
Freeman and Moss were targeted by the former president and his allies, including Rudy Giuliani, who falsely claimed that video footage showed them engaging in “surreptitious illegal activity” like drug dealers “passing out dope.” Trump repeatedly singled out Freeman during a phone call in which he pressed Georgia officials to alter the state’s election results, calling her a “professional vote scammer,” “hustler” and “known political operative” who “stuffed the ballot boxes.”
Freeman and her daughter filed a lawsuit against Giuliani, who earlier this year admitted in response that he had made false claims against them. They also testified in Congress before the Jan. 6 committee, debunking the vote fraud allegations and detailing threats they’d faced.
Moss told the committee that she received messages “wishing death upon me. Telling me that I’ll be in jail with my mother. And saying things like, ‘Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.’”
“A lot of them were racist,” Moss said. “A lot of them were just hateful.”
The committee played video testimony from Freeman, who accompanied her daughter to the hearing.
“There is nowhere I feel safe. Nowhere,” Freeman said in the prerecorded video. “Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States target you? The president of the United States is supposed to represent every American, not to target one.”
An Atlanta-based attorney for the pair, Von DuBose, said this week’s Fulton County indictments serve “as further evidence that election workers Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss — while doing their jobs and serving their community — were targeted as part of a broad, coordinated conspiracy to undermine the results of the 2020 presidential election.”
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger did not respond to multiple requests for comment about steps his office has taken since 2020 to ensure election workers’ safety.
Felicia Davis, a community organizer and managing director of the HBCU Green Fund, said she felt powerless as she watched the harassment that rained down on Freeman and Moss.
“There was not really anything we could do to speak up and say we care about our sisters,” she said. “It could have been any one of us. So in that way, they always represented all of us.”
Shade’ Yvonne Jones, who is based in Fulton County and has worked in voter registration in Georgia for more than 30 years, said the indictments made her feel only “disdain” after the barrage of election fraud allegations and attacks made against Freeman and Moss.
“You can’t get back the disempowerment that Black women felt from that,” she said. “The apathy that Black women and young people feel all over is based on this type of shenanigans. I don’t feel vindicated at all.”
Butler noted that this is not the first time Georgia officials have targeted Black women who have challenged the political status quo.
In 2010, a dozen Black candidates won election to the school board, flipping what had been a majority White body in Quitman, a small town near the state’s border with Florida. Their victories drew the attention of Kemp, who at the time was Georgia’s secretary of state. The group, which became known as the Quitman 10+2, was charged with 120 counts of felony vote fraud. Each count carried a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Prosecutors argued the women took unlawful possession of absentee ballots they delivered sealed to the post office, some for disabled family members, even though that’s allowed by Georgia law. They were photographed in orange jumpsuits and offered up by conservative commentators as evidence of election fraud conspiracies. It took years for them to be found not guilty and the charges dismissed, but only after one of them died, Butler said.
Although Butler was encouraged by this week’s indictments, she is still worried about her safety leading up to the 2024 presidential election.
“We have cameras now at our offices. We will enlist some security during the election season. We’re concerned, but we won’t let that deter us,” she said.
Lonnie Hollis, a Black Democrat, was also removed from the election board in west Georgia’s Troup County, where she’d served since 2013, as a result of a county-specific state law passed in 2021.
Troup county’s GOP-controlled commission requested their local state representative sponsor the law. It reduced the size of the board and changed how members were appointed.
County Manager Eric Mosley insisted that race and party affiliation were not a factor.
“Not at all. The entire board was abolished and the board was reappointed,” Mosley said, noting that Hollis didn’t reapply.
Hollis, who had advocated for Sunday voting and the creation of a new precinct at a local Black church, had also faced a complaint to the state election board related to her having helped a voter during the 2020 election.
“They had been trying to get rid of me for years,” said Hollis, 80. “I speak up and do the right thing. They don’t want that on the board.”
Hollis said the indictments could counteract the intimidation of Black election workers and voters since 2020.
“I’m hoping that justice will be done to them because they have affected the lives of a lot of people,” she said. “Right now, a lot of people are afraid to vote.”
Olivia Coley-Pearson, a 24-year nonpartisan member of the city commission in Douglas, Ga., was acquitted by a jury of alleged vote fraud in 2018 only after her case was moved from Coffee County, which has become embroiled in the Fulton County indictments. Local prosecutors and other officials did not return calls about her case.
“I hope that the indictments will have an impact on how things are done here in Coffee County, but that’s hard to say,” said Coley-Pearson, 61, a disabled former state worker. “They took me through the wringer.”
She said she sympathized with Freeman, having herself received death threats.
“It’s terrible to live through stuff like that where people smear your name unjustly,” she said.
After her term on the city commission expires in December, Coley-Pearson said she won’t run again, although she still plans to assist voters at the polls.
“Black women have been the backbone for years of a lot of stuff: Of our families, of our churches. It’s kind of in our nature to do what it takes to make things happen, to stand up for what’s right,” she said. “This is about survival. And we realize that. If we don’t do what we must do, our children won’t have a future.”
Deborah Scott, chief executive of Georgia STAND-UP, an Atlanta-based nonprofit voter engagement group, said the indictments show how much harder their job has become. During last year’s Georgia Senate runoff, her group’s 400 volunteers canvassed in marked vehicles for their own protection, wearing a uniform of T-shirts and name tags and reviewing safety protocols.
“We increasingly feel the pressure of doing civic engagement and civil rights work in the South when you have these dog whistles blown on democracy. It affects our safety,” Scott said.
She worried that in coming days as those charged turn themselves in, including Trump, they could spark volatile protests by his supporters.
“We haven’t seen a lot of those protests yet in Georgia,” she said. “ … Hopefully it won’t bring them out.”
In northwest Georgia’s Floyd County, Vanessa Waddell, former assistant elections supervisor, said the Fulton County indictments could have a chilling effect on those who threatened her and other election workers.
“Anybody that breaks the law ought to have repercussions,” she said.
Waddell said she was demoted from interim to assistant election supervisor last year and retired in February after working for the county for 28 years, tired of being harassed since the 2020 election. Although Waddell would have liked to work a few more years, she said, “I do feel safer. I’m not under all of the stress and anxiety I was under.”
Waddell said she had to start taking anxiety medication to cope with her job. She considered bringing her handgun to work for protection.
“As an election worker, being harassed like that, it’s sad when you call the police and there’s really nothing they can per se do,” she said.
Waddell thinks the Fulton County indictments “will show people you can’t get away with stuff, no matter who you are.”
“And if you’re going to continue this behavior, you’re going to suffer the consequences,” she said. “It may not be today, but on down the road, you’re going to get justice.”