Lula Smart, of rural Quitman, Georgia, has been through a lot the past five years. But things are looking up.
Once charged on 32 felony counts for her role in an absentee ballot campaign to get her sister and others elected to the Brooks County school board, Smart has now won an election herself.
Over four years, Smart and fellow voter activists were investigated by the state and prosecuted, after their 2010 absentee ballot campaign unseated a white majority on the school board for the first time. A dozen black activists were charged with more than 100 felony voter fraud counts, mostly for helping willing voters to cast their ballots as they wished. Smart, facing the most counts and the first up for trial, considered suicide. She thought that might help her colleagues.
But the case had problems. Most witnesses persisted in saying Smart only helped them. Others said it was all a mistake or refused to testify. Investigators' own interview notes sometimes undermined the charges or were confused. On their witness questionnaire, state investigators combined two important yes/no questions into one: "Did you vote for who you wanted to or were you pressured to vote for someone in particular?" In many cases that made it impossible to know if the one-word answer recorded by the investigator meant something good or bad had happened.
(For the interview of Irene Dennard, the investigator answered that line, "Yes." Then prosecutors charged her daughter, Debra, with felonies. Debra Dennard had helped her mother and father to vote as they wished.)
After four years and three trials, Smart was acquitted, and the case against her fellow activists collapsed in December 2014.
But the problems go far beyond Brooks County. A key problem was and remains confusion over what's illegal under the state's law on absentee voting. State officials and prosecutors have interpreted the law to criminalize even a child taking a parent's completed ballot to the mailbox at their request. The Secretary of State's lead investigator on Smart's case told jurors that it's a felony and people "know they can't do this."
But the law in some cases appears to say outright that such assistance is not a crime at all. Following the controversial Brooks County investigation and media coverage of it, the state attorney general's office seemed to take up the cause of reform. Just helping voters fill out a ballot envelope is not a crime, the lawyers told voting officials. The reform remains incomplete, however, the AJC showed in a recent story, as Secretary of State Brian Kemp pushed back.
As for Smart, now she's not just campaigning for others. Last week, Smart was sworn in to her own position as a newly elected member of the Quitman city commission. Once a symbol for many of government overreach, now she is part of the government.
Smart's sister, Diane Thomas, is the one Smart campaigned for when all the trouble started. Thomas confirmed the news of Smart's victory and swearing-in to the AJC with a lilt in her voice.
So, did Thomas return the favor and campaign for Smart?
She laughed. "Yes, I did. Had to do that."
Smart's agenda includes increasing public participation at government meetings and more equitable distribution of road projects, Thomas said. And Thomas, too, intends to run again.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.