Distrust and worry help fuel voter turnout in Republican stronghold

Morgan County Elections Director Jennifer Doran inside a polling at Centennial Baptist church on Jan. 5, 2021. It's been a challenging couple months for her and other local election officials across Georgia. Some poll workers have been out sick with Covid-19, while voters have become more suspicious of the election system in the wake of unfounded claims of election fraud in the state.
Morgan County Elections Director Jennifer Doran inside a polling at Centennial Baptist church on Jan. 5, 2021. It's been a challenging couple months for her and other local election officials across Georgia. Some poll workers have been out sick with Covid-19, while voters have become more suspicious of the election system in the wake of unfounded claims of election fraud in the state.

Credit: Brad Schrade/AJC

Credit: Brad Schrade/AJC

RUTLEDGE — John Phillips spent 30 years in the Air Force and now sees the country he served threatened by the course politics has taken.

He believes the election was stolen from President Donald Trump. He no longer trusts Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. He has doubts about whether the “totally screwed up” voting system would properly count ballots in the Senate runoff election.

Still, he and his wife, Shannon, came out to cast their ballots Tuesday morning at a church here along a two-lane stretch of Centennial Road.

“Look, we’re losing our country,” he said.

Similar frustrations, anger and doubts have been expressed in recent weeks across Morgan County, a Republican stronghold 50 miles east of Atlanta where seven in 10 voters favored Trump in November. They have listened to the president put forth a barrage of allegations of voter fraud, and those unfounded claims have helped fuel their cautious views about the Senate runoffs.

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Several voters interviewed on Tuesday said they have misgivings about whether their ballots would be accurately counted, but those doubts seemed to have little impact on turnout. Morgan County had one of the strongest turnouts in the early voting period in the state with roughly half of its 15,500 voters going to the polls. On Tuesday, a steady stream of voters turned out, with officials estimating more than 3150 ballots cast. That far outpaced the election day turnout in November of 2,400.

If anything, the climate of suspicion among Republicans seemed to be making them more determined to cast their ballots and exert their will at the ballot box.

“I want my vote,” said Rhonda Spence, explaining why she came to the polls. “I’ve got to vote against socialism.”

She said she wants to have confidence that things work. Still, she said if Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who are facing heated challenges from Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, win by a wide margin it will only raise more concerns about how President Trump lost the state.

“I’m going to wait and see what the results are,” she said.

Morgan County, which is known for the picturesque antebellum homes in its county seat of Madison, prides itself on its history. Many here seem rattled that the political order in Georgia as they understood it was shaken by the outcome of the presidential race in the state.

Jennifer Doran, the county’s election supervisor, said the coronavirus has also presented challenges. The pandemic has left some of her regular poll workers sick, while others have had to quarantine and some have been been reluctant to work with the virus surging.

She had about 20 workers on Tuesday — about half of what she had on election day in November — and had to consolidate polling locations to make up for the shortage.

The virus plus the suspicion from some voters has made the past two months the most challenging period of her career in elections. She’s had some voters yell at her poll workers out of frustration or anger. Any mistake or glitch seems magnified, she said. On Tuesday, poll pads at one location weren’t functioning properly, which caused minor delays. The polling location closures also created some additional confusion and any error, human or computer, further adds to the distrust, she said.

“We all keep saying at least it will be over soon,” she said. “But with all the open records requests and lawsuits, it’s the election that never ends.”

Voters are tired, too. Many expressed that the endless television ads left them exhausted and ready to move on.

Quatillia Byrd didn’t seem too fazed by it all. She showed up at the polls Tuesday morning and cast her ballot. She is among the minority of voters that lean Democrat in the county.

“I’m just hoping and praying it went through,” she said. “Whatever happens, happens. I did my part.”

Miriam Shatterly was less relaxed with all that was riding on the outcome in Georgia. The election will determine the party that controls the Senate and, in many ways, the agenda in Washington. She said it was one of the most important elections in her life.

“It’s important for the country,” she said. “I don’t want the Democrats to have complete power. It’s scary.”

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