OPINION: Stop the Stealers have had 2 years to scheme. Worries abound

Richard Barron, the former head of Fulton County elections, drives for Uber these days.

Barron left his post at Fulton County Board of Elections and Registration in April after a nine-year tenure that ended in acrimony and a bizarre host of conspiracy theories fueled by a sitting U.S. president.

“I went from overseeing a $47 million budget to this,” he told me. Barron has tried, without luck, to get hired by a non-profit election foundation. He has been told he’s been blackballed for his connection to Fulton County and the publicity that might travel with him — kind of like a “suitcase of ballots.”

Barron, 56, is a stand-up guy who tried to perform the arduous task of turning around a long-dysfunctional department in the face of frenzy and antipathy. But no matter, he’s gone. Fulton’s elections board tried to fire him but the county commission nixed that. Still, he announced his resignation but stayed on for months because someone had to run it.

“I was just tired of fighting with everyone,” he said.

Barron’s exit is not unusual. Six of Georgia’s most populous counties, representing a third of the state’s voters, have new elections directors this time around: Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Chatham (Savannah), Bibb (Macon) and Richmond (Augusta.) Joe Biden won all of those counties, which was the problem. Donald Trump figured he couldn’t lose Georgia in 2020, so there had to be widespread chicanery. Right?

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Well, no. But truth didn’t stop the former Schemer in Chief from fueling a toxic stew of plots and theories all transferred down to an army of loyalists and extremists.

The exodus probably isn’t over. A poll by the Democracy Fund found that one in four elections officials has been threatened and one in five won’t be around in 2024.

Also, the FBI last month said seven swing states across the country, including Georgia, are seeing an unusual levels of threats to elections workers.

The 2022 midterms are big, as control of Congress and the political levers of Georgia, are in the offing. This is the first big post-2020 election, so the Stop the Steal forces have had two years to get their game on.

What will happen this time? Delusion? Harassment? Threats? Violence?

Last time, elections workers ranging from bigwigs like Barron and Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger all the way down to precinct workers and vote counters were the targets of plenty of intimidation.

Ruby Freeman, a Fulton poll worker, was the face of a world gone crazy when Trump accused her, wrongly and maliciously, as a cheater, sending MAGA’s flying monkeys on attack mode. “Someone’s bamming on the door again,” a terrified Freeman told a 911 operator from her home after the 2020 election. “Oh, they’re screaming. . . . Lord Jesus, where’s the police?”

But it wasn’t just elections workers from “Biden counties.”

Last month, Cindy Castello, a Republican elections board member in Cherokee County (69% Trump), chided some in the audience. “We’re not sitting up here any longer allowing anyone to belittle our office staff, our attorney, or us. It’s wrong,” she said. “We will not be intimidated.”

After the Jan. 6, 2021 primaries, Vanessa Montgomery, 58, a poll worker in Bartow County (75% Trump) was driving back to the elections office with her daughter to deliver ballots. They were followed for miles on a dark, two lane road by an SUV, which, she said, ultimately tried to run her off the road. She called 911 but no one was arrested.

Credit: Chris Harvey

Credit: Chris Harvey

A Reuters news story last year speculated she might not return to her job. “She did come back,” Joseph Kirk, Bartow’s elections director, told me. “In fact, she got promoted.”

Montgomery is a veteran. And these colors don’t run.

Kirk has been at his job 15 years and has seen increased animosity directed toward poll workers. This time, it hasn’t been as bad, other than an odd comment. He tries to be transparent and answer resident’s questions in his even-keeled manner. He has spoken with law enforcement about election law and to get them on board with the upcoming election.

Chris Harvey, deputy director of the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, has drawn up a course to educate police on election laws and how to keep voters and poll workers safe. The former homicide cop was Georgia’s elections director until last year and received threats for his part in running an honest election.

Cops are good at catching burglars and writing speeding tickets. But the nuances of election law of what is allowable (and not allowable) around polling places is foreign to many. Harvey has made up pocket cards on election law for officers.

There are worries self-professed “poll watchers” — the “I-do-my-own-research” crowd — will come to election sites and harass or threaten those doing their important jobs.

“They may be marginally informed but zealous in their beliefs,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It reminds me of the old Dunning–Kruger effect, the theory that says the most incompetent or ignorant are often the most confident and loud.

“Something has changed in the DNA,” Harvey told me. “If you go in thinking it’s rigged, then more things can happen.”