Woman investigated for bringing gun to vote as Black voters gave out water

Georgia election board clears Black Voters Matter
Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Blacks Voters Matter, speaks during a press conference after the Georgia State Election board meeting Tuesday. The board found that the group wasn’t campaigning when it handed out food and drinks at a polling place in Dougherty County in 2020. That was a year before the Republican-led General Assembly voted to ban the distribution of water and food at polling places. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Blacks Voters Matter, speaks during a press conference after the Georgia State Election board meeting Tuesday. The board found that the group wasn’t campaigning when it handed out food and drinks at a polling place in Dougherty County in 2020. That was a year before the Republican-led General Assembly voted to ban the distribution of water and food at polling places. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

MACON — A white woman who brought her gun into a Georgia polling place said Tuesday that she was “in fear for my life” when the group Black Voters Matter handed out water to waiting voters and played hip-hop music during the 2020 election.

Black Voters Matter volunteers didn’t break any state laws, according to a vote by the State Election Board. It wasn’t until the next year that Georgia legislators banned distributing snacks and water.

Even the woman received a bottle of water while standing in a long line during early voting in Dougherty County on Oct. 13, 2020.

But she now faces further investigation for her actions.

The State Election Board voted unanimously to ask the attorney general’s office to investigate the woman, Sarah Webster of Dawson, after she brought a gun into a polling place, which isn’t allowed. According to state law, no one except law enforcement can carry a weapon or gun within 150 feet of a polling place.

“We were the ones threatened with violence,” said Demetrius Young, one of the people who gave away refreshments and a city of Albany commissioner. “This was not campaigning. This was folks who saw a need and went to help.”

Sarah Webster speaks to the State Election Board about allegations that she brought a gun to a polling place during the 2020 election. Webster told the board during a meeting Tuesday in Macon that she saw people wearing “Black Voters Matter” T-shirts while talking to voters, passing out food and drinks, and playing hip-hop music outside the polling place. “I was completely, absolutely in horror when I pulled up to the polls to vote. ... I was totally intimidated,” Webster said. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Webster filed a complaint with the board because she said she felt “intimidated” when she saw people wearing “Black Voters Matter” T-shirts while talking to voters, passing out food and drinks, and playing hip-hop music outside the polling place. She told the election board Tuesday that she thought the group was violating laws against campaigning near a polling place.

Then, she said, the conflict escalated after she told the group, “Communism is great until you have to cook your puppy for dinner.”

She said she put her pistol in her purse before entering the polling place because she was scared, then later put it on her hip in its holster, hoping that the group would see it and leave her alone. Police arrested her the next week on a disorderly conduct charge.

“I was completely, absolutely in horror when I pulled up to the polls to vote. ... I was totally intimidated,” Webster told the board during its meeting in Macon. “They did chase me to my car and were very upset with me. My life was in danger.”

Volunteers for Black Voters Matter said they didn’t ask anyone to vote for a candidate or use snacks as an incentive while voters were waiting in long lines that day. They said they gave water and food to all voters, including Webster.

The board found that Black Voters Matter wasn’t campaigning, a difference from a recent case involving a Democratic state legislator who was fined $250 for handing out water to voters while wearing a shirt with his name. The board also previously warned a man for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat when he went to vote because it was considered campaigning at the polls.

Black Voters Matter members listen during a Georgia State Elections board meeting Tuesday at Mercer University in Macon. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Under Georgia’s 2021 voting law, passed by the General Assembly’s Republican majority in response to concerns about contact with voters as they’re about to cast their ballots, no one is allowed to give food or drinks to voters while they’re in line or within 150 feet of the outer edge of a polling place. Poll workers are allowed to install self-service water receptacles.

Hannah Joy Gebresilassie of Protect the Vote GA said the danger of bringing a gun to a polling place is unacceptable.

“We stand here in solidarity not just to preserve the right to serve our brothers and sisters water in line, but we also stand in solidarity to protect Black life and say ‘no’ to gun violence and ‘no’ to racism,” Gebresilassie said during a press conference after the board’s vote.

It’s a misdemeanor in Georgia to bring a gun into a polling place. The State Election Board has the power to issue fines after the attorney general’s investigation.

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