Election re-do in Georgia county shows voting challenges in rural communities

The courthouse in Webster County, Georgia, where a special election for clerk of court had to be re-done this week because an elderly African-American voter was blocked from casting a ballot. (Photo by Rivers Langley via Wikimedia.)

Mildred Russell votes in every election in Webster County, Georgia. The 89-year-old woman, who has lived in Webster County nearly her entire life, usually votes by absentee ballot. And that's how she planned to vote in a June special election for local Superior Court clerk in the third-smallest county in the state, a rural community west of Americus with just 1,699 registered voters.

But she either misplaced her absentee ballot or never received it; either way, come election day on June 18, she hadn't yet voted. So she did what she thought was the next best thing: She asked her granddaughter to drive her to her local polling place so she could vote in person. She was turned away three times. The poll workers, Russell said in a signed affidavit, told her that to vote in person she'd need to bring her absentee ballot with her. They did not let her cast a provisional ballot.

"I believe the poll workers did not take me seriously and dismissed my concerns because I am African-American. I [was] forced out of school at an early age to work in the fields and I think people pick up on this when dealing with me," Russell said in a statement provided to Fair Fight Action and shared with Facing South. "I can read some but I can be dismissed if people think I am not educated. There are lot [sic] of issues with race in Webster County and there's a lot that goes on here that isn't right." 

Russell's experience trying to vote wasn't the only irregularity in that special election. And it probably would have gone unaddressed had the election not ended in a 332-332 tie.

But after candidate Chekeidra Crimes contested the results, in part because of Russell's inability to vote, a judge nullified the election and demanded that it be redone. It's a rare instance in which one person's vote could have changed the outcome of an election — and a window into how difficult it can be to administer local elections and ensure everyone has access to the ballot, especially in rural areas. 

The Georgia Supreme Court does not make it easy to overrule the results of an election. "We must presume that the results of an election contest are valid," the court wrote in Middleton v. Smith, a 2000 case related to primary election irregularities in Long County. "To carry that burden, the challenger must show a specific number of illegal or irregular ballots — and that number must be sufficient to cast doubt on the result of the election. It is not sufficient to show irregularities which simply erode confidence in the outcome of the election." 

The burden of proof, in other words, is on the person contesting the election. Rarely is it as incontrovertible as it was in Russell's case.

All politics is local

Roughly 2,600 people live in Webster County. Despite its small size, it's civically active. It had the third-highest rate of voter turnout in the state during the 2018 midterms, when 70 percent of the county's voters cast a ballot. In June's original special election, 664 people — roughly 40 percent of those registered — voted. The turnout jumped to nearly 66 percent in the Nov. 5 election, an indication of wide community interest in the clerk's race. The deputy elections registrar told Facing South that they registered 50 new voters between the initial election and the redo.

"More people are getting registered to vote because this incident has shed light," Crimes said. "Now they're aware of voter suppression."  The election offered a snapshot of the difficulties of electoral administration in small, rural counties where most people know each other, public resources are slim, and local journalism can be lacking.

Located in the Black Belt, Webster County is roughly 50 percent black and 50 percent white, one of many rural counties in the South where black people make up a majority or near-majority of the population. Historic and present inequities are readily apparent in Webster County: The median household income for white residents is more than twice that of black residents. The Webster County Commission is composed of two white men and two black men — one of them Crimes' father. Its website notes that it was the first county in Georgia to fly the Confederate flag from the courthouse.

Crimes was appointed as Webster County's Superior Court clerk in January, taking over after the retirement of the previous clerk, whose role is maintaining court records.  A special election for the nonpartisan office was scheduled for June 18. Two candidates — Crimes, who is black, and Ami Rowland , who is white — filed to run. Crimes alleges that there were problems from the beginning, including her opponent putting up campaign signs before the candidate qualifying period had begun, and the board of elections failing to perform some of its duties. Rowland and her attorney did not return requests for comment.

"The election was not advertised properly," Maurice King, Crimes' attorney, told Facing South. "It was not posted properly." In the hearing where he nullified the election, the judge cited the board of elections' failure to post notice of the election in enough places.

In Georgia, local elections boards bear responsibility for registering voters, maintaining an accurate voter list, and conducting and certifying the elections themselves. Members of the boards, which are appointed by county commissions, are not allowed to engage in political activity of any kind.

Crimes told Facing South she knew something was amiss at the end of the first special election day back in June. The initial vote count printed by the local weekly showed that Rowland had won by one vote. But election officials found one ballot that hadn't been counted, turning the race into a tie. They scheduled a runoff for July. 

Crimes' petition to contest the election included concerns that the board of elections had acted improperly, and that Russell had been denied her right to cast a ballot.

"It's not about winning or losing for me, but let me lose fairly," Crimes told Facing South. And the court ultimately agreed with her, saying that the results of the election were not sound because Russell had not been allowed to vote.

"This error resulting in an irregularity is legally sufficient to cast in doubt the official results of the outcome," Judge Bryant Culpepper wrote in his order to nullify the election. He ordered the runoff election canceled, and required Webster County to redo the special election in November. And he specifically required the local board of elections to post "conspicuous notices" of the runoff's cancellation and the new special election, so that voters would be aware that any absentee ballots they had already cast in the canceled July runoff would not be counted.

The county's deputy registrar, Bonnie Witt, took to the weekly paper to say that the board of elections did not agree with Crimes' characterizations of election problems as purposeful or malicious. "An error or honest mistake is not the same as admitting to misconduct or intent to engage in wrongdoing," Witt told the weekly.

"It's not unprecedented to redo elections," Trey Hood, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, told Facing South. "Elections are run by thousands of individuals, and there's going to be some human error involved." In instances of election misadministration like what happened in Webster County's special election, Hood said, it's nearly impossible to ascribe motives one way or the other.

"Was this malicious, or was this just a mistake?" he said. "There's a big gulf." 

A different landscape

The challenges facing local elections in Webster County, Georgia, are a microcosm of challenges to democracy across the South and elsewhere around the country.

At the same time, election administration looks different in rural counties than it does in urban or suburban ones. And while federal and state elections often have high levels of scrutiny, that's not always the case for local elections, particularly in rural areas. In places like Webster, there's often not a local newspaper to turn to for daily election coverage; the two weeklies that serve Webster County cover several surrounding counties as well. Without an in-depth source of local news, it can be hard to know when elections are coming up, who's running in them, or what the candidates' platforms are.

A University of North Carolina study on news deserts in the United States found that newspaper circulation has dropped by 48 percent in Georgia over the past 15 years. It also found that nearly every state in the South has at least one news desert, defined as a place with "limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level." 

On the government side, small rural counties like Webster may not have the resources to keep government websites up to date, another barrier to information access for rural voters. The most up-to-date public notice available on Webster County's website, for example, is for elections held in 2010. A recent Congressional Research Service report noted that rural elections officials are more likely to be part-time, and thus to "depend on their states to provide specialized expertise, such as legal or technical know-how." 

There's also a financial burden to failing to do elections right the first time. Webster County's failure to administer the June special election properly meant that the county had to pay for an attorney and other legal expenses after Crimes contested the results, and had to foot the bill to print new ballots for the November election. Roughly 20 percent of Webster County's residents live under the poverty line, and the median household income is about $36,600.

And in recent years Georgia has been ground zero of the fight for fair elections. In 2018, voter roll purges and allegations of voter suppression tainted the gubernatorial race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican who won. A recent report from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights shows that seven of 10 counties that have closed the greatest percentage of their polling places nationwide since the U.S. Supreme Court's Shelby v. Holder decision gutted critical protections under the Voting Rights Act are in Georgia. As a consequence, several rural counties in Georgia now have just one polling place covering hundreds of square miles.

'I'm feeling good'

When Facing South called Mildred Russell in late October, her brother-in-law picked up the phone. They were just leaving the Webster County polling place, where Russell had voted early in the special election — in person, without any trouble.

"I'm feeling good," she said. "Yes ma'am. It was easier to vote."

According to unofficial vote totals provided to Facing South by the Webster County Board of Elections, Crimes won the special election this week by the slimmest of margins, 561-559. Crimes is still holding her breath for the elections to be officially certified and for the five-day period her opponent has to contest the election results to end. But she's glad, she said, that her experience brought more awareness to her community of the importance of voting, and of fair access to the ballot.

"In a small town like where I live, one vote matters," she said. "One vote."