But on Tuesday, the county’s board of registration and elections voted 3-2 in favor of firing Barron, going against the wishes of the Fulton election director’s staff, who in recent days signed onto a letter in support of their boss.
In their letter, the staff described overcoming a pandemic, death threats, hostile poll watchers, a Covid-19 outbreak in the county’s warehouse, and the death of a beloved employee in order to conduct a “fair and unbiased election.”
“The person who is responsible for our success,” the staff wrote in a letter to the board, “is current Director Richard Barron who has shown his ability to guide, motivate, steer, and maintain the course of integrity, honesty, and fairness.”
Still, Democratic appointee Vernetta Keith Nuriddin and Republican appointees Mark Wingate and Dr. Kathleen Ruth voted to fire Barron. In contrast, Democratic appointee Aaron Johnson and board chair Mary Carole Cooney, an appointee of Fulton County commission chair Robb Pitts, voted in support of Barron.
On a Zoom call, Barron sat quietly, never speaking, while the board and the public discussed his job performance. He declined a request to comment for this story.
“We have just a history of systemic problems,” said Nuriddin. “I know if it was a popularity contest, Rick will win hands down. You know, I think it’s just not that.”
Nuriddin’s vote to fire Barron clashed with earlier statements she made in support of him and the department’s work.
In January 2020, Nuriddin wrote to Barron to say she agreed with an emailed statement labeling him “the best and most knowledgeable Registration and Elections director in the state.”
Later, in an email after the 2020 presidential election, Nuriddin seemed to congratulate Barron.
“Thank you for conducting one helluva an [sic] election. You did it,” she wrote.
Nuriddin voted to certify Fulton County’s November presidential election results. Her colleagues on the board, Ruth and Wingate, did not.
Barron took over the Fulton County elections department in 2013 and has long been the target of criticism. In a 2017 congressional race, Fulton was ridiculed for publishing results hours after other metro Atlanta counties. In Georgia’s 2018 race for governor, two precincts had to stay open until 10 p.m. after an equipment mix-up led to long lines. Barron and the county were accused of voter suppression. He admits to a mistake in that case, but says 99 percent of the county had a fine voting experience that day.
Then, in 2020, came a disastrous presidential primary election. Hundreds of poll workers quit, and dozens of volunteer polling places dropped out over fear of the coronavirus. Fulton County election department’s email system crashed, and people who requested mail-in ballots never received them. The lines at the polls were so long voters brought folding chairs, and at least one reported casting his ballot after 1 a.m. Barron called it the “single worst day” of his professional career.
Fulton County showed dramatic improvements in the November presidential election even as Trump and his allies spread conspiracy theories that led to death threats against many county workers. The nationally watched January senate runoff ran even more smoothly after Fulton gained experience handling the dramatic increase in mail-in voting sparked by the pandemic.
A monitor for the Georgia State Election Board, Carter Jones, spent 270 hours observing the department’s work and said he saw nothing that undermined the integrity of the election, but Jones was especially critical of how Fulton handled mail-in ballots during the November election.
Jones said Fulton’s processes seemed to function, but “were extremely sloppy and replete with chain of custody issues as the massive tide of ballots bounced around the Fulton Government HQ building.” He later concluded the January runoff election was a “comparative success.”
Republican Mark Wingate recounted a private meeting on January 11 in which the monitor told the Fulton County board of elections the mail-in ballot situation was dire.
“His terminology for that was ‘dangerous.’ I repeat. Dangerous,” Wingate said.
In the same meeting, Jones told the board Barron was not the department’s problem. The board that day voted to fire Barron, but because the meeting was private, the decision was considered invalid.
After the board’s public vote on Tuesday, Barron’s fate remains in a sort-of limbo. Fulton County attorneys have advised the elections board that the county board of commissioners must approve their decision. But when, and if, the issue will be added to the commission’s agenda remains unclear.
Tim Cummings, a manager in Fulton County’s election warehouse, said he was “frustrated” and “aggravated” by the board’s vote to fire Barron.
“These are people that are supposed to be looking out for the voters of Fulton County, and I gotta really wonder if they are looking out for the voters or [for] their own agenda,” Cummings said.
He worries the board’s decision will have lasting consequences for the department.
“The criteria for success as Fulton County elections director just got elevated to damn near impossibility,” he said. “Because if you just look out for the citizens of Fulton and do everything you can to make sure they can vote, you’re liable to lose your job; and if you don’t do that, you’re liable to lose your job.”
For his part, Cummings said he and his colleagues will keep doing the work it takes to run the county’s elections.
This story is part of a collaboration with public-radio station WABE, where Johnny Kauffman is a reporter. It’s possible thanks to support from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and the Abrams Foundation (no affiliation with Democrat Stacey Abrams).
On March 11, 2020, the Atlanta Hawks lost at home to the New York Knicks in overtime, 131 to 136, and the NBA abruptly suspended its season due to Covid-19. State Farm Arena’s newly renovated luxury suites would sit empty. And, sometime over those next eight months, water pressure began to build in the plumbing of one of the deserted bathrooms. In the wee hours of Election Day, November 3, a urinal overflowed, and water seeped through the floor and cascaded into the room below—where the Fulton County elections department had been processing mail-in ballots for days. It rained down near the machines used to open envelopes, optical scanners, and black plastic totes filled with ballots.
Shaye Moss arrived around 5:30 a.m. Since 2012, when she started working in Fulton County’s elections department, she had sometimes dressed up for Election Day. But after working long hours all week, the 36-year-old with waist-length, blond braids had just pulled on some Ugg boots and plain black pants.
Moss passed through security and took the elevator up to the suite level. When she opened the door to Fulton’s mail-in ballot operation, she saw water pooling on the gray carpet. “It was a horrible thing,” says Moss, who had recently been promoted to supervise the operation. As other employees and temp workers began to arrive, State Farm Arena staff hustled for the wet vacs.
About a mile across the city, in Fulton County’s emergency operations center, surrounded by TV screens tuned to news channels and a digital clock showing multiple time zones, Rick Barron’s phone buzzed. Fulton’s director of registration and elections was already tired after a short night’s sleep. Age 54, he wore his neck-length gray hair slicked back and his habitual work uniform: a dark blue suit without a tie and a black mask with “VOTE” written across it in bold, white letters. When Barron answered his phone, his top deputy briefed him on the situation at State Farm Arena. Well, this is the way elections seem to go in Fulton County, Barron thought. It feels like we always have something. His staff were managing the situation, so he called to inform the head of operations for State Farm Arena and went to get a drink of water. That day, Americans were fearful the election would falter because of voter intimidation, foreign hacking, fraud, mismanagement, or even a sluggish postal system. Barron had no time to worry about plumbing.
The stakes were mind-boggling. Barron knew Georgia was a battleground for control of the White House and the Senate, and no county in the state—maybe even the nation—was more critical than Fulton. With more than one million residents, it is Georgia’s most populous county. Forty-four percent of the population is Black, and in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the county by nearly 180,000 votes. The calculus was simple: The more votes cast and counted in Fulton, the more likely Democrats were to win Georgia. The fewer votes cast and counted in Fulton, the more likely Republicans were to win.
The consequences of the overflowing urinal would prove more insidious and persistent than any physical damage. The incident helped propel conspiracy theories and a disinformation campaign, already set in motion by then President Trump and his allies, which led to violent threats against Moss and other Fulton employees—all 34 of whom, except for Barron, are Black. Ultimately, all the disinformation would lead to lasting emotional and psychological strife for Barron, Moss, and the rest of Fulton’s staff. Still, while democracy threatened to crumble around them, they risked their lives to hold it together.
When Barron grew up on the coast of Oregon in the ’70s and ’80s, his parents often voted for different political parties. They both worked in government, his father as a state judge, his mother on the board of a public hospital. Barron had faith in the value of public service and the steadying influence of competing political parties.
At Oregon State University, his frat brothers knew him as a Van Halen megafan. And afterward, he drifted a bit, working as a middle manager at a bank until he got bored, and earning a master’s degree in classical civilizations. The field interested him, he tells me, because Greek and Roman democracy inspired the U.S. system of government. He was drawn to running elections for “the betterment of man, or something,” he says with a shrug, and worked his way up in counties around Austin, Texas. In 2013, he got the job as Fulton’s County’s director of elections and registration.
Barron moved with his four-year-old daughter and now ex-wife to a quiet residential area south of Grant Park and the Atlanta Zoo, where he still lives nearby. Half anxious number cruncher, half bro and jokester, he practices transcendental meditation—or listens to Howard Stern—to relax and daydreams about where he’ll go next to volunteer as an election observer, as he did in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In public, Barron appears measured and almost boring, the kind of nonpartisan bureaucrat you’d expect to see running elections. When he first arrived at the department, he worried that he might not be accepted as a white man managing Black coworkers, but that anxiety quickly dissipated. Partly, it may be because he’s always willing to help out—opening envelopes, scanning ballots, or delivering equipment. “This is,” Barron says, “the best group of people I’ve ever worked with. They just, they’re dedicated, and they work hard, and they’re fun.”
The Fulton County elections staff bonded over their shared sense of purpose. Some felt a responsibility to honor the legacy of Black civil rights activists like former Atlanta congressman John Lewis, who risked their lives or died pushing to expand voting access for people of color. The staff’s mantra is “Err on the side of the voter.” This means making voting as easy as possible, for as many people as possible, within the bounds of the law. That translates into little things, like alerting voters immediately when there’s a problem with their mail-in ballots or helping them fix registration errors. For Barron, it meant opening a record number of new early-voting sites around the county during a pandemic.
Moss remembers her grandmother volunteering at the polls, and Moss once asked her why she voted in every election. “She says she votes because it was a time when she couldn’t vote,” Moss recalled. “She votes because she can. She has the right.”
After Moss graduated from Fort Valley State University, a historically Black university in middle Georgia, she taught Spanish at a daycare and in 2012 was hired as a temp in Fulton’s voter-registration office. She liked getting people registered and helping them understand how the election system works. Thanks in part to coaching from an older colleague named Beverly Walker, Moss can process voter-registration applications faster than anyone else in the office. According to Barron, she can get through 1,000 in a day, while the best anyone else can do is 700. After five years as a temp, when Moss was hired as a permanent employee, she fell to her knees and cried.
Long before 2020, Barron, Moss, and the Fulton election staff were accustomed to political and media attention. In the nationally watched 2017 congressional race, Fulton was blasted for not publishing its results until 2 a.m. Then, there was the 2017 Atlanta mayoral race decided by just 759 votes. And less than a year later, Fulton was admonished for sending some voting computers to the wrong polling place during an especially contentious governor’s race between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp. The mixup created long lines, and a judge ordered two polling places to stay open until 10 p.m.
Barron admits to mistakes in the 2018 midterms but argues 99 percent of Fulton County voters had a fine experience. He blames Fulton’s size, 529 square-miles, and the fact it’s a Democratic county in a state controlled by Republicans, for all the blame that comes their way.
Going into 2020, Barron already had expected the year to be challenging because the state was implementing new touchscreen computers that print paper ballots. Then the coronavirus hit. Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger postponed Georgia’s March primary to May, then June. Even then, Raffensperger admitted, “I certainly realize that every difficulty will not be completely solved by the time in-person voting begins.”
In April, Barron’s deputy over voter registration and mail-in ballots contracted Covid and had to be hospitalized. The same month, Moss’s mentor, 62-year-old Beverly Walker, died from the virus. Walker had worked in the department for two decades. A maternal figure who organized coffee breaks, Walker kept goodies like tea, sardines, and crackers in her desk drawer. She “made us feel like family,” Moss says. “Everybody loved Miss Beverly.”
After Walker died, Barron closed the office for two days so it could be disinfected and the staff could grieve, disrupting preparations for the primary at a crucial time. So many applications for mail-in ballots came in online that the department’s email system crashed. A couple hundred poll workers quit, and dozens of churches and senior centers decided not to volunteer their facilities as polling places. Usually able to keep a boundary between his professional and personal life, Barron found himself preoccupied by work when he arrived home, constantly anxious.
Election Day was a disaster. People who had requested mail-in ballots never received them, and the lines at the polls were so long, people brought their own chairs. Terence Rushin timed his wait—seven hours and 45 minutes, long enough for him to watch season eight of Curb Your Enthusiasm—and attracted more than a quarter million views when his story was posted on YouTube by the New York Times. He didn’t cast his ballot until after 1 a.m. Barron calls it the “single worst day” of his professional career.
Though other counties also had problems with the new voting computers, Secretary of State Raffensperger focused on Fulton, ordering investigations and asking for authorization to intervene in county election departments if needed. Ultimately, Fulton and the Georgia State Election Board, chaired by Raffensperger, agreed that an independent monitor would review the department’s operations, with the threat of a $50,000 fine for poor performance.
For the general election, Barron added 91 polling places and required more training for poll workers. Fulton would hire more than 4,000 poll workers, including at least 200 temps to help with deliveries, opening envelopes, and equipment. They set up more than 30 early-voting locations, including a massive polling place at State Farm Arena—according to Barron, more early sites than DeKalb, Cobb, and Gwinnett counties, combined. The Fulton County Board of Commissioners budgeted an additional $14.5 million dollars for the effort and received a $6 million grant from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life.
But as early in-person voting began in Georgia, just three weeks before Election Day, one of the workers in the 25,000-square-foot warehouse where Fulton stores election equipment reported a positive Covid test. A week later, some two dozen warehouse workers tested positive and one was in the hospital. Barron called it a “full-blown outbreak.” Fulton moved most of its warehouse operations to the Georgia World Congress Center and hired more temp workers.
With so many full-time employees at home, contractors like Tia Benton stepped up to lead the operation. Benton had worked as a bartender at the Atlanta airport until the pandemic hit. When she arrived at the convention center, she was put in charge of testing and organizing hundreds of touchscreen voting computers, printers, and scanners, and distributing them to 255 voting sites. “It was so chaotic because I had no plan, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Benton says. For days, she and others worked late into the night. They had no choice. Early on the morning of Election Day, Barron drove to the warehouse to make sure all the iPads used to check in voters were sent out. The last of the equipment had been delivered just hours before voting began.
Fulton County 2020 Elections Timeline
03/02/20 | Early voting begins in Georgia’s presidential primary elections.
03/14/20 | Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger postpones presidential primary elections until May because of Covid-19.
04/09/20 | Raffensperger again postpones primary elections, this time until June.
04/15/20 | Beloved Fulton County elections worker Beverly Walker dies after contracting coronavirus.
06/09/20 | Voters wait in line for hours on primary election day in Fulton County, which turned into a fiasco after hundreds of poll workers quit and dozens of volunteer polling places dropped out.
10/12/20 | Early voting begins in the general election. One of the workers in Fulton County’s elections warehouse tests positive for coronavirus. Within a week, 23 workers at the warehouse test positive.
11/03/20 | General election day. Around 5 a.m., Fulton County elections workers discover water raining into the room where the elections department set up its mail-in ballot operation. Voting runs smoothly throughout the county.
11/04/20 | Early in the morning, President Donald Trump falsely claims victory at the White House.
11/05/20 | Fulton County mostly completes opening and scanning mail-in ballots.
11/07/20 | President Joe Biden celebrates victory with a speech in Delaware.
11/09/20 | Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, the Republican candidates in Georgia’s dual runoff for U.S. Senate, call for Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign. Two days later, he orders a hand tally of all Georgia ballots cast in the presidential race.
12/03/20 | President Donald Trump’s team visits the Georgia State Capitol at the invitation of Republican legislators.
01/02/21 | On the now infamous call between President Donald Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Trump repeatedly derides Fulton County and election worker Ruby Freeman.
01/05/21 | Runoff election day goes smoothly in Fulton County.
01/06/21 | Pro-Trump extremists riot in the U.S. Capitol building, leaving five people dead. Fulton County pauses processing of mail-in ballots from the runoff election.
01/15/21 | Fulton County Board of Registrations and Elections votes to certify the runoff election results. Democrat Jon Ossoff would be Georgia’s first Jewish senator, and Democrat Raphael Warnock would be Georgia’s first Black senator.
From the warehouse, Barron drove to Fulton County’s emergency-operations center, where he learned about the plumbing problem at State Farm Arena. But by the time the polls opened, it appeared the leak and some other minor technical difficulties had been resolved. “I wanted a boring Election Day,” Barron told me. “That’s the way it’s been so far.”
He fell asleep in an office chair, his chin resting on his chest, one of his two iPhones falling out of his limp hands and into his lap. Barron had averaged just four hours of sleep per night over the last five days. When he woke up, he looked at a clock. “Oh my god,” he groaned, “It’s not even noon. This day is only a third over.”
A few minutes before the polls closed at 7 p.m., the Fulton County Board of Registrations and Elections held a public meeting on Zoom, and the board chair asked about the leak. Ralph Jones, Fulton’s voter-registration chief who was overseeing the county’s entire mail-in ballot operation, responded. He said a “pipe burst,” causing water to rain into the mail-in ballot room at State Farm Arena. No ballots or equipment were damaged, Jones said, and, after four hours, workers resumed opening and scanning.
Word of the incident spread quickly on social media. During a live shot from a Democratic watch party, a national CBS News reporter incorrectly stated that a pipe had burst and halted tabulation at State Farm Arena, which would likely prevent Fulton County from counting all its mail-in ballots that night. “Big development here,” he said.
In reality, Barron and election officials throughout the country had warned for weeks the count would take days. But Trump had cranked up his insistence that mail-in ballots were vulnerable to fraud and that a winner must be declared on Election Day. Both Republicans and Democrats were getting increasingly anxious for results.
As news of the leak spread, Barron drove to the county’s warehouse where journalists and party observers were gathered, roped off from the Fulton staff who were busy receiving equipment from polling places, including sealed bags of paper ballots and memory cards that held the records of votes. Barron said that at 10:30 p.m., the workers at State Farm Arena would stop opening and scanning mail-in ballots for the night. But he got lots of questions from reporters, and the board of elections complained about the plan to shut down. “People are just freaking out,” Barron said, pacing around the warehouse.
Finally, Barron called Jones, the voter-registration chief, who was about three miles away at State Farm Arena. “If you guys can go ’til midnight, it would at least look better for all of us,” Barron said. So, Jones and four others, including Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, who was helping as a temp worker, started scanning ballots again.
Soon after he hung up with Jones, Barron learned that Raffensperger, during an interview on a local TV station, had criticized the county for its original plan to shut down. Barron walked past the journalists and observers to Fulton County’s external-affairs director, Jessica Corbitt-Dominguez, sitting at a white, plastic folding table near a cubicle on the edge of the warehouse floor. “The Secretary of State is bad-mouthing us,” Barron said. “I have no problem laying into him. In fact, I would welcome it.” He sat down in a chair across from Corbitt-Dominguez, who urged patience, asking for more information about the situation at State Farm Arena. Barron lost his temper.
“Shut the fuck up,” he growled. “I want everyone off my fucking ass.”
Corbitt-Dominguez snapped back, defending herself. “You know what, I’m going home,” she said. “Fuck you and everything else. I’ve spent nothing but time trying to save your ass for the last two months.” She stood up and stomped away.
Barron seemed to calm down, sighing deeply, and tapping out a text message to the board of elections about the operation at State Farm Arena. “Maybe this will get them off my back,” he said.
In the end, though, the sudden decision to keep counting was poorly explained to the public and backfired. Trump supporters claimed it was part of a Democrat plot to send Republican observers home, so Jones, Moss, Freeman, and the other Fulton staff secretly could scan fraudulent ballots with votes for Joe Biden. But an investigator for the Secretary of State’s office said in an affidavit filed in federal court that no observers were told to leave, and no “mystery ballots” were brought in from some unknown location. The observers left after they saw one group of election workers, whose job was opening envelopes, finish their work and leave, according to the investigator. A monitor for the Georgia State Election Board who spent 270 hours observing Fulton County’s voting operations, later would write that he witnessed no “‘ballot stuffing’ nor ‘double-counting’ nor any other fraudulent conduct that would undermine the validity, fairness, and accuracy of the results.”
At the warehouse, Barron and his staff continued to count in-person votes from Election Day and early voting. Trump was ahead, and the president took the stage at the White House, falsely claiming he had won Georgia and the election. “They’re never going to catch us,” he said. But when Barron finally drove home after 2 a.m., there were still tens of thousands of mail-in ballots left to count.
Barron woke up at 7:30 Wednesday morning, November 4, after sleeping for just three hours, and drove back to State Farm Arena. The room soaked by a urinal leak two nights ago now was crowded with more than 100 people. Barron stationed himself in a corner, hunched over his computer, as far as possible from the area where more than 50 journalists and partisans were separated by a folding table from the mail-in ballot operation.
Moss walked around the “cramped” space, between the tables where workers were stationed, answering questions, helping fix malfunctioning scanners or envelope openers, and “babysitting” party observers. Moss describes herself as an introvert, and a room full of people watching her work made her self-conscious and uncomfortable. Plus, the party observers were not always familiar with the law, she said, requesting to see ballots and looking over the shoulders of workers in ways that were not allowed. Most, if not all, of the observers were white, and Moss felt part of the reason she and the other Fulton workers were treated disrespectfully was because they were Black. “It was just very degrading,” she said. She started feeling nauseous.
All day, Trump and his allies blasted out unsubstantiated claims. The country watched anxiously as results trickled in. Protesters gathered outside vote-counting operations in Detroit and Philadelphia. The chair of the Georgia Republican Party, David Shafer, suggested on Twitter that Fulton staff at State Farm Arena the night before had lied to his party’s observers and sent them home under false pretenses.
Meanwhile, still in his corner, Barron fielded calls and text messages from candidates, county officials, and journalists, all hungry for results. “It’s constant. It is just constant,” he said. Barron tried to apologize to Corbitt-Dominguez for his outburst the night before; but, tired and distracted, he struggled to put together a coherent sentence.
“I was very upset that I got as upset as I did,” she said, “So, I’m sorry.”
“So did—so was I,” Barron said sheepishly.
By that afternoon, still the Wednesday after Election Day, of the approximately 142,000 mail-in ballots Fulton received, about 30,000 still needed to be counted. Barron, along with Fulton employees and temps, some paid just $14.50 an hour, would work through the night. Trump’s lead in Georgia was shrinking, and with the world closely watching Fulton, Barron gave at least a dozen interviews to reporters, delivering updates on the process.
Around 8 p.m., Moss grew more nauseated and threw up, then fell asleep on a sofa in another suite. She woke up around 1 a.m. on Thursday, to her mom standing over her. Moss drove home, slept four more hours, then returned to State Farm Arena to keep working.
Finally, on Thursday afternoon, about two and a half days after the polls closed, as Trump supporters protested outside State Farm Arena, Barron announced the bulk of the work was finally done. Applause and cheers spread through the room. Fulton staff congratulated and thanked Barron as he retreated to his corner. He hadn’t slept in 36 hours, and he almost broke down in tears. “I just thought about everybody that got sick [from Covid], because it was stressful worrying about whether that was going to happen to anybody again,” he said, his voice shaky. “Fuck.”
Two days later, Joe Biden declared victory. Trump and his allies began a crusade against Georgia Republicans who refused to challenge the will of the state’s voters. Georgia’s twin U.S. Senate races wouldn’t be decided until a January runoff, and the Republican candidates, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, called for Secretary of State Raffensperger to resign. He refused, describing the election as a “resounding success”—though he deflected some of the attention onto Fulton, calling it, “one of our longtime-problem, Democrat-run counties.”
Two days later, Raffensperger, a soft-spoken policy wonk with an engineering background, ordered an unprecedented hand tally of Georgia’s 5 million cast ballots as a way to build trust in the result. It meant hours of unanticipated work for the Fulton County elections department. The county once again rented space at the Georgia World Congress Center and hired 340 people to count 528,777 ballots by hand. The effort cost the county an estimated $200,000.
Barron told me around this time he considered resigning but decided to stay in his position to keep his health insurance. “I’m burned, burned out,” Barron said, “and I can’t shake it.” A last-minute meeting kept Barron from attending one of his daughter’s middle-school presentations, and he said he’d lost track of all that he’d missed. His own roof was leaking, and his bathroom was half-renovated. Barron’s temper started to flare. “There are days where I, like, want to go off on people,” he said. “I just don’t remember being this way before, ever.”
After the hand tally, the AP called Georgia for Biden, but Trump and his allies weren’t satisfied and requested another recount, to which he was legally entitled because of the narrow margin separating the candidates. This time, Fulton and Georgia’s 158 other counties rescanned the ballots, a less labor-intensive process.
Trump slammed Raffensperger on Twitter, and violent threats against the Secretary of State, his family, and his staff ensued. In one instance among many, an “enemies list” was posted online with crosshairs over the images of Raffensperger’s staff. Their addresses were listed, along with photos of their homes.
The Secretary of State’s office held regular press conferences in front of a marble staircase inside the Georgia State Capitol to deliver updates and debunk the conspiracy theories and lies. The star was Gabriel Sterling, a state contractor with tortoiseshell glasses, a flop of gray hair, and an awkward title: voting system implementation manager. “Death threats, physical threats, intimidation—it’s too much. It’s not right,” said Sterling during an especially passionate speech that drew national headlines. “All of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this.”
Sterling also called out Fulton County repeatedly for the way it ran the presidential election and the recount. “What we’re seeing in Fulton right now,” Sterling said, “is managerial sloppiness, which opens the door for potential problems.”
The monitor for the Georgia State Election Board, who spent days observing Fulton, reported he saw nothing that undermined the integrity of the election, but he too was critical. The monitor said Fulton’s processes seemed to function but “were extremely sloppy and replete with chain of custody issues as the massive tide of ballots bounced around the Fulton Government HQ building.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that Raffensperger and Sterling would be critical of Fulton. Both conservatives and Fulton voters, they have contentious histories with the Democrat-controlled county. While serving in the Georgia House in 2016, Raffensperger filed an unsuccessful resolution that would have allowed the north end of the county to break away and form Milton County. In 2005, Sterling helped lead a successful campaign to carve out the new city of Sandy Springs, a political battle, at least in part, over Fulton tax revenue.
As the recount came to an end, Trump and his devotees zeroed in on Fulton, spreading the fiction that the plumbing problem at State Farm Arena was part of an illegal scheme. On December 3, Republican state legislators invited Rudy Giuliani and other Trump lawyers to the Georgia Capitol building. As Trump watched the meeting from afar, commenting on Twitter, his team showed selections of surveillance video from inside State Farm Arena on the night of the election, when Barron had instructed his staff to resume counting. Trump’s representatives claimed Moss sent home Republican observers, then pulled “suitcases” of fraudulent ballots out from under a table and began scanning them.
The night after that meeting streamed from the Georgia Capitol, Gateway Pundit, a conservative website, identified Freeman in the surveillance footage. Online, conspiracy theorists turned the grandmother into a fictional villain, calling her a “suspect” and a “fraudster.” On Twitter, she was slandered as a “bitch” and a “crook.” Another conservative website, National File, identified Moss as Freeman’s daughter, slapping her with the nickname “Shady Shaye.” (Through Moss, Freeman declined to be interviewed for this story.)
On December 5, Trump held a rally at a South Georgia airport and alleged the Fulton staff had committed a crime. Five days later, on December 10, Republican state legislators invited Giuliani and Trump’s lawyers to a virtual meeting. This time, Giuliani himself named both Moss and Freeman when showing the surveillance video from State Farm Arena. He compared their movement to drug dealing. “They should have been questioned already. Their places of work, their homes should have been searched,” he said.
Freeman and Moss were inundated with hateful, threatening messages on social media. Freeman received at least 420 emails and 75 text messages, including one that said, “We know where you live, we coming to get you.” She shuttered her clothing boutique, deactivated her personal social-media pages, and changed her phone number and email. Freeman reported to police that strangers were knocking on her door. The police added Freeman’s house to their patrols of the area.
Moss had given an old phone to her 14-year-old son, so he was the one to receive the calls and text messages. “He’ll answer it, and they’re just calling him all types of racial slurs and saying what they’re going to do to him,” Moss said. At least once after he got a call, Moss’s son came into her room, wanting her to call back and put the people straight. She just told him to block the number.
People even showed up at Moss’s grandmother’s house, where Moss used to live. Moss’s grandmother called her once, frantic, when someone was at the door, saying they were going to make a citizen’s arrest.
Barron and other employees in the department were also subjected to threats and harassment. When they listened to their phone messages at work, voices called them “scumbags,” “lowlifes,” “crooks,” and worse. Callers pledged to shoot up the office. “I don’t know what we do these days. Is it firing squad? Is it hanging for treason?” said one anonymous caller in a message to Barron. “Boy, you better run.”
Employees spotted people taking photos of their license plates in the parking lot and a drone flying nearby. Concerned about his daughter’s safety, Barron warned his ex-wife to be cautious.
There was one positive development. All the threats and pressure endured by the Fulton County elections department and the Secretary of State’s office seemed to soothe their strained relationship. In an interview, Sterling said Fulton still had things it needed to fix but described their relationship as “pretty good.” A few days later, Barron told me about a Zoom call between the Secretary of State’s office and metro Atlanta counties. Barron said, for the first time in years, he felt the state was listening to their problems and concerns. “There was almost a sense of team-building on that call,” he said.
Then, on the Saturday before runoff Election Day, came the now infamous phone call, in which Trump suggested Raffensperger illegally overturn the presidential election results in Georgia. Raffensperger quietly stood up to Trump on the hour-long call, which was leaked to reporters. Trump mentioned Freeman 18 times and Fulton 14 times. He falsely claimed Freeman scanned the same set of ballots three times at State Farm Arena. “We did an audit of that, and we proved conclusively that they were not scanned three times,” Raffensperger said. Trump did not let up. “Fulton County is totally corrupt and so is she—totally corrupt,” he said of Freeman. “There was no water-main break.” The call was cited in the article of impeachment passed by the U.S. House in January, and, as of press time, Fulton County’s district attorney still was considering opening an investigation into whether Trump violated the law on the call.
For part of runoff election day, Barron suffered a migraine. Otherwise, though, the day went smoothly. In the afternoon, when he returned to his usual post, the news of Trump’s call with Raffensperger and the plans of GOP lawmakers to reject the electoral college played on the surrounding TVs. Barron leaned back in an office chair next to a conference table, one arm folded behind his head, reflecting on the news. “I’m questioning this job’s value, or worth, anymore,” he said. “I’m supposed to be working in a process where people run for office, they get elected, they go to pass laws that supposedly make society better. And then, they’re conspiring in this just absolute circus show. I don’t have any respect for the people that are getting elected through the process that I am administering.”
When the polls closed at 7 that evening, Barron drove the few miles to Fulton’s warehouse, where the scene was similar to general-election night, except for a few additional law enforcement officers and a table where the public had to sign in. It was relatively quiet.
During the runoff, Barron held fewer press conferences and granted fewer interviews. “I got to a point where it was, You know what? It’s not gonna matter, whatever we say. It’s gonna have zero effect,” he said. Barron also worried about drawing more attention and threats. But, after encouragement from Corbitt-Dominguez, he did make one move to prevent future conspiracy theories: He asked the Fulton staff scanning mail-in ballots to announce to everyone in the room when they were heading home for the night.
The next morning, when I arrived at Barron’s downtown office, a police officer was stationed outside. I found Barron at his cluttered desk, sitting at his computer, taking calls and writing emails. Hours later, we watched CNN in the breakroom as pro-Trump extremists rioted through the U.S. Capitol, leaving five people dead. “They’re all responsible for this,” Barron said of the Republicans who threatened to reject certifying the electoral college. “It’s disgusting.”
Concerned for his staff’s safety, Barron told them to stop processing the few remaining mail-in ballots and go home. He stayed behind for a virtual court hearing over a challenge to Fulton’s election results. It felt eerie given the situation in Washington D.C. In the chat, an anonymous observer threatened Fulton’s attorney in the case, a Black woman. “Put that woman’s head on a pike immediately,” they wrote in all caps.
Moss got more threatening calls than usual on the day of the insurrection. It all makes her wish she hadn’t stepped up to lead the mail-in ballot operation at State Farm Arena. “I had the most experience, but I should have just stayed in the office,” Moss said. “Always trying to help, and do the most, and be available, but I’m always the one getting shitted on at the end, every time. Like, I just need to fall into the background.”
The day after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Fulton quietly uploaded the last of the mail-in ballots for the Senate runoff election. The state election board monitor would later conclude the runoff was “a comparative great success.” Democrat Jon Ossoff would be Georgia’s first Jewish senator, and Democrat Raphael Warnock would be Georgia’s first Black senator. I asked Barron if this was evidence of democracy working in the former confederate state. “I’m so disturbed by what’s going,” he said, “that I think it overshadows this.”
The next week, Barron thanked department staff via Zoom. “That may have been the best election that we’ve ever run in Fulton County,” Barron said, his voice slightly shaky. Then, he listed some of the abuse and threats he and the staff had had to endure. “It is more than any of us deserved or should have ever had to deal with in our lives,” he said, “especially for coming to work and doing a job that is supposed to mean something in terms of how our society is governed and ruled. To be punished for doing that work is a tough pill to swallow.”
Thanks to the department, voting had been relatively fair, trustworthy, and easy in Fulton County. Before November, that might have been enough to inspire faith in democracy, but now, it felt woefully insufficient.
This story is part of a collaboration with public-radio station WABE, where Johnny Kauffman is a reporter. It’s possible thanks to support from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and the Abrams Foundation (no affiliation with Democrat Stacey Abrams).
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