What it was like in Clayton County’s elections “Bunker” the night Georgia began to turn blue

Clayton Crescent reporter Robin Kemp was on site day and night as election workers counted ballots and poll watchers showed up in droves. Her live-tweeting of the evening's events earned national attention.

What it was like watching Clayton County elections counting
Onlookers stand in an hallway in “The Bunker” on November 5.

Photograph by Robin Kemp

On November 5, reporter Robin Kemp went to a nondescript concrete building in Jonesboro, nicknamed “The Bunker,” to cover 2020 election returns. She was the only reporter who was on scene for the entire day and night as Clayton County Elections and Registration workers counted ballots, and a platoon of poll watchers began showing up in twos and threes. Before sunrise, votes counted in Clayton had flipped Georgia blue, and Kemp’s live Twitter coverage had taken on a life of its own. Below, Kemp describes a scene of what it was like watching from “The Bunker” on the night the Georgia first swung blue, something it hadn’t done in 28 years.

The most disturbing thing about witnessing the ballot count in Clayton County was the optics.

Clayton County is a majority-Black, majority-Democratic suburb peppered with rural pockets. Wander through Rosetown, a historically-Black settlement of railroad and farm workers, and you’ll find patches of collard greens and tomatoes tucked into vacant lots and backyards. The Ku Klux Klan, as recently as the 1980s, used to do can shakes on Tara Boulevard in Jonesboro, where a mural of Vivian Leigh proclaims “FIDDLE DEE DEE!” across from the Confederate cemetery and a recently opened location of Pinky Cole’s monument to Black enterprise, Slutty Vegan. Many Southerners are polite about this kind of cognitive dissonance, like that of a crazy uncle who clearly can no longer manage his affairs yet barricades himself inside of his old mansion, imagining himself the general of an army he never commanded in the first place.

On the afternoon of November 5, a dozen youths, which reporters in Savannah and Clayton County Democrat observer Pat Pullar later said had been brought in from Camden County, began congregating in “The Bunker,” a low-profile concrete building that once housed the county E-911 center before it became a place to test voting machines and count absentee ballots.

They looked for the most part like Young Republicans interviewing for internships: mostly male, mostly white, mostly in their early twenties. They dressed like college students: some in ostrich cowboy boots or retro-80s rockabilly-star stylings, others in khaki chinos and blue blazers studded with brass buttons. One wore a University of Georgia Bulldogs neck gaiter. They assumed their positions on the line, behind and sometimes to the side of the blue painter’s tape demarcating an observation area where two folding chairs sat at a polite social distance.

The blue-blazer boys stood in the square, peering out over a roomful of Black women, many with gray hair exactly old enough to reprimand both them and their mothers. The women studiously ignored their young overseers, who occasionally remarked how “distracting” the noise was from the envelope-cutting machines or how “inconvenient” a narrow cardboard box behind the chairs made their patrolling.

Like a rotating cast of extras on The Walking Dead, the unidentified poll watchers paced in and out behind one another in turns between the duplication room and a bathroom-sized hallway next to a glassed-in office where workers scanned in ballots. The only observer wearing a county-issued badge told the cardboard-box complainer that, “Just having this many people deters these kinds of things,” although the observers and their advisor, a high-powered Miami lawyer named Manuel Iglesias who served on the Reagan and Bush Presidential transition teams, refused to tell reporters which kinds of things they’d allegedly witnessed.

Into the wee hours, observers kept coming, adding a couple of Black men and older white women to the mix, making their presence known, cramming eight at a time into a box apparently meant for two, stepping and leaning over the blue line, apparently trying to goad a response from the poll workers, who are forbidden by law from interacting with observers.

At the table closest to the box, an older Black woman sat silently counting ballots.

Her face said, I’ve seen this before, and I’m not impressed.

Robin Kemp has lived in Forest Park for 13 years and is the founder of The Clayton Crescent, a nonprofit news site covering Clayton County and the southern parts of Fulton and DeKalb Counties. Her election night coverage drew international attention from the BBC, LBC, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, NPR, Slate, and other news outlets, as well as over $45,000 in GoFundMe donations to claytoncrescent.org.