When black women flipped the majority-white school board in the small town of Quitman, the State of Georgia arrested them and charged them with 120 separate felony counts of voter fraud. Yahoo News reports the Quitman story “is of an overzealous law enforcement response to a school board election, which exacerbated racial divisions and demonstrates how voter suppression plays out at the local level.”
A History of Racial Terror and Opposition to Equality
Quitman is the seat of Brooks County, named for Preston Brooks, the congressman from South Carolina who nearly beat to death Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate in 1856 because he had spoken out against slavery.
Like its namesake, Brooks County embraced the use of extreme violence to maintain white supremacy. EJI’s research on racial terror lynchings between 1877 and 1950 shows that Brooks County had the third-highest number of racial terror lynchings in Georgia. Many of the 20 documented lynching victims were killed during the Lynching Rampage of 1918, when white mobs terrorized African Americans for days after the fatal shooting of a notoriously abusive and exploitative white plantation owner, resulting in attacks, property damage, and lynchings. Mary Turner, a young mother of two who was eight months pregnant, was lynched after she publicly denounced the lynching of her husband. The mob hanged her by her feet from a tree, drenched her with gasoline, and set her on fire. She burned “amid the wild cheers of the assembled mob.” When the flames died down, her unborn child was cut out of her and stomped to death. The mob then fired hundreds of bullets into Mary Turner’s corpse. A historical marker installed in 2010 at the site where Mrs. Turner was lynched also has been shot full of bullet holes.
White families in Brooks County joined the massive resistance to civil rights and racial equality that followed the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that struck down racially segregated schools. Rather than integrate the schools, white students in Brooks County were sent to all-white private schools. The legacy of this resistance to racial equality can be seen today: although Brooks County is almost 60 percent white, the public schools are majority black.
Challenging Racial Hierarchy
When Nancy Dennard started working for Brooks County schools in 2000 after working in other school systems throughout Georgia, she told Yahoo News that African Americans had no representatives in key positions, and some school board members seemed more interested in preventing property tax increases than providing schools with sufficient resources. She decided to run for a seat on the school board.
After losing campaigns in 2004 and 2008, Ms. Dennard began to focus on absentee voters. The Republican-controlled state legislature had made it easier to use absentee ballots in 2005, when Republicans relied on the tactic. In a special election in 2009, Ms. Dennard won.
She then recruited two black women, middle-school math teacher Diane Thomas and lifelong educator Linda Troutman, to run for school board in 2010. Most voters, black and white, voted Democratic in Brooks County, so the July primary was the key race. Black turnout tripled from the previous two midterm elections, and both women prevailed, flipping the board from a white majority to a black majority.
Ignoring a sore-loser law that usually prevents candidates from running in the same election twice, a circuit judge allowed the two white Democrats who lost in the Democratic primary — Mayra Exum and Gary Rentz — to run again in the fall general election as write-in candidates. Ms. Troutman and Ms. Thomas won again, even though white turnout was higher than black turnout by a little more than 300 votes.
Creating an Atmosphere of Fear
Six weeks later, state law enforcement officials under the authority of then-secretary of state Brian Kemp arrested Ms. Dennard at her home, took her away in handcuffs, placed her in a squad car, and walked her into the police station. Eleven of her political allies were also arrested, including Linda Troutman, Diane Thomas, and Thomas’s sister, Lula Smart, who was an active campaign volunteer. The Quitman 10+2 (two were arrested after the first 10 arrests) were charged with 120 separate felonies. Mug shots of them in orange jumpsuits were plastered across newspaper front pages, broadcast repeatedly on local TV news, and used by Fox News as evidence of voter fraud.
Republicans have relied on the threat of voter fraud to enact laws in many states that make it harder to vote, especially for poor and nonwhite voters. Brian Kemp, Yahoo reports, has aggressively purged voters from the voter rolls as part of his effort “to protect the integrity of our elections.” In the 1970s and 1980s, proponents defended voter purging as a way to identify and prevent fraud, but a 1981 internal memo by the Republican National Committee in Louisiana revealed other motives. “I know this race is really important to you,” the memo read. “I will guess that this program [of voter purging] will eliminate at least 60,000-80,000 folks from the rolls . . . If it’s a close race, which I’m assuming it is, this could keep the black vote down considerably.”
The history of voter suppression in America has deep roots. EJI has documented the organized opposition to racial equality that was widespread throughout the country during the civil rights era. When activists secured federal laws to combat outright racial discrimination, more covert practices emerged to weaken growing black electoral power. Just three years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, black voter registration in the South had increased by 1.3 million.
Segregationists desperate to suppress that political threat re-branded themselves “conservatives” and spread manufactured “voter fraud” fears to justify restrictive electoral policies for decades. Conservatives latched onto Quitman as proof that voter fraud was a real and serious threat.
Ms. Dennard told Yahoo that she and her allies were arrested because they had upset the racial hierarchy. “They thought they could make an example out of me, and that would kill the spirit of this movement,” she said. “I knew we had done nothing wrong.”
The arrests created an impression in the black community that vigorously exercising the right to vote would be punished. As gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams said during her 2018 debate against Brian Kemp, “[V]oter suppression isn’t only about blocking the vote, it’s also about creating an atmosphere of fear.”
After Years, Charges Dismissed
Yahoo News interviewed two dozen people involved in the case, including members of the Quitman 10+2, prosecutors, local officials, and state law enforcement officials, and reviewed more than 1100 pages of documents obtained through open-records laws from the Georgia secretary of state and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
The investigation revealed that the state, under Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s direction, devoted extraordinary resources to investigating potential voter fraud in Quitman after local white officials and residents complained about the increase in black absentee voter participation.
When the local district attorney asked GBI to launch an investigation and promised to prosecute, GBI agreed to work with the secretary of state’s voter fraud unit even though, as then-director of the GBI Victor Keenan told Yahoo News, “[i]t’s really extraordinary that the GBI would conduct voter fraud investigations.”
District attorney Joe Mulholland filed 120 felony counts in all, which carried at least 20 years in prison for each of the Quitman 10+2, based on scant evidence. Some voters told investigators they received assistance in filling out their ballot, but most said they were simply given help to vote the way they wanted, Yahoo News reports. Prosecutors also charged the defendants with taking unlawful possession of ballots when they delivered sealed ballots to the post office for others, including family members, even though the law clearly states it is legal to deliver a ballot for a family member.
Despite the lack of evidence, the state refused to dismiss the case. During the next four years, one of the defendants, Latashia Head, died. Lula Smart, who faced 25 counts and up to life in prison, fell into despair and contemplated suicide.
In January 2012, then-Georgia Governor Nathan Deal removed Ms. Thomas, Ms. Troutman and Ms. Dennard from the school board. That fall, Ms. Dennard won reelection by a comfortable margin, and in early 2013, all three were reinstated. In fall 2014, Ms. Troutman and Ms. Thomas, still under indictment, were both defeated in their reelection bids, and the board flipped back to majority white control.
Only one of the Quitman defendants, Lula Smart, went to trial. After two trials ended in a mistrial, she was acquitted on all counts in August 2014. Three months later, at the end of 2014, all remaining charges were dropped against the Quitman 10+2.
But the state elections board, chaired by Brian Kemp, held the case open, with the possibility it might recommend more criminal proceedings, until Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens issued an official opinion on June 15, 2016, advising, “It is not a violation of the law for a person other than the elector to whom the absentee ballot was issued to take possession of and mail absentee ballots for that elector or electors” and that “it is not a violation of the law for any person to simply possess any absentee ballot outside of a polling place.” The board quietly dismissed the case in a barely noticeable vote at a June 28 meeting.
The Impact on Voter Participation
Ms. Dennard told Yahoo News that some people, especially older people, in the black community have not gone back to vote after the 2010 election and the incredibly aggressive reaction by armed agents from Brian Kemp’s office.
But Yahoo News reports that while African American participation rates in Brooks County elections have dipped a bit since the 2010 surge, they have remained significantly higher than in pre-2010 elections.
Turnout among white voters in Brooks County in 2018 was at its highest level in two decades as white voters switched to the Republican Party, which barely existed in the county before 2010. Fewer than 200 people voted in the 2006 Republican primary, most of them white. But in 2018, 1253 white voters took part in the Republican primary.
Ms. Smart won a seat on the county commission in 2015, and Ms. Thomas won Ms. Dennard’s seat on the school board in 2016 after Ms. Dennard stepped down to run for mayor of Quitman. She was elected in 2017.
After serving eight years as secretary of state, Brian Kemp was elected as governor of Georgia in 2018, winning by 55,000 votes out of nearly 4 million cast in an election that he oversaw as secretary of state. His Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, and her allies said Kemp erected an “obstacle course” of hurdles to voting for poor people and minorities in Georgia.