‘Gutted’: What happened when a Georgia elections office was targeted for takeover by those who claim the 2020 election was a fraud

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Vanessa Waddell, seen at a Floyd County Board of Elections meeting in Rome, Ga., has been working in elections for 27 years and since 2020 has begun fearing for her safety.
Vanessa Waddell, seen at a Floyd County Board of Elections meeting in Rome, Ga., has been working in elections for 27 years and since 2020 has begun fearing for her safety. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

ROME, Ga. — The interim election supervisor took a seat all the way to one side of the meeting room, her back against the wood-paneled wall, a position near the police officers and a few steps from an exit. Knowing what was about to happen, Vanessa Waddell raised her cellphone and began recording.

She zoomed in on the county commissioners who were about to name a new election board, sweeping away a system based on civic-minded volunteers and mutual trust and replacing it with one controlled by people claiming that fraud had corrupted the 2020 presidential election. She panned around the room and here were the people who’d been pushing to oust the old system, believing that the corruption had seeped all the way down to their very own election office, casting Waddell as a pawn in a conspiracy stretching to China. And now she noticed someone new, a young man in grease-stained boots, and she wondered whether he might be the one who’d sent her an email that had read in part: “We’ll make the Boston bombings look like child’s play at the poll sites in this county. … You’ve been warned. We will end you all.”

The meeting was called to order.

“Will you please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance?” said one of the commissioners, and as they got down to approving each of the new members of the Floyd County Board of Elections, one more incremental revolution was underway in America, revealing how the norms and machinery of democracy are being upended more than a year after Donald Trump tried to overturn the results of the presidential election.

In this case, the setting was a swath of northwest Georgia that was mostly White, mostly Republican and known for its love of guns, church and sending to Congress one of the most radicalized U.S. politicians in recent memory, Marjorie Taylor Greene. It was a place that until recently might have been dismissed as representing only the extremes of what politics could be in America. But now the extreme was becoming the norm, and the norm was what was happening under a patched-up rotunda in the wishfully named county seat of Rome.

Waddell, a 64-year-old Black woman who’d been working in elections for 27 years and whose norm had become fearing for her own safety, continued recording. She watched as the final board member was approved, and people cheered, and now she was shaking her head, imagining what could be coming next.

***

The election office where she’d worked since 1994 was one of more than 10,000 throughout the country, places that have often been forgotten except for on voting days and that are now being targeted for takeover by a Republican Party in thrall to false claims that the 2020 presidential race was stolen.

In Georgia, the effort is playing out through statewide legislation and, more surgically, through a patchwork of new county-specific laws. The measures are targeting rural counties that have long been majority-White, GOP strongholds where the people running elections have often come from Democratic and Black communities, a legacy of the civil rights struggle in the rural South. This status quo is being dismantled, with the common goal being tighter Republican control.

Since the 2020 election, the state’s GOP legislators have introduced 14 bills reorganizing county election boards that oversee election offices. So far, eight bills have been signed into law, resulting in a purge of longtime election board members, an exodus of election staffers and the installation of Republicans who have proposed measures to reduce poll locations and cancel Sunday voting.

In the case of Floyd County, the result was the abrupt dissolution of the nonpartisan election board that had been in place for decades. The county is in the geographic middle of northwest Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, an area long dominated by the Republican Party, written off by national Democrats and stretching from the Appalachian foothills along the Tennessee line to the outermost fringes of Atlanta’s exurban sprawl. In between are two-lane roads, farms and passed-down family compounds. Decayed mill towns and the world hub of carpet manufacturing. Billboards for accident attorneys and eternal salvation. Gun stores and gun clubs and, all over these days, flags flying — not just old, faded Trump flags but fresh ones hoisted from porches and pickups, creases still visible. Bright red signs for Greene, who is up for reelection, are again lining roadsides, along with those of other candidates who speak in her same alarmist tones about domestic enemies of America.

Within that landscape, Rome has always stood somewhat apart, with a Republican majority that has traditionally been more country club than gun club. It is home to the area’s largest concentration of Democrats, as well as old-money families, bankers, lawyers and doctors, including the brain surgeon who ran against Greene in the 2020 GOP primary and lost everywhere except Rome and surrounding Floyd County. Trump won the county twice with roughly 70 percent of the vote, and in the final days of his 2020 campaign, he had flown to Rome for one of his last rallies, drawing some 30,000 people to the municipal airport.

At the time, Waddell was not yet the interim election supervisor. She worked in voter registration, one of five employees in an office that was in the basement of the same old yellow brick building where the commissioners held public meetings on the top floor. It was down a dim stairwell with crumbling walls, at the end of a long hallway and behind a plexiglass reception window.

The office had always been thinly staffed and cramped, with plastic trays of voter registration cards piled on top of overfilled filing cabinets. It was overseen by an election board comprising citizens who’d answered a county ad for volunteers, filled out a form and might have been assigned to parks but got elections instead.

The operation was known for being slow on election nights and at times disorganized, problems that had been a matter of eye-rolling until 2020, when Trump began predicting a rigged election and his followers began seeing every mishap as suspicious.

Then came Election Day, and the statewide recount that followed, when Floyd County made national news for failing to tally roughly 2,600 votes. State election officials described the incident as “an amazing blunder,” the result of failing to upload a memory card, and called on the election supervisor to resign. Meanwhile, Trump capitalized on the mistake, tweeting out a video of workers carrying cardboard boxes and the words “FLOYD COUNTY, GEORGIA!” that was viewed more than 7 million times.

By December, the election supervisor was gone, and the nonpartisan board, still in power at that point, named Waddell to the job on an interim basis, with the immediate task of getting the county ready for a special election for U.S. Senate being held Jan. 5 amid a degenerating atmosphere.

There were fights between Republican and Democratic volunteers that got so bad that police had to escort ballots from drop boxes back to the office. The election staff had to field roughly 200 voter-eligibility challenges — none of which turned out to be valid — part of more than 364,000 filed across the state by an organization seeking to disqualify voters. There were harassing phone calls to the staff. The low point was the email Waddell received referring to the Boston bombings.

“This country was founded on righteous war, and if this is what is required of us to defend our very democracy, we will step forward,” it had continued. “… ANYONE at these poll sites is worthy of our wrath. Detonations will occur at every polling site set up in this county.”

Waddell had notified the police and carried on. On Election Day, the results were delivered on time, with no discrepancies.

The next day, she watched on her computer as thousands of people stormed the U.S. Capitol, including some from her part of Georgia, and she wondered what they might do once they were back. But a few months later, when the election board offered to make her interim title permanent, she figured the worst was over.

“I was excited,” she said. “I was glad to accept the position.”

She remembered feeling confident as she headed upstairs to the meeting room, expecting the county commissioners would keep tradition and approve her.

“That’s what I thought would happen,” she said.

***

Now it was seven months later, January 2022, and Waddell was in the basement office, still the interim supervisor, still not approved, beginning another day in the unsettling limbo that her life had become.

Piled on her desk were hundreds of requests for records that had been pouring into the office for months, handwritten ones from locals and formal ones from well-funded national groups such as True the Vote that sought to prove fraud. “Pursuant to Georgia Open Records Act, I would like to obtain …” they all began, each one seeming to Waddell more obsessive than the last.

“Numbered List of Voters voting in each precinct.” “All videotaping of all ballot drop boxes.” “All oaths from 2015 to current date for ALL election board members, chairs, chiefs and superintendents in previous or current positions.” “Prior approval of SOS modifications of scanners.”

Waddell opened another email.

“What now?” she said, recognizing the name of a frequent requester.

“They’re wanting copies of those tabulation tapes,” said her colleague Shirley Mosley, who’d worked in the office for four years.

“Tabulation tapes?” said Patricia Spurlin, who’d been there for two.

“And our poll books,” Waddell said. “For every precinct.”

Any thought they’d had that the atmosphere might calm down was gone. What amounted to a grass-roots uprising had gained momentum, become more organized and started coming after the election office.

New people had been showing up for the county commission meetings — not the old-guard Floyd County Republicans but the Greene wing that had all but taken over the party. They accused the election board of being corrupt and controlled by Democrats. They unearthed a private photo of the election board chairwoman holding a Trump mug in one hand and raising a middle finger in the other, blew it up poster-size and displayed it at a meeting as evidence that she was biased. They demanded a state review of the election office, and when nothing happened, one of them contacted the owner of a bus plastered with photos of Trump and the words, “Ready for Round 3 2021,” who drove it to Rome, parking outside the yellow brick building in a show of force. Increasingly, they zeroed in on Waddell.

“Any background checks done on Vanessa Waddell,” read an open-records request.

“Any and all available job applications for Vanessa Waddell,” read another.

She listened as a man claimed she had committed more than 150 violations related to the Jan. 5 Senate election. She sat there as others questioned whether her high school diploma was fake and whether her college degree was legitimate. A man said that he was “disgusted” by her handling of the election. A woman complained that she had been “staring” at her during meetings. “I began to be concerned about her intent,” the woman told the commissioners. “I asked two individuals to keep an eye on the situation.”

Then one morning, three people who’d been among the most vocal at the meetings showed up at the plexiglass window of the election office.

One of them began taking a cellphone video. The two others went down the hallway to a small room where the voting equipment was stored, wedged open the door, and took more videos as Spurlin, terrified, told them they had to leave. Waddell alerted county officials, who called the police, who showed up after the three were gone, took a report and told her there was nothing else they could do.

After that, the office in the basement had felt like a bunker. Spurlin began carrying pepper spray. Mosley bought a stun gun and began checking the hands of people who showed up in the plexiglass window. Waddell considered bringing her gun to work.

When she went upstairs for the meetings, she began sitting against the wall for security, thinking that she’d eventually hear some sort of reassurance from the county commissioners. But on a Tuesday in November, what she heard was that the governor had signed a bill remaking election administration in Floyd County. Instead of a three- member nonpartisan board, she would now have to answer to a new five-member board that was explicitly partisan — two Democrats and three Republicans, including one she recognized as a leading critic of her office and two others she worried held the same views.

By the end of the month, the old election board was dissolved. Two weeks after that, the county commission unanimously approved the new board. And after that, county officials told Waddell with little explanation that she would be reverting to her old job in voter registration. It was unclear whether anyone in the election office would have jobs once the new board was sworn in, because they’d all have to reapply. The word they kept hearing was “gutted.”

“That’s what somebody upstairs said,” Mosley was saying. “This whole office needs to be gutted.”

She was packing up “Vote Here” signs and old coffeepots because, on top of everything else, they’d been told they were moving to a new office in a corner of the county health department on the edge of town, a space that as far as they could tell was smaller than where they were now.

“You can stack those over here,” Spurlin said.

Waddell hunched over her desk, glasses on her nose, trying to focus on preparing for the upcoming primaries, even though that wasn’t really her job anymore. Someone needed to order paper for the ballots. Someone needed to sort through the redistricting changes. She started writing out a list of affected addresses.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she said to herself, and soon the hour got late, and it was around this time that a woman showed up in a small parking lot behind the building, at the end of which stood a stained dumpster.

The woman climbed inside. In the darkness of a cold night, she gathered armfuls of shredded paper into a garbage bag, then climbed out, explaining later that she had heard the election office was destroying documents and that she was determined to piece them all together again.

Inside the building, Waddell got a new email. It was from one of the people who’d barged into the office, a man who had filed more open-records requests than anyone else and whose persistence had worried her so much that she had tried unsuccessfully to get a restraining order against him.

“There are no images on Scanner 530 and 550,” his latest email read.

“What the hell is he talking about?” she said. “My God.”

***

He was Mark Swanson, 55, a bank consultant, an evangelical Christian, a member of the Optimist Club and a low-key Trump supporter until the night of the 2020 election, when he watched a Fox News announcer call Arizona for Joe Biden relatively early.

“That was the first thing that made me think, ‘Hmmm,’” he said, describing himself as someone who was “always interested in what’s going on in the world, who loves to learn, loves to read,” but who was not an activist until that moment. Sitting at his kitchen table one afternoon, he began describing how it all snowballed from there.

How his Facebook feed began filling with stories of alleged fraud from Arizona to Georgia and, one day, his hometown election office. How he’d come to see not human error but what he called “strategic incompetence.” How he’d learned how to file open-records requests and had obtained hundreds of documents that he was posting to his Facebook page with red underlines and stars and headings such as “The Recruiter” and “The End Run.” How he’d come to see Democrats and Republicans as partners in a global network of corruption that was intertwined with China and whose end game was world domination. How he had recently come up with a name for those involved.

“STABs,” he said. “Subversive, tyrannical, authoritarian bureaucrats.”

Former vice president Mike Pence was a probably a STAB, he said. The governor: STAB. The secretary of state: STAB. The county commissioners: STABs. Waddell: “I don’t know that she’s a STAB — I think she’s a pawn, definitely,” said Swanson, who saw himself as part of “a revolution of ordinary people.”

“I believe God put me on Earth to do this,” he said. “Every time I want to give up, God shines a light on one more piece of information.”

He had been showing up to the county commission meetings, becoming a leading critic of the election office. He met with the county commissioners. He met with state legislators. And now his closest ally — whom he referred to as his “investigative partner” — was on the new election board.

This was Pam Peters, a retired music teacher who shared Swanson’s conviction that “there was cheating at many levels, at several places,” during the election and that “you’ve got to get off the couch and do something.”

She had led the local Republican Party’s effort to recruit and train dozens of new poll watchers for the 2020 election and helped Swanson in his efforts to expose corruption after that. When the party’s executive committee asked her to be on the election board, she decided, “I am called to do this,” and accepted. What she wanted to do now, she said, was “a review” of the election office. She wanted to “go through files and clean house,” she said. She wanted a new election supervisor, who could hire new staffers.

“There’s so much to do, it’s overwhelming,” she said.

The second new Republican on the board was Gary Stamper, a mechanical engineer who carried a fresh notebook with questions he wanted answered about the 2020 vote. He wanted to know whether it was true that there had been mail-in ballots that were never folded, which was supposedly a sign of fraud. He wanted to know whether voting equipment could be rigged to deliver a predetermined result.

“That is part of why I’m here,” he said. “For my little quiet corner of northwest Georgia, can we put together a process that is beyond reproach?”

Completing the Republican majority was the chairman, Jerry Lee, a retired banker who said that although Biden won, he had concerns about fraud and even bigger concerns that Republicans were losing confidence in elections at the very moment he believed the country was sliding toward “government control over every aspect of our lives.”

“My focus is on the future — we want to make sure we give the public a greater level of confidence and hope,” he said. “We’re in a fight for the soul of America.”

Meanwhile, a few days after the new board was appointed, one of its two Democrats made his way down into basement of the county building, where the packing was continuing.

“Hi,” said Ralph Davis, introducing himself to Spurlin and Mosley.

Waddell came out of her office. The two other longtime office employees, Cliff Cabell and Lindsey Mims, walked over, and as they all stood there, Davis realized that he was one of the few county officials to come down there in months.

He asked Waddell about a measure the school district wanted to put on the ballot.

“Somebody in this office is going to have to be the go-between on that,” she began, explaining that she’d been told she was reverting to her old job. “See, they really don’t have a supervisor in this office anymore.”

“Oh,” Davis said.

“Somebody’s got to get all this up and running. We’ve got redistricting coming up. We’ve got primaries coming up. We’ve got moving coming up,” she continued, explaining all the actual work that was falling behind because of the time spent on fraud allegations — and deciding to say nothing about the constant psychological pressure that was taking a toll on all of them.

“When is the move supposed to happen?” Davis said, sensing the frustration.

“Nobody’s told us yet,” Waddell said.

“There’s no communication,” said Cabell. “It’s a bad scene, sir.”

“They want to get rid of all of us,” Spurlin said.

“They want to gut the whole system,” said Cabell.

“They’re saying we’re a bunch of crooks,” said Mosley.

“We are concerned about the gutting part,” Spurlin said again. “Then you’ve got people giving Vanessa such a hard time.”

“Well, let me go. I have to be in this thing without emotion,” Davis said. “If I get too emotional, I’ll say something I shouldn’t say.”

After he left, Spurlin and Mosley went back to updating voter registrations, and when 5 p.m. came, Cabell said to Spurlin, “You ready?” and walked her to her car as he had been doing for the past year. Mosley took off her county ID, as she had been doing since a document with her name on it appeared on someone’s Facebook page. Alone now, Waddell locked the doors.

She checked an email account used by election supervisors and staffer across the state, where almost every day there was an announcement about some employee leaving.

She checked the county’s website and saw that the supervisor job had been posted. She noticed that the position was now being categorized as “at will,” meaning whoever took the job could be more easily fired. She thought about whether she should apply or join the exodus.

***

She drove home, past the Trump flags and the Greene signs and the fresh “Let’s go Brandon” flag on the way to her house on the edge of Rome, a modest split-level that was the reward for a life of working for the county.

She tried to shore up her mind, which she did these days by imagining what she’d say to the people criticizing her if she weren’t so cautious.

To Swanson: “Why are you so obsessed with me? What is wrong with you?” Or the woman who accused her of staring at her during the meetings: “I am not a slave. Every time you look at me, I’m not supposed to look down.” Or the people who questioned her education: “I worked my butt off day and night to do my schooling. It was one of my goals to have a degree before I was 50, and lo and behold I did it. I was proud to do it.” Or the county commissioners and anyone else wondering how it had felt to have to sit there and listen to what was being said about her week after week: “It felt like a public lynching,” she imagined telling them.

She got home, where she kept her gun nearby wherever she was, moving it from room to room as she went about her evenings. Her best friend came over for a while, the kind of friend who said what Waddell would not about why she thought all of this was happening: “It’s blatant racism. They can say whatever they want.”

They talked about a recent incident at a local high school, in which a group of White students paraded a Confederate flag on campus. A group of Black, Latino and White students had planned a protest in response, but the principal forbade the students from passing out fliers and called police to the school to block it.

“It was always there, but it wasn’t out in the open like it is now,” Waddell said, thinking about the hang-up calls to her office, the email threatening detonations at the polls, the angry and escalating rhetoric. “I keep going back and thinking about years ago when that young man went into that church and had Bible study with those people and then killed them,” she said, referring to the White man who killed nine Black parishioners in 2015 at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. “That’s not rational. And these people are up there berating me, telling lies about me, challenging my integrity, and they don’t even know me? That’s not rational. And you don’t know what people might do when they’re not rational.”

At work the next day, she headed upstairs for the first meeting of the new Floyd County Board of Elections. They took their seats along the wooden platform under the patched-up rotunda, and instead of sitting against the wall, she sat alongside them as a staff representative, a dog-eared copy of the Georgia Election Code on the desk in front of her. She scanned the faces in the audience.

The woman who’d climbed into the dumpster was there. So was the young man in the grease-stained boots, holding in his lap a stack of papers, including one with rows of tiny numbers that were allegedly the IP addresses of voting machines that had been hacked, along with the precise number of votes supposedly flipped from Trump to Biden. Swanson took his seat, and as he settled in, his new ally on the board texted him. “We’ve got A LOT to do and we didn’t caucus,” Pam Peters wrote, and Swanson, already convinced the new board was being controlled by STABs, wrote back, “And so it begins again.” The head of the Floyd County Republican Party was there as well, and so were a couple of Democrats, one of whom whispered “This is a disaster” as the meeting was called to order.

“All right. We will move at a steady pace,” said the chairman, and soon the county manager was giving a report on the new office, noting that it was going to have $60,000 worth of new surveillance cameras.

“If you’re in the election areas, you’re going to be on camera, recorded,” he said. “Any issues taking place, they will be caught on a recording. We are taking it very seriously. There will be windows in every single room, secure, but totally visible to what’s going on.”

“So that the public can see,” the chairman said, then moving on to the next item, the search for the new election supervisor, not saying a word about Waddell, who kept her eyes down, taking notes.

***

That was what things had become, but Waddell could remember how all of it used to be, all the way back to the first Election Day she’d ever worked, a November Tuesday in Rome. She recalled that it was not cold but cool. She remembered how she woke before dawn, dressed comfortably for the long day ahead and hustled to the office before 6 a.m. It was in the county courthouse then, and she arrived to the smell of fresh coffee and the sight of poll workers buzzing around, picking up supplies and dropping off muffins for the staff. She remembered the supervisor, a woman who dressed in a suit and heels and told them, “I don’t care what you do outside this office, but when you’re here, you’re nonpartisan.” She remembered settling into her desk and the phone starting to ring as soon as the polls opened. Someone needed more pencils. Someone needed a form. Someone had forgotten their precinct. Every detail felt so important, so momentous, an urgency rising into the evening as the polls closed and the precinct captains returned to the office with rubber-banded stacks of ballots in zip-tied bags.

It was Waddell who helped receive them. She remembered carrying the bags with ceremony into the gathering crowd in an adjacent room where all the candidates and supporters were milling around and how they followed her over to the tallying machine. She remembered pulling the rubber bands off the stacks. She remembered the distinct weight of a ballot. She remembered feeding each one into the humming machine, and the people watching, and then cheering as the results were delivered, and that was how it was year after year, even as the ritual moved into the county commission building. It had always been the same: Months of unseen preparation followed by the thrill of dawn on another Election Day. And what became Waddell’s favorite part — the rush of walking into the crowd gathered under the rotunda.

“It was something,” she recalled. “It was exciting. People clapping and hollering. Everybody in there just felt like they belonged, regardless of what party. It was just a group of people. It was, ‘This is us,’ you know? It was a proud time.”

Twenty-seven years later, the day arrived for her interview with the new election board. She got to work early. It was quiet in the office, and just before 9 a.m., she logged on to her computer for a video interview, prepared to make the case for why she should be the election supervisor. She told herself to keep her answers to the point. She clicked into the meeting, and the five faces of the new board members filled her screen.

“Can you hear me?” Waddell said, and soon they began.

The chairman, Jerry Lee, asked why she wanted the job.

“Elections is what I do,” she said. “This is not just a hobby for me. This is my livelihood. I feel like this is what I was born to do.”

He asked her to describe her experience training large numbers of people, and Waddell told him about training 175 poll workers at a time, thousands over the years.

He asked her about handling “complex laws,” and she said she relied on the secretary of state for that. He asked about time management. He asked about computer skills.

“I’m up to date on all my computer skills,” she said, and after seven questions and 15 minutes, the chairman asked whether the board had anything else.

“I do have one question,” said Ralph Davis. “Vanessa, what has been your biggest challenge since you’ve been here?”

“Well, I think one of my biggest challenges was this 2020 election,” she said, pausing for a moment before deciding to go on.

“All of the issues and stuff that came up through that, and trying to work through a pandemic,” she said, stopping herself again, then deciding to continue.

“Working through, after all of that, all of the ORRs following that,” she said, referring to the hundreds of open-records requests. “And all of the allegations about this office during that time frame.” Her voice was beginning to break. “That can really take a toll on a person, but through it all, knowing who’s got your back, knowing God’s got your back no matter —”

She paused. “Whew,” she said. “Excuse me.”

“Sorry,” Davis said. “I didn’t mean to —”

“Trials and tribulations that you have to go through,” she said over him, her voice shaking. “Knowing no matter what, you can still stand tall in spite of it all. That’s my biggest challenge.”

“Thank you, Vanessa,” Davis said.

“Thank you,” said the chairman. “Any other questions? Anyone?”

There was nothing else.

In a few days, the board would meet and decide not to offer Waddell the job. Instead, it would announce its choice was a 58-year-old White man from a neighboring county, a city manager whose background was in accounting, was not certified in elections and had never worked as an election supervisor. For now, though, the chairman thanked Waddell again.

“I hope this thing works,” he said, and Waddell was not certain what he meant by that, whether he was referring to her getting hired, or the new election board, or the next election, or democracy itself, but she was certain of her answer.

“Me too,” she said.

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