If Douglas, Georgia, City Commissioner Olivia Pearson lived in an urban county with better trained election workers, she might not be facing charges that threaten her public office and her freedom, a voting rights consultant said.
Olivia Pearson is charged with illegally assisting a voter in the 2012 general election and falsely signing a form explaining her reason for doing so. The event occurred in Coffee County, a rural southeast Georgia county with a population of about 42,000.
In testimony before the State Elections Board, Pearson maintained that poll workers allowed her into the voting area and then afterwords asked her to sign a form without proper explanation. The state assistant district attorney who is prosecuting Pearson said in court that Pearson was aware of the rules and intentionally lied on the form about her reasons for assisting a voter.
Pearson returns to court on June 5 for a second trial. Her first trial in late March 2017 resulted in a hung jury. The charges carry a maximum of a five-year sentence. A felony conviction would also mean Pearson would no longer be eligible to hold her City Commission seat in Douglas, which has about 11,000 residents. Pearson’s supporters have launched a campaign to help raise funds for her legal defense.
Fred McBride, a voting-rights consultant for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the entire incident could have been avoided if poll workers were better trained and properly enforced the rules.
“You scratch your head and go, OK, a poll worker could have easily said, ‘Ma’am, if [the voter] isn’t disabled or illiterate, you can’t help her,’” McBride told the Daily Yonder, citing the only two reasons someone other than a poll worker may assist a voter. “Or someone could have said, ‘Ma’am, we’ll do this.’ But none of that took place.”
Rural Voters — A Disproportionate Share of Investigations
Instead, Pearson’s was among about 250 separate cases that came before the Georgia State Elections Board in 2015 and 2016. A third of those cases originated in rural counties; less than a fifth of the Georgia electorate lives in rural counties. (More information about the data used in this article is provided at the end of the story.)
A Daily Yonder analysis of State Elections Board records shows that rural voters are about twice as likely to be investigated as urban voters are. Over a two-year period, the State Election Board investigated rural voters at a rate of about 1 for every 23,000 votes. Urban voters were investigated at a rate of about 1 investigation per 52,000 votes.*
The spokesperson for the Georgia Secretary of State, which manages voting in Georgia, said if such a disparity exists, it’s likely caused by a difference in the training that rural and urban poll workers receive.
“It’s definitely a resource issue – it comes down to money,” said Press Secretary Candice Broce. “In metropolitan areas, local governments have more time and money to spend on training. Nonmetro doesn’t.”
Poll workers with less training may be less likely to intervene to prevent an infraction before the fact. Then the case, if reported, would go to the State Board of Elections for review.
Secretary of State Brian P. Kemp has pushed better poll-worker training and provided more materials – such as free training videos – for local election officials, Broce said. Kemp emphasized prosecuting voting infractions during his two successful bids for Secretary of State. He’s currently a candidate in the 2018 governor’s race.
Voting rights groups have filed a variety of complaints against Kemp. Most recently, a federal court forced the state to reopen voter registration for the upcoming U.S. House of Representatives special election, saying Kemp closed registration prematurely.
Misty Hayes, elections supervisor of Coffee County, Georgia, said there were no issues with poll worker training in the county. Hayes said she could not compare the training of Coffee County poll workers with training in any other jurisdiction.
She said poll workers did all they were supposed to do to ensure voters followed the rules. Before someone may assist a voter, they must sign a form stating that the person they are helping is either illiterate or disabled, Hayes said. Only after the form is signed is the assistant free to help the voter, she said.
In her State Elections Board testimony, Pearson said poll workers presented the form after the fact and that she did not check a reason for assisting the voter. She merely signed it at their instruction, she said. The form that was submitted as evidence in her first trial had a check mark next to “illiterate,” according to the Douglas Now website, which covered the trial.
Ian Sansot, the assistant district attorney in charge of Pearson’s case, said he could not comment on the specifics of the case or whether the level of training of poll workers was relevant.
Broce in the Georgia Secretary of State’s office said even if rural voters are investigated at a higher rate, the process treats everyone fairly. “It’s not unfair when you have a chance to be heard in front of the State Election Board,” she said. “The board collaborates to give a fair hearing. I wouldn’t say they are acting harshly. There is lots of opportunity for the case to come to a fair outcome.”
The Effect of Investigations on Voting
Voting rights activists say it’s the very threat of investigation – not just concern about being found guilty – that suppresses voter participation. This is especially true for groups that feel vulnerable to intimidation, McBride said.
Pearson is African America. She’s well known in town for being politically outspoken and for encouraging other residents – especially blacks ― to vote, she said. Just over half of the city’s population is black. The mayor is African American, as is half of the six-member City Commission. Coffee County is about two-thirds white and one quarter black.
Voting rights activists say it’s the very threat of investigation – not just concern about being found guilty – that suppresses voter participation.
At the time Pearson was charged, the state indicted three other Coffee County residents – one black and two white – for voter law violations. The other indictees settled their cases. Pearson told the State Elections Board that she did not wish to settle because she did not believe she had done anything wrong.
Pearson said she grew up watching her mother, Gladys Coley, work on local racial justice issues in Douglas during the Civil Rights era.
Pearson left Douglas to attend Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta, where she earned a political science degree. She worked on Andrew Young’s 1981 mayoral campaign while she was a student. When she finished college, her mother advised her to stay in Atlanta. But Pearson moved home because that’s where she was comfortable and that’s where she thought she could make a difference.
“I wanted to help Douglas to advance,” she said. “I came back from college and got engaged in the community and have been engaged ever since.”
She has served on the City Commission for 18 years and was the first African American woman elected to the post. One of her first efforts as commissioner was to help form a race relations committee to address concerns about the police force. She is still known to stop to observe police actions such as traffic stops ― a practice that has not endeared her to law enforcement, she said.
Pearson said her civic activities have not always been welcome. “If you are a person who knows how to think for yourself and if something is not right and you say that, you are frowned upon in this community. You will not be accepted. You will actually be ostracized.”
She has faced a lawsuit, police complaints, and difficulties working with city government. But the indictment on charges of violating election law feels different to her.
“Even when this is all over and I’m found innocent about committing a willful, wrongful act about helping someone to vote, I just don’t even feel like I’ll be able to maintain like I did before,” she said. “After I was arrested, I saw people look at me and it was different.”
Pearson didn’t speak to her children about whether they would leave town or not after high school. “I didn’t have to say anything,” she said. “They told me they were not going to stay here. They’ve seen my struggles. They see how I’ve been treated.”
‘159 Different Governments That Operate on Their Own’
Ensuring that all voters get treated the same no matter where they cast their ballot can be challenging in a state the size of Georgia, said Corbin Spencer, field director with the voting rights group New Georgia.
Each of the state’s 159 counties is responsible for conducting its own election. “So that’s 159 different governments that operate on their own,” he said.
Local governments have a great deal of discretion in whether to report possible infractions. “It might depend on who is working that day, does someone report it, or do they just give a warning?” Spencer said.
McBride with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said voting rights groups have a harder time monitoring smaller, more remote counties.
“We don’t care where injustice is ― we go, and we deal with it,” McBride said. “But voting rights organizations oftentimes don’t have the resources to go to every single site. So where do you go first? You go to the places that make the most noise. You go to the bigger cities first and you deal with that. Unfortunately, that’s just the dynamics of it.”
McBride said that he thinks there are more cases like Pearson’s in the state but that they don’t attract as much attention because they originate in rural counties.
“It’s happening in a lot of small communities,” McBride said. “[Douglas] is not a major metropolitan area. … It kind of goes under the radar. I think if we were to launch some sort of study, we would find a host of individuals who, unlike Mrs. Pearson, they just took a plea. Because they either did not have the resources to fight this, or they’re so afraid of a possible five-year prison sentence.”
(The Daily Yonder was unable to reach the state Attorney General’s office before our deadline to address the number of voting-violation criminal charges that result in plea bargains.)
Differences in the media markets of small towns and major cities are another factor, McBride said. If an Atlanta City Council member were indicted for a voting infraction, the story would instantly be statewide news.
“Can you hear the outcry if [Pearson] was in Atlanta and this happened? People would be coming out of the woodwork in complete disgust over it.”
Media coverage helps ensure a fairer judicial process, McBride said. Pearson’s case has been covered in two local media outlets and had a mention on a regional television station. The only national stories have come from BuzzFeed News’ Joel Anderson, who did a story before the 2016 election and just after the first trial. The Daily Yonder did a story on the case just before the first trial.
McBride said rural voters deserve the same protections that urban voters receive. “We’ve got to pay attention to it because the Voting Rights Act isn’t for specific areas of a certain size and population. It’s nationwide for a reason,” he said. “Down the line we have to spend a lot more resources and time in smaller communities, rural areas. We have to. Because they are still a very intricate and woven piece of fabric in this thing we call democracy, and they are as important as major metropolitan areas.”
*About the Data. To compare the rates at which urban and rural voters were investigated by the State Elections Board, we made a list of all the investigations that were on the SEB agendas for 2015 and 2016. Those agendas are available publicly on the State Election Board’s website. We found 246 separate cases. For 17 cases, we were unable to determine the county where the cases originated. We categorized the remaining 229 cases by whether they had originated in a metropolitan county or a nonmetropolitan county, using the 2013 Office of Management and Budget Metropolitan definitions. Counties in metropolitan areas accounted for 150, or 65.5 percent, of the cases. Counties in nonmetropolitan areas (which we refer to as rural throughout the article) accounted for 79, or 34.5 percent, of the cases. To calculate an estimate of the investigations per voter, we used turnout data from the most recent presidential election. In that election, 81 percent of Georgia’s 9.7 million votes were cast in metropolitan counties and 19 percent were cast in nonmetropolitan counties.
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