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In majority-Black Georgia county, voting in Senate runoffs is more about fight to vote than right to vote

Austin Steele/CNN

Johnny Thornton stood on his sprawling catfish farm, once a symbol of empowerment in this majority Black county, and explained how the local election board once tried to strip him of his right to vote.

In 2015, after a failed attempt to shutter almost every polling location in a county three times the area of Atlanta, the Hancock County Board of Elections and Registration tried to remove 174 voters, almost all of them African American, ahead of a Sparta city election. The board even sent deputies to homes, summonsing voters to prove eligibility.

The city’s roll at the time included only 988 voters, so it meant about one in five potential ballots. The majority-White board ultimately clipped 53 residents from the rolls.

Had Thornton and others not fought back, suing the BOER in federal court — which in 2016 restored most voters to the rolls — many county residents could have been disenfranchised, he said last month.

“A lot of the individuals that they were targeting, they either worked out of town or did not have the means or resources to push back,” said Thornton, a retired special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. “Voter suppression through administrative chaos is my term for it.”

With Georgia voters set to decide control of the US Senate in Tuesday’s runoffs, the challenges to the voting rolls in Hancock County, whose residents have long fought for their right to vote, remain under the supervision of a court-appointed examiner. Legal experts say the US Supreme Court pulling teeth from the Voting Rights Act is to blame.

The high court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder effectively ended a provision that, in jurisdictions such as Hancock County, would have required preclearance for any voting changes. Since the ruling, lawyers have filed lawsuits alleging voter suppression from Alabama to Alaska.

Georgia has been a particularly active battleground, but some experts say Hancock County, a reliably Democratic enclave of about 8,500 people situated between Atlanta and Augusta, is one of the most troubling examples they’ve seen.

‘They were making Black votes disappear’

Thornton has means — a rarity in a county where per capita income is $16,704, less than half the national average. He could afford a lawyer and federal court fees, whereas many other Black residents could not.

With 71% of its residents African American, Hancock is one of the Blackest counties not just in Georgia but in the nation. The percentage is even higher in Sparta, its county seat and only incorporated area.

The lawsuit highlighted disparities among the Black and White populations in 2015: Black households had a median income of $22,056 ($37,083 for White); almost 34% of Black residents lived in poverty (22% for White); and 26% of Black households received food benefits (6% for White).

Ahead of the 2015 Sparta elections, the lawsuit said, BOER Vice Chairwoman Nancy Stephens, who is White, began filing voter challenges as a citizen, then voting on them as a board member. When concerns were raised, a local resident began filing challenges “in a format that closely resembled the format of those filed by the Vice Chair,” the lawsuit said.

The challengers “consistently failed to provide credible evidence based upon personal knowledge that the challenged voters were not qualified to vote,” the lawsuit said. “The BOER frequently accepted hearsay, speculation, and unsubstantiated rumors provided by unnamed witnesses and anonymous individuals as sufficient evidence to remove registered Black voters.”

Stephens, who is no longer vice chair but remains a BOER member, referred questions to county attorney Andrea Grant, who did not return a phone call to discuss past and present concerns residents expressed.

The BOER, responding to the lawsuit, “vigorously” and “strenuously” denied illegally targeting Black voters or violating state laws.

Thornton can’t understand why the BOER would claim he didn’t live in the county, or why the board would try to remove him from the rolls. His catfish farm is in unincorporated Mayfield, 20 minutes outside Sparta, and he wasn’t eligible to vote in the city elections. What’s more, he receives bills at his catfish farm, which is the address on his driver’s license. He also served as county NAACP treasurer and on the Sparta Housing Authority. He owns property outside the county but spends most of his time at the catfish farm, hunting and doing maintenance.

His attorney informed the elections supervisor that he could not appear before the board and would be out of town for several weeks, he said. The board removed him anyway, according to the lawsuit.

Word moves quickly in Hancock County, especially when deputies are delivering summonses. Larry Webb heard the BOER was removing Black voters from the rolls and began attending meetings.

“Sitting after two of the meetings, I thought, ‘What would they do if someone challenged some White voters?'” recalled Webb, who is Black.

He went through the 2014 voting roll and pulled voters he knew were dead or had moved and submitted 14 challenges. Emails included in the lawsuit revealed BOER members didn’t take Webb’s challenges seriously and defended White voters. According to the lawsuit, Chairwoman Kathy Ransom wrote of Webb’s challenges, “Just a guess…he’s targeting folks that are ‘white’ :)”

Webb asked for deputies to serve summonses to the residents he challenged, but he was told the sheriff’s department was now charging $50 each, he said. When Webb’s 14 challenges finally went before the board, Ransom told the White resident who had been challenging Black voters that deputies would no longer serve his summonses as a “courtesy,” as they had in the past, the lawsuit said.

The BOER determined before the hearing that four of Webb’s challenged voters were dead and removed them from the rolls. Of the remaining challenges, the board nixed one voter from the rolls and moved another to inactive status. Both were Asian American, the lawsuit said.

“What they did was beyond voter suppression. If something is wrong with your voter registration, they should call you and tell you what’s wrong. What they were doing is taking you off the rolls, and you wouldn’t find out until the election,” Webb told CNN. “They were making Black votes disappear.”

‘It had a discriminatory effect’

In Shelby County v. Holder, the US Supreme Court ruled that the “coverage formula” dictating which jurisdictions were subject to preclearance in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional. The formula, the court said in its 5-4 ruling, was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.”

Since the death of the Georgia civil rights icon US Rep. John Lewis, politicians and activists have called for Congress to honor Lewis by crafting an updated coverage formula, as permitted by the high court, but it hasn’t come to pass.

Without the formula, which forced jurisdictions with a history of discrimination, most of them Southern, to prove proposed changes to voting laws did not discriminate against minorities, many jurisdictions undertook changes to their elections procedures that voting rights experts say have a disproportionate impact on minorities.

Julie Houk with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who worked on the Hancock County case, disagrees with the Supreme Court’s finding “that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”

Why then did jurisdictions across the South and beyond immediately take actions that would have otherwise required preclearance under the previous iteration of the Voting Rights Act?

Texas and North Carolina moved to stiffen voter ID laws, which already hampered Black and Latino voters, Houk said. The Lawyers’ Committee has also challenged restrictive absentee ballot rules and fought voter purges, redistricting decisions and efforts to limit ballot drop boxes — which tend to burden minorities the most.

In Macon-Bibb County, Georgia, Houk said, elections officials moved a Black voting precinct — in a community that had rocky relations with law enforcement — to the sheriff’s office, which she called “very problematic” as it threatened to dissuade African Americans from voting. The Lawyer’s Committee got the precinct moved, she said.

Georgia has been especially problematic, said Helen Butler, executive director of the Atlanta-based Coalition for the People’s Agenda, whose team worked on the Hancock County case, as well as a handful in other Georgia counties.

In 2015, Georgia’s then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp cited Shelby in informing counties they were “no longer required to submit polling place changes to the Department of Justice.”

Numerous groups have reported added hardships on Georgia’s minority voters since the US Supreme Court decision. American Public Media reporters found in 2019 that tens of thousands of voters state officials said had likely died or moved away had, in fact, not.

The ACLU of Georgia reported in September that of 313,243 voters removed from the state rolls in 2019, almost 200,000 were likely erroneously purged. While the secretary of state said it was routine maintenance, removing voters it had classified as inactive, Andrea Young, state ACLU executive director, countered that the state’s method of maintenance was “prone to tremendous error.”

Two weeks before the November general election, ProPublica, in collaboration with public broadcasters, reported, “The state’s voter rolls have grown by nearly 2 million since the US Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, but polling locations have been cut by almost 10%, with Metro Atlanta hit particularly hard.”

The outlets published their report under the point-blank headline, “Why do nonwhite Georgia voters have to wait in line for hours? Their numbers have soared, and their polling places have dwindled.”

“I’m not saying they intentionally discriminated,” Butler told CNN, “but it had a discriminatory effect.”

‘Way past problems with Black and White’

Even with all the battles unfolding in Georgia and across the nation, Hancock County stands out, experts say.

Houk’s colleague at the Lawyers’ Committee, John Powers, who previously reviewed preclearance submissions for the US Justice Department, told a webzine in 2016 the Hancock County case was “the worst case of voter suppression that I have ever seen.”

“Hancock County is just one example and probably one of the worst examples of how Shelby County is impacting individual voters,” Houk said. “This type of change in process would’ve been governed by preclearance. It would’ve stopped this whole process. … This is why preclearance was so important: Discriminating against Black voters would’ve been rejected.”

While the county voluntarily entered into a consent decree, agreeing to the appointment of an examiner to oversee any changes to its voting rolls, Sparta Mayor Allen Haywood insists the agreement was unnecessary. There was no racist intent in the board’s work, he said.

The truth about 2015 “depends on what side you talk to,” he said. No candidate could win in the city, now estimated at 89% African American, without securing a swath of the Black vote, said Haywood, who is White and is certain he was elected on his promise of reform, he said.

“The board of elections was just trying to clean the rolls,” he said. “It’s not a racial problem except for those who want to keep it that way. People just want to see a change here. They knew that if I got in, I was going to make things transparent.”

He won the 2015 Sparta mayoral election but stepped down after news surfaced he had a 1982 felony gambling conviction in Alabama. He was betting on football games across state lines, he told CNN, and wasn’t aware the conviction rendered him ineligible to seek office.

He had his record expunged and two years later won a City Council seat, serving as mayor pro tempore before ascending to the mayor’s office in 2019 “with less than 80 White votes cast,” he said.

Haywood inherited numerous problems, including a seven-figure tax-and-utility bill, the paying down of which has been a priority of his administration. He also hopes to lure investment back to the county and is considering a historic tourism initiative, but myriad problems persist, as evidenced by the dilapidated downtown.

Largely built before 1930, many stores lay not just empty but in disarray. A colorful butterfly mural on one corner proclaims, “This is Sparta,” while another mural honors Methodist bishops Lucius Holsey, an emancipated slave, and George Pierce, who owned Holsey’s would-be wife before mentoring Holsey and assigning him to his first church.

Cast-iron storefronts and other architectural relics reminisce the charm Sparta exuded in its heyday, as local businesses post signs encouraging residents to spend money locally and embrace the historic preservation of downtown, an entry on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We are way past problems with Black and White here,” Haywood said. “Now, people are excited things are getting fixed.”

‘A disproportionate lack of growth’

Once fat on cotton and timber, Hancock was one of the richest counties in the state. It had a progressive reputation. Black residents, who have long been the majority, could own land and aspire, according to the book, “Black Boss: Political Revolution in a Georgia County.”

After cotton crumbled, Hancock was destitute, the book explains. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it had no Black elected officials until John McCown — an activist more in the mold of Stokely Carmichael than Martin Luther King Jr. — came to town, luring investment and ushering Black residents to power.

By 1968, Hancock was the first US county since Reconstruction “to come under Black political control, in large part because of the charismatic leadership of McCown,” who became county commissioner, the book says. By the mid-1970s, African Americans held almost every elected office.

McCown remains revered among many Black residents, despite investigations into his alleged misspending of grant money and other improprieties. They consider his achievements landmarks, including an affordable housing project and job creators like a cinder block factory and Thornton’s now-defunct catfish farm. McCown’s antebellum home still stands, abandoned and in need of upkeep.

McCown’s efforts weren’t always well received by White folks, many residents also recall, and when tensions flared over desegregation in 1971, the city and McCown’s “hunting club” went on machine gun-buying sprees that required the intervention of Gov. Jimmy Carter and the US Justice Department, UPI reported.

A 1976 plane crash killed McCown, and a federal investigation into his fundraising killed the county’s resurrected prosperity, but his legacy survived in the Black leaders succeeding him.

“He created a political strategy, and African Americans voted themselves into power,” Thornton said. “It has come to a point where (Hancock County) is one of the most impoverished in America. There is a wives’ tale — I don’t know if it’s true or not — that some political leaders in Georgia have always said that if we can’t vote the people of Hancock County out, we’ll starve them out — and there’s been a disproportionate lack of growth to this particular community.”

‘Folks decided voting wasn’t worth it’

The BOER “strenuously denied” that it was illegally targeting Black voters with its challenges but agreed to enter the consent decree and abide by the standards and procedures the decree lays out. The court also ordered the defendants to pay more than $500,000 in attorneys’ fees and other expenses, court documents show.

As part of the consent decree, the BOER agreed to “not engage in discriminatory challenges to voters’ eligibility,” and to adhere to certain procedures in such challenges, according to court documents. It also restored certain voters to its rolls and agreed not to take action on other voters restored to the rolls for at least two federal election cycles.

The decree also outlined the appointment of an examiner, “who will review the BOER’s actions regarding list maintenance and voter challenges based on residency” and make recommendations on how to comply with state law and the consent decree, a court order says.

“If the BOER disagrees with or does not follow the recommendations any party may bring that issue to the Court’s attention,” the decree says.

Atlanta attorney R. Gary Spencer was named examiner in June 2018. His term will run to December 2021. The consent decree will not expire until early 2023.

Butler considers the consent decree a victory preserving the legacy of Black empowerment in Hancock County, but it did not come without some casualties, she said.

“It had a chilling effect on voters,” she said. “A lot of folks decided voting wasn’t worth it.”

Despite the voting rolls growing by a few dozen electors since 2012, she laments that many voters were intimidated by the deputies and the summonses. They still haven’t returned to the polls. Several residents — including Thornton, Webb and former Sparta registrar Marion Warren — each know multiple voters who never voted again after the deputies came to their homes, they say.

“It will affect several elections down the road because people will say that I’m not going to be bothered by this ever again. I’m not going to vote,” Warren said. “You have virtually destroyed their whole trust in the system altogether.”

Aside from Stephens, Robert Ingram, who is Black and now chairs the board, is the only remaining member of the 2015 BOER. He did not return a message from a CNN reporter seeking to discuss present-day ramifications to the 2015 challenges. The federal lawsuit cites a half dozen Black voters he defended during the challenges.

‘Virtually destroyed their whole trust’

Hancock County has been “sort of noneventful” since Spencer was appointed examiner, he said. The county has submitted voters it wants removed, as instructed, and during the November election, the NAACP “seemed to think everything went OK,” he said.

Spencer’s team is “always concerned,” he said, and events happening at the state and national level, including Georgia’s secretary of state calling to end no-excuse absentee voting and President Donald Trump challenging elections results, only exacerbate his worry.

At this point, however, he has seen nothing in Hancock County that would spur him to request an extension to his term or the consent decree, but before making any final decision, “I would certainly check on it just to do some due diligence.”

Thornton and others remain worried. The county is “playing with house money,” he said. Where Thornton shelled out his own earnings to defend his right to vote, the county used his tax dollars to fight him. Again, he emphasized, most Hancock County residents don’t have his resources.

“I am definitely worried that once the consent decree ends that the BOER will start its same antics again,” he said. “They can say, ‘Hey, we’ll get everybody except Johnny Thornton, and the other people that we go for might not have the legal means or expertise to push back or to fight against the system.'”

Warren, in addition to previously serving as Sparta’s registrar, is a Black county resident who began filming BOER meetings in 2015 when he learned of the challenges. He had trouble last year, he said, when applying for a mail-in ballot. A county elections official told him his home wasn’t his registered address, he said.

He isn’t alleging any misbehavior — he was able to sort it out before the general election — but such a county notice might have been enough to deter a less-resolute voter from casting her or his ballot. In poor, rural areas like Hancock County, minor hiccups such as a rainy day or a washed-out road can have major effects on voting.

Because there is so little work in the county, people work multiple jobs or leave the county for employment, making it difficult to find time to vote, he said. Residents can struggle with transportation in a county it takes almost an hour to traverse end to end. There are literacy and education issues at play as well, he said.

“All you’ve got to do is find an obstacle that you can put between them and the polling place. It don’t matter what it is,” he said. “Because we are as a race, we are very critical of the voting process in the first place.”

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