I Was Arrested Insisting Every Vote Count. Georgia’s Next Secretary of State Will Decide Who Has a Voice.

Georgia's next secretary of state will determine who has meaningful access to the ballot box. If past trends hold, less than 10 percent of registered voters will determine the outcome of that race.

[Photo: Brian Kemp with fist in the air.]
Brian Kemp, serving as Georgia’s secretary of state, oversaw his own election to governor. Jessica McGowan/ Getty Images

Republican Governor-elect Brian Kemp effectively stole an election. He served as secretary of state in Georgia while he ran for governor and still barely eked out a win over Democrat Stacey Abrams. Now, the race for his old office is going into a runoff.

I was one of the 15 people arrested last week at the State Capitol during the Count Every Vote rally alongside state Sen. Nikema Williams. I showed up to the event because I did not want Kemp to think he could steal the mantle of governor and we’d all simply accept it. As a lapsed journalist who spent several years covering the legislative session, I am intimately aware of how politics operate in this state and how much is at stake for the people in my life.

I have watched the unabashed incompetence and willful ignorance of Kemp as he ran the secretary of state’s office. During that time, sensitive voter information was leaked (twice) and security lapses went unaddressed for months. There were voter purges, “exact match” identification policies put into place that clearly targeted voters of color, and wild claims of hacking by whomever he viewed as a threat at that particular moment. During this recent race for governor, Kemp was even recorded at an event expressing concern about how successful Abrams’ get-out-the-vote efforts were, expressing concern that her base might just vote.

Watching how history played out in Kemp’s favor makes it hard to underestimate just how powerful the secretary of state’s office is in determining the outcome of elections. Throughout the past few years of massive and targeted voter disenfranchisement, Kemp’s office has maintained that it has never been easier to register or to vote. Yet Georgia has some of the strictest voter ID laws in the country and has repeatedly tried to cut the number of early voting days. Not to mention counties attempted to illegally begin the process of purging voters under Kemp’s leadership.

I watched all of this first as a reporter, and later as an employee of progressive nonprofit Better Georgia. But when I went to my state capitol on Tuesday, November 13 for the Count Every Vote rally, I went just as myself. My press pass has been collecting dust for about a year, and I let my boss know that I was taking the afternoon off. I went just as one resident of Georgia among many, concerned about Brian Kemp running his own election and claiming the title of governor-elect even as absentee and provisional ballots were still being counted.

The rally, held by Black Lives Matter Atlanta, New Georgia Project, Mijente, and Southerners on New Ground (SONG), was mild by Gold Dome standards. I’ve been in the capitol when competing press conferences, visiting school groups, tabling nonprofits, packs of lobbyists, and frantic interns turn the place into such a loud whirl of people you can’t hear yourself think in that large, marble building with its impressive paintings of dead, white, slave-owning men and collection of historical paraphernalia on the top floor.

Without even a bullhorn or microphone, community leaders like Mary Hooks of SONG and Adelina Nicholls of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) spoke in the center of a diverse crowd in the central rotunda of the capitol. Meanwhile, legislators were safely tucked away into their respective chambers for an emergency special session to allocate funding to victims of Hurricane Michael.

Our group gathered, tightly pressed together trying to hear the speakers. Phones were held in the air, with many attendees capturing photos and videos of the event. About a quarter of the participants held up “Count Every Vote” signs and homemade signs also dotted the crowd.

The state troopers gathered on the first and second floor of the Capitol were filming too, as has become the norm at nearly any event viewed as a protest in Georgia. I thought if anyone was going to get arrested, this rally was certainly not going to be the cause. There hadn’t been a banner drop or activists holding space and refusing to move, or any of the other activities police often use to justify arrests.

But 15 of us were arrested, the majority people of color, over an hour that turned chaotic when state troopers began grabbing people from the crowd without warning. I saw one person asking a state trooper why people were being arrested. He muttered something about not being allowed to chant, and when further pressed, dismissed the person saying, “I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

My own arrest was as startling and unexpected as everyone else’s. The crowd, much smaller now, was clearly shaken by the unwarranted arrests, including the arrest of state Sen. Nikema Williams, who had left the senate chamber to witness what was happening.

Almost an hour in, there had finally been a clear order to disperse. When people in the dwindling crowd asked why we were being asked to leave a public building—especially now that the chanting had stopped—a second officer simply said “you’re wasting time,” and started counting down out loud. I was standing next to a friend, an older white women whose ability to simultaneously stay calm but firm I always admire, when the call to disperse came. This was the first and only call to disperse I heard during my time at the rally.

I left the rotunda area with everyone else, and when I was approaching the doors to leave, I turned around and saw that several officers were lumbering over to my friend, roughly placing their hands on her shoulders, and speaking words I couldn’t quite make out but whose sharp, condescending, and authoritative tone was clear.

I turned towards her and managed to walk a few paces, not daring to cross the waist-high gate the crowd was flowing out of to reach the doors. I was hoping to get her attention and inquire if she was OK. That’s when one of the patrolmen grabbed me from behind, shouting “This one?” over my shoulder.

Seven and half hours later, I emerged from the Fulton County jail on a $3,000 signature bond and a charge of “Preventing or disrupting General Assembly sessions or other meetings of members,” under code section § 16-11-34.1. We all faced the same charge—although state Sen. Williams also had a misdemeanor obstruction charge thrown in for good measure.

As unexpected as it was to be arrested in that moment, I can’t say that I am shocked that state troopers escalated the rally and seemingly targeted people of color for most of the arrests. I have worked as a reporter in the state of Georgia for too long to expect that police (or politicians) will play by any kind of fair rules.

But I also believe that the status quo cannot last forever. Call it white optimism, or hope, or maybe just desperation.

Georgia voters will again take to the polls on Tuesday, December 4th to determine who takes over as secretary of state. Democrat John Barrow, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for ten years, faces off against Republican Brad Raffensperger, a two-term state representative.

Raffensperger was one of the few freshmen in the state house I noticed during my time as a reporter because he was the lead sponsor of a constitutional amendment to “recognize the paramount right to life of all human beings as persons at any stage of development,” during his second year in office. By his third year in office he was pushing anti-immigrant legislation, seeking to strip some immigrants of the ability to even serve on local government advisory boards.

Brian Kemp, serving as Georgia’s secretary of state, oversaw his own election to governor. And even though he was able to systemically strip away people’s right to vote and allowed four-hour lines, absentee ballot mismanagement, and understaffed precincts to mar election day, he was still only barely able to pull off a win. The final tally puts Kemp ahead of Abrams by only 54,723 votes. And only a 10,000 vote margin prevented a runoff between the two top candidates.

Georgia, like the rest of the nation, saw historic early voting numbers and record-breaking voter turnout.

But runoff turnout is often extremely low, and tends to favor the party in power.

Georgia’s next secretary of state will determine who has meaningful access to the ballot box. If past trends hold, less than 10 percent of registered voters will determine the outcome of that race.