The MAGA Election Takeover Is Happening One County at a Time

spalding-county-georgia.jpg spalding-county-georgia - Credit: Photographs in composite by Megan Varner/Getty Images; Spencer Platt/Getty Images, 2; Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images, 2;
spalding-county-georgia.jpg spalding-county-georgia - Credit: Photographs in composite by Megan Varner/Getty Images; Spencer Platt/Getty Images, 2; Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images, 2;

It began in a dumpster two nights after the election. Inside the dumpster, a woman shuffled through papers wearing surgical gloves. “Active crime scene in Spalding County Georgia where ballots for President Trump were discovered in a dumpster,” the video was titled on Facebook. At just 13 seconds, the video doesn’t show much — a dumpster, a woman inside, some papers — but for some, it was enough to serve as one of the many pieces of evidence that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

The video quickly made the rounds in election denier circles, gaining 11,000 views on Facebook. Almost as quickly, the claim was debunked, both by the local Republican sheriff and Georgia’s secretary of state. There were no ballots in the dumpster, for Trump or anyone else. It’s not known who originally posted the video, but like all good pieces of misinformation it doesn’t really matter. To many in Spalding County, an hour south of Atlanta, the video was simply more proof that something was deeply wrong with elections there. Technical issues and long lines had plagued the people of Spalding County on November 3, 2020. Plus, there were all the rumors: ballots thrown into a dumpster in their very town, ballot harvesting in Democrat enclaves like Atlanta and Fulton County, votes being flipped on machines nationwide, a RIGGED election, as Trump himself constantly put it.

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By the night of November 5, a small crowd had gathered outside the headquarters of the Spalding County Board of Elections and Registration. They were upset that workers inside were handling ballots without being overseen by poll observers. The workers inside were mostly black. The people outside were white.

But these weren’t just any locals. Among the crowd, video from that night reveals, was a county commissioner, the chairman of the local Republican party, and Spalding County’s representative in the Georgia house. Also in the crowd was the future head of the election board and the future county election supervisor.

Some of the crowd stayed until the police arrived to escort the election workers to their cars. The county commissioner, a local defense attorney named James Dutton, filmed as they got into their cars and drove out of the parking lot.

In his video commentary, Dutton makes clear that he thinks he has witnessed the type of election Fraud that Trump warned about. “It’s really, really a shame that this is happening right here in America,” Dutton said on a video widely viewed by Spalding County residents on Facebook. “This isn’t Venezuela, this isn’t Cuba, this is the United States. This isn’t even California; this isn’t Fulton County.”

He was right. This was Spalding County, where Donald Trump won by 60 percent of the vote. Elsewhere in the state, Trump’s victory was less secure. Among the hundreds of people commenting as Dutton’s live stream dragged on for nearly an hour was a former county clerk named Kim Slaughter. “Trump may have won in Spalding but Georgia is becoming a toss up.” Slaughter warned. “Every vote counts!”

A little more than six months later, she was chosen by Republicans as the new election supervisor for Spalding County.

By then, Slaughter was the final piece of a Republican takeover of election administration in the county. Over the course of six months, local politicians — with a key assist from Georgia’s state legislature — pushed out several Democrats from their positions, replacing them with radical Republican adherents to Trump’s election lies.

This story is based on a year’s worth of election board meetings, conversations with citizens of Spalding County on all sides of the political spectrum, and more than 3,500  of pages of mostly duplicative internal emails obtained by Rolling Stone under public records laws. The Republican officials taking over administration of Spalding’s election board largely declined to speak with Rolling Stone. In internal communications, they’ve argued their ultimate goal is to reform a faulty election system to prevent future mishaps. To their critics, it’s something far more sinister.

The story of Spalding County isn’t just the story of Spalding County. It’s the story of the takeover of America’s election system and, by extension, its democracy. All over the country, a Republican party obsessed with phantom election fraud is taking control of local election administration, putting people in charge of elections who are — at a minimum — skeptical that an election can be free or fair if their side didn’t win. The scariest chapters of this story are ahead: In 2020, Trump’s push to overturn the election was stalled by a handful of brave people at all levels of American government. But 2024 is upon us, and if Trump tries again, it’s unclear how many of those people will be left.

In Spalding, what began in a dumpster continued with pro-Trump zealots and conspiracy theorists overseeing elections in Spalding County. Now, they have been subpoenaed for their involvement in trying to commit a possible election crime.

Like a lot of places in rural Georgia, Spalding County and its seat, Griffin, contradict one another. The county is mostly white and conservative while Griffin is mostly Black and liberal. Those trends have only increased in recent years, as Griffin’s population has trended more Black and less white, according to residents of the city. The city council is evenly split between Black and white members. The county commission has two black women serving as the minority vote. Since 2012, 60 percent of voters in the county have reliably voted for Republicans in virtually every election. Spalding is a conservative place, people on both sides of politics will tell you. And yet, in 2020, its election board was run by three black women, all Democrats, with a black woman as election supervisor. That’s no longer true.

In Georgia, local election boards are run by political appointees who then choose their own chairperson. In the event of partisan stalemates — which are frequent — the chair is chosen by a number of legal mechanisms that include a judge’s decision and, in the case of Spalding County, sometimes a coin flip. It was this flip of a coin that resulted in the Spalding County Board of Elections and Registration being run by black Democrats. It was the stroke of a pen that would undo that, a legal maneuver that was preceded by problems on Election Day.

At 7 a.m. on Nov. 3, 2020, voting machines went down in all of Spalding County’s 18 precincts. To address this, Georgia law requires election officials to keep enough paper ballots on hand to cover 10 percent of the voters expected to vote in a given precinct, meaning hundreds of provisional ballots would be needed. But instead of having 10 percent of a precinct’s paper ballots on hand, the former election supervisor, Marcia Ridley, had just 10, according to minutes from the State Election Board meeting in which the board reviewed her charges.

In Spalding, Ridley became the target of Republican ire over allegations of a stolen election. Talk to Dutton and you’ll hear him get short of breath in anger when he talks about Ridley — as he did in his lone conversation with Rolling Stone in January before declining to answer further inquiries — and what he describes as her assault on free and fair elections in Spalding County.

It’s clear Ridley’s record is far from unblemished. Her failure to have enough ballots on hand was the first of about a dozen rule violations by Ridley that the State Election Board referred to Georgia’s attorney general for possible charges. Those charges remain pending, according to the Secretary of State. She also drew ire for running as a Democrat for a separate office  in DeKalb County, where she lives, a run her critics called a conflict of interest. Rolling Stone has been unable to reach Ridley for comment, but sources knowledgeable about her thoughts say she is unwilling to speak to the press due to ongoing litigation that concerns her work as election supervisor.

Despite Ridley’s errors, the worst thing that happened to the voters of Spalding County on Election Day 2020 was that they were made to wait in long lines — the norm for many voters in large cities. There is also no evidence that Ridley intentionally did anything to attack the election, and she wasn’t alone in violating election rules: An election board member was also implicated in the failures of Election Day 2020, as well as several poll workers. And a county commissioner and longtime poll worker who led a team at a voting precinct that day was also found guilty of violating election rules, something he blamed on malfunctioning poll pads.

But from Election Day on, Republicans in Spalding County were “obsessed” with getting rid of Ridley, says Jim O’Brien, one of two Democrats currently serving on the election board. But Ridley was a county employee, hired by the county commission. She couldn’t be removed by vote. The three black women on the board couldn’t be un-elected either because they were appointed by the local party. Nevertheless, soon after the 2020 election, they were gone.

In March 2021, a week before the end of the 2021 legislative session, Spalding County’s representative in the state House, Rep. Karen Mathiak, introduced HB 769. The bill altered the rules for Spalding County elections to, among other provisions, require that the election supervisor and all board members be county residents.

HB 769 was among at least 10 bills introduced by Republicans in the aftermath of the 2020 election that sought to remake election boards in favor of the GOP. Of all of the Republican bills dealing specifically with a lone county’s election board, none but HB 769 required the election supervisor to live in the county. The residency requirement was a problem for Ridley, who worked in Spalding County but lived in neighboring DeKalb County, where she had run for local office while serving as Spalding’s election supervisor, further angering Republicans. Mathiak declined to speak to Rolling Stone about the bill, and whether it was targeted specifically at Ridley.

At the time, O’Brien criticized the law, saying it had installed an inexperienced team and left the county vulnerable. O’Brien also pointed out the racial element of the new order. “The selection of the new Elections Supervisor comes at a critical time for Spalding County,” O’Brien wrote in an email, noting that the election office was at that time “being manned by temporary personnel who appear to be purged of minority employees.” He called on Mathiak and Knight to “rescind” HB 769’s residency requirement in order to ensure the new supervisor would “have prior elections management experience and be knowledgeable of current elections law to ensure a non-partisan and transparent election process.”

The residency requirement was not rescinded, and soon after the bill passed, Ridley was fired. Also out of a job was Vera McIntosh, a Democratic member of the election board who didn’t meet the residency requirement. After her and Ridley’s ouster, two Democrats on the election board — both of them black women — resigned, citing harassment from Trump supporters and in protest of the new law.

The old guard was gone.

Almost immediately, Republicans began remaking the board in their image. Of the three vacancies, Democrats would get two positions and Republicans would get one. The fifth and final board seat would go to whomever was chosen by a secret vote of the county’s judges, as was newly stipulated by HB 769. The judges heard from several candidates, including McIntosh, the board member who was written out of her position by HB 769, and Elbert Solomon, a local Democrat. But in the end the judges chose Jim Newland, a former vice-chair of the local GOP who had served as a poll watcher in the area.

The old board had consisted of two Republicans — part of the old guard of the Spalding County GOP who didn’t necessarily subscribe to election lies — and three Democrats, all black women. Now, the board was helmed by three Republican men, and two Democrats, Jim O’Brien and Alfred Jester, who has since been replaced by Dexter Wimbush, the board’s only black member.

On July 13, 2020, the board chose Ben Johnson as its new chair. Johnson, who had previously served on the election board and was a high-ranking member of the local Republican party, is also the CEO of a local technology company that since 2016 had reaped more than $3.5 million from county coffers for its IT work, according to invoices obtained by Rolling Stone through public records requests. In his spare time, Johnson runs a far-right Facebook page called the Kitchen Soup News Network. There, Johnson posts prolifically about his beliefs in conspiracy theories, along with what can only be described as far-right, own the libs meme content. Among them are conspiracies about the 2020 election and, specifically, voting machines and other election infrastructure. As the primary IT service provider for the county, Johnson’s company has access to the election management server and virtually every piece of technology in the elections office. None of this seemed to matter to local Republicans.

To peruse Johnson’s social media on any given day is an exercise in understanding what is driving the far-right Internet in the last 48 hours. Across platforms, Johnson posts prolifically about his beliefs in conspiracy theories spanning the global financial market, COVID, Hunter Biden, Ukraine, the mainstream media, QAnon and, of course, elections. Johnson recently posted that a recent poll showing that 44 percent of Americans believed in the QAnon-esque statement that the U.S. government is controlled by secret global cabal was “proof that people are waking up and there’s nothing they can do to stop it.” Earlier in the week, he posted a meme that called out reporters who “pushed for” what he believes are “hoaxes.” The “hoaxes” included Donald Trump saying “very fine people” were on both sides of the deadly Nazi rally in Charlottesville, and that the former president tear-gassed protesters in order to pose for a picture in front of a church while holding the Bible.

In Johnson’s online posts, he is a truth-teller exposing election fraud and other conspiracy theories as part of a righteous crusade to reclaim America from the globalist forces trying to destroy it. In public and at election board meetings, he is a polite bureaucrat who rarely, if ever, speaks about his extremist beliefs.

Johnson is CEO of Liberty Technology, which since 2016 has been the primary IT support and maintenance provider for Spalding County. (If Johnson sees any contradiction in being an anti-government zealot while relying on the government for a large chunk of his company’s revenue, he doesn’t say so publicly.) Liberty first won its contract with Spalding County thanks to what Johnson’s critics call a classic case of small-town cronyism, according to Sharon King and Isaac Melton, a local liberal muckraker and a longtime Griffinite, respectively. A former county manager left his government job to work for Johnson’s company (a period of time referred to as a “sabbatical” on his county profile, but made more clear on his LinkedIn page). When he returned less than two years later to once again become county manager, Liberty was eventually awarded the county IT contract. It has held it ever since.

“This is Gotham city,” Melton told Rolling Stone after an election board meeting in April.

Well before the rise of Trump, Johnson served his first stint on the election board. Then, in 2016, Johnson’s company began contracting with the county for its IT work. With a successful business, a secure government contract, and allies like Dutton, Johnson was tapped into the local Republican power structure. In 2020, Dutton appointed Johnson to the county’s Ethics Review Board.

Johnson and his fellow Republicans then out-voted Democrats to choose Kim Slaughter as the new election supervisor. Among five candidates, some with more experience and education than her, Slaughter’s past experience working past elections was “obsolete,” according to O’Brien.

With an election-denying conspiracy theorist as chair of the election board, Johnson and his fellow Republicans got to work. Slaughter and McClain would soon join him in trying to hire a third-party IT firm to illegally access election equipment in an attempt to further implicate the previous election staff of wrongdoing, and to prove voter fraud.

Johnson, McClain, Slaughter, and Newland did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Under the direction of Johnson and McClain, the new board immediately began investigating Ridley’s actions as supervisor. The day before and the day after he was elected chair, Johnson and McClain visited a room where election servers are held. They were unaccompanied by the county election supervisor, as required by law, according to O’Brien. It may have been then that the pair discovered that some election equipment had been left logged in.  By August, the pair began insisting to fellow board members it was a major security concern.

Johnson, McClain, and later Slaughter cited the logged-in devices as a major security issue that made it important for the board to hire a company to copy data on the equipment in order to preserve any evidence of potential wrongdoing. “It’s basically like taking pictures of a car before you rent it and noting any damage,” Johnson wrote in an email on Aug. 16. What O’Brien didn’t know is that what Johnson and McClain were proposing — hiring a private company not certified by the Secretary of State to copy sensitive voting data from election equipment  —  was possibly illegal, according to a previous comment from Secretary of State spokesperson Mike Hassinger. (In a letter to the secretary of state’s office obtained by Rolling Stone, Spalding County Attorney Stephanie Windham denied the officials had any illegal intentions.)

Like many Republicans, Johnson had fixated on voting machines as a source of widespread voter fraud since the 2020 election. He and many others asserted data contained within them would prove that the election was stolen from Trump. In Mesa County, Colorado, a Republican election official named Tina Peters had accessed that data and handed it over to right-wing conspiracy theorists. She became a hero among election deniers.

On Sept. 20, 2021, Johnson emailed McClain and O’Brien a link to a story about Peters, appearing to endorse the actions for which Peters has been indicted. In the email, Johnson delved into another conspiracy theory: Secretaries of state could be in on the mass 2020 coverup — and it was possible they would go in and erase the evidence of fraud.

Peters was “100% in order in terms of making a forensic copy of their Dominion equipment,” Johnson wrote in the email. That’s because, Johnson said, the Colorado Secretary of State had destroyed “important logs and other equipment that is [by] law required to be retained for 2years (sic).”

Under Johnson’s leadership, the board contacted Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger’s office about the logged in devices. The Secretary of State would have to send someone to Griffin to recertify the devices, it said. The recertification would include running a mock election on the equipment.

“Letting someone do a mock election or anything similar to that is going to be questioned. Optics!” McClain wrote in an email to colleagues. “Copying is one thing, manipulating is another.”

A month after Johnson and McClain’s allegedly unsanctioned visit to the election server room, the pair entered into talks with SullivanStrickler, an Atlanta IT firm which had illegally accessed voting machine data in Coffee County with the help of the Trump campaign and former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell.

(SullivanStrickler is part of an investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is probing the Trump campaign’s efforts to overturn election results in Georgia; Johnson, McClain and Slaughter were subpoenaed by Willis in October. In September, SullivanStrickler defended its work in a statement to Rolling Stone, saying that, during their work in Coffee County, “they were operating under the good faith belief that their client was authorized to access the voting machines and servers.” The firm has subsequently told Rolling Stone that though the company was subpoenaed in the Fulton investigation, it was not a target of it, and pledged to fully cooperate with the investigation.)

Back in Spalding, Johnson and McClain told O’Brien that the security issue of the logged-in devices — and a “litigation hold” stemming from lawsuits — required them to copy the data in order to prevent the board from being subject to any liability. But in their communications, the pair referenced conspiracy theories that suggested they were pursuing the data under the auspices of trying to prove unfounded allegations of voter fraud, according to emails obtained by Rolling Stone. It’s not clear what Johnson and McClain thought they could glean from the data on election equipment. Sources knowledgeable about the data kept on Dominion election equipment throughout Georgia said such data would not be useful in proving widespread voter fraud. Still, the prospect of proving fraud through the digital ones and zeros held on machines has been an obsession among right-wing conspiracy theorists.

Not familiar with the world of election denying conspiracies, O’Brien missed the warning signs. While Johnson and McClain never said outright that SullivanStrickler’s work would be done in an attempt to preserve evidence of voter fraud, a September email from Johnson alludes to their conspiratorial motives. “The main thing that we want the SOS to NOT do is to EDIT OR MODIFY the existing systems in any way,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson appeared knowledgeable and competent about the matter of hiring SullivanStrickler, according to O’Brien. But in between the lines of Johnson’s polite and professional emails was the language of conspiracy theories that can go undetected for the uninitiated.

In the email about Peters, Johnson linked to a “report” that referenced an August 2021 “cyber symposium” hosted by MyPillow CEO and election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell. There, Peters claimed the Colorado Secretary of State had deleted evidence that could have proved widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. Despite some defending Peters’ actions in internal communications, Spalding County officials deny similar motives in their attempt to access election equipment, which would have cost taxpayers as much as $15,000, according to proposed contracts reviewed by Rolling Stone.

O’Brien was admittedly out of his depth on all of this, he has said. A soft-spoken man with a slight New Jersey accent who volunteers for a local homeless shelter, O’Brien took Johnson and McClain at their word when they said that the hiring of SullivanStrickler would shield the county from legal liability. It wasn’t necessarily O’Brien’s fault that he missed the warning signs. While some might know the details of the Tina Peters scandal and others in the realm of election conspiracy theories, local officials like O’Brien — often working after getting off from full-time jobs or helming their positions in retirement — might be less informed than their counterparts in state and federal government. Certainly, O’Brien had no idea that his Republican colleagues on the election board were in the process of attempting to possibly commit a crime. Worse, when the Secretary of State admonished Slaughter for seeking to work with SullivanStrickler, she nor Windham, Johnson, or McClain told O’Brien and Jester that Raffensberger’s office had sent an all caps warning not to hire the firm.

“Do NOT allow an IT company to image or conduct any activity on voting equipment,” Blake Evans, an elections director at the Secretary of State’s office, told Slaughter on August 18, 2021. “That is NOT allowed.”

O’Brien never saw that email until Rolling Stone reported about the attempted hiring of SullivanStrickler in mid-October. “What was hidden in the dark is brought out into the light,” O’Brien said of discovering Evans’ email.

After abandoning the plan to hire SullivanStrickler, the board moved on to two major decisions — neither one illegal, but both raising concerns about voters’ ballot access going forward.

While the new board got to work, it was simultaneously inundated with thousands of emails demanding investigations and audits into the 2020 election. Most of them came from people outside of the county, true believers in election lies from across the country, who had fixated on the county because of its mention on right-wing platforms where Ridley’s errors and the dumpster video had made the rounds. Johnson insisted the board had to take the demands seriously.

Then, in early 2022, the board declined to include Sunday voting for elections, one of the rare provisions in the state’s new “election integrity” bill that actually could have increased access to the polls.

In April, Johnson and his fellow Republicans on the board out-voted Democrats to cancel a voting machine warranty and maintenance contract with Dominion. This made the county responsible for updating and maintaining its own election equipment, as well as for troubleshooting or fixing any problems that arise.

At an early October board meeting, a woman accused Johnson of trafficking in conspiracy theories, asking questions about his company’s work for the county, the level of access he and his company have to election equipment, and the issue of maintenance work on the election equipment itself. To allay her fears, Johnson asked Slaughter to describe that work, which Slaughter herself now performs in the wake of the cancelled maintenance contract. Slaughter has received some training from the Secretary of State on the technical aspects of maintaining and troubleshooting voting machines and other election equipment — the same voting machines that went down on Election Day 2020.

When James Dutton began filming outside the Spalding County Board of Elections and Registration, the 2020 election had yet to be decided. When he posted photos of ballot envelopes that he and other Trump supporters thought were actual ballots that night, they were watering the seeds that had been planted by Trump’s election lies days, weeks, and months earlier. Now those seeds are in bloom.

Like all county election boards, the board in Spalding County is tasked with certifying its own election results. In 2020, nearly all of Georgia’s election boards did just that, certifying election results that showed Trump had lost to Joe Biden. But there was one notable exception: Coffee County, where SullivanStrickler actually did illegally access election equipment, as officials had proposed they do in Spalding. Certification of results is important, because it signals that local officials trust the results of an election, that the election was free and fair, that voters — regardless of their preferred candidate — had had their voting rights respected. When Coffee County refused to certify its election results, it signaled the opposite.

In a never-issued executive order that reached the highest levels of the Trump administration, Coffee County was one of just three counties in the entire country mentioned in a quasi-legal document that called for the military to seize voting machines. The authors of the order used Coffee County’s refusal to certify its own election as an argument for this unprecedented declaration of martial law to overturn an election that the order demanded.

In Spalding County, that power to certify results now lies in the hands of an elections office dominated by election-denying Republicans.

What comes next in Spalding is anyone’s guess. It’s possible that the madness crested with the ill-conceived ploy to copy voting machine data. But if Spalding returns to normal, it’ll be coming back from the brink while the rest of the country lurches toward it.

The problem isn’t just what election deniers might do with their positions of power, it’s the fact that all of their questions and investigations create an even greater sense that elections can’t be trusted. They say they support election integrity; but the unspoken subtext is a skepticism that any victory from Democrats is legitimate.

Griffin, Spalding County and the country are changing around Johnson and the fellow Republicans who have taken over elections there. In many places, including places like Griffin, America is becoming more racially diverse and more politically progressive. Instead of accepting this change, MAGAfied Republicans are fighting against it. They see themselves as righteous crusaders, and their vision of America is a country ruled by Republicans — election results be damned. Many of them are prepared to make that vision a reality by any means necessary.

A month after he and others went through the dumpster after election night, Dutton posted his plan for Vice President Mike Pence to decertify the election results. It was the same plan that House and the Senate Republicans had fixated on alongside members of the Trump administration, falsely believing Pence could constitutionally refuse to accept electoral college votes for Biden. When that plan fell through, Trump’s mob attacked the Capitol, wailing in fury. A commenter asked Dutton how he’d avoid violence in the wake of the hypothetical plan he’d proposed.

“Oh, you misunderstood. I said nothing about avoiding violence,” Dutton wrote in response. “I said this is a way to throw out the questionable results and still follow the constitution. I am sure there will be objections, and I am sure some of those objections will be violent. And I can’t wait.”

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