Top Georgia Officials Are Going After Black Leaders Who Organized Voters
Jul 15 2014
On the morning of December 21, 2010, Lula Smart was preparing to leave for her job at Sears when she heard a firm knock at her front door. An array of law enforcement vehicles had amassed outside, and armed officers were fanning out around her house. Before that day, Smart had no rap sheet to speak of, only a master’s degree in criminal justice earned earlier that year. While she enjoyed her work in retail, Smart hoped to transition into a job more like that of her unannounced visitors, who would read her a dizzying list of felony voting fraud charges that amounted to more than 100 years in prison. Handcuffed, Smart soon met nine other incarcerated African Americans who had participated in a vigorous get-out-the-vote campaign ahead of an election the previous month. Three of those jailed had been elected to the local school board.
Their efforts had helped to win the first-ever African American majority on Brooks County's Board of Education. But almost four years after that vote, dozens of felony fraud charges still overshadow the group, known locally as the Quitman 10 + 2 (two more were subsequently charged). In her living room, Smart points to the television where she first saw her orange-jumpsuit-clad mug shot on the nightly news. She is the only member of the group who has not yet seen a trial—or, more precisely, she’s had two mistrials and counting. Since receiving 32 felony charges, her hoped-for career in criminal justice has, obviously, stalled. She now works full-time at Home Depot and fills in part-time shifts selling shoes at the department store. Before the first trial, she contemplated suicide, but says her resolve has since grown.
Smart’s arrest was the result of a massive investigation initiated by a local district attorney whose senior assistant attorney sat on the Brooks County school board. Although this conflict of interest disqualified the DA from trying the case, it didn’t prevent him from compelling the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) to launch an exceptionally large probe into the disruptive school-board election.
Yet the massive investigation failed to produce evidence that Smart or any other member of the group had defrauded or coerced a single voter. With these goods lacking, the state built its prosecution instead on proving that she and others breached technicalities like carrying envelopes containing ballots to the mail for their close acquaintances without the proper authorization.
Even on these counts, the state is struggling to make its case. VICE spoke with several Brooks County residents state prosecutors allege are the victims of voter fraud at the hands of the Quitman 10 + 2. Each of them asserted that they had successfully voted for the candidate of their choice without coercion or any impropriety. Similarly, court documents reveal that other alleged victims—called by the prosecution to testify against Smart—had little to offer the state’s case. Under oath, witnesses called by the state asserted that no fraud had taken place and said that, during interrogations, Georgia investigators had them sign personal statements that the agents had written for them.
In 2012, despite the case’s vulnerabilities, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal issued an executive order removing the three black women charged with voter fraud from the school board.
Next month, the state will once again try Lula Smart. Her third trial comes just over a year after the Supreme Court significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965, setting off a wave of fresh worries about equal access to the ballot box. In the name of preventing voter fraud, a number of states have since passed voter ID requirements. Civil rights groups allege that conservative politicians overstate the prevalence of election fraud to justify discriminatory ID laws. In Quitman, many residents believe that fraud allegations have been employed here as a cudgel to punish those who inspired their community to vote in droves.
Debra Dennard faces four felony charges in connection to the 2010 primary. Two of the counts allege that she criminally handled the absentee ballot of her father, David Dennard, whom she cares for. Mr. Dennard has no legs below his knees and is partially blind. He says that his daughter did nothing wrong, and that he successfully voted for the candidates of his choice. “All she did was help me—just as she helps me with almost everything,” Mr. Dennard tells VICE. “I knew who I wanted to vote for, and I signed the ballot myself.”
In downtown Quitman, a person sometimes has to shout to be heard over 18-wheeler trucks grinding down its four-lane main drag, US 84. In either direction off the corridor, Quitman’s two-story, balconied buildings give way to a loosening grid of dusty residential streets lined with bright pastel bungalows and live oaks heavy with Spanish moss. These are the African American neighborhoods that were swept into the political fervor after Georgia changed its laws to allow the use of local absentee voting in 2006.
In the early spring of 2010, ahead of the July school-board primary election, an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort materialized in the hitherto politically quiet black community. For the first time, they saw a majority within reach at a powerful local institution where a number of issues divided roughly along racial lines. For instance, black candidates and their supporters deeply opposed a wave of teacher layoffs that the school board had initiated to prevent a local tax increase.
“We’d been bit by the Obama bug, and we knew it was time for a change in Brooks County as well,” says Nancy Dennard, the president of the school board (David Dennard is her brother-in-law). “We knew people would be more apt to vote without the old stipulations on absentee voting.”
Dennard has close-cropped hair and a doctoral degree in education. She faces 11 felony counts of voter fraud. She speaks in rapid-fire blocks broken only by audible gasps for air and has a schoolteacher’s tendency to make a person feel scolded when she’s asserting even the most neutral point. “We’d stop people in the grocery store or wherever we saw them and ask, 'Did you vote?' We went out in the housing projects, and we had kids that ran up to us and said, ‘Can my momma vote?’ Getting out there and voting became the ‘in’ thing here for the first time ever.”
In the weeks preceding the July 20 primary, these efforts did not go undetected. Quitman’s local newspaper began noting the historically large number of absentee ballots that were pouring into the elections office. On July 19, less than 24 hours before the primary, a white school-board member expressed concern about the election to the local district attorney, David Miller, whose senior assistant attorney also served on Brooks County’s school board. That very day, Miller sent a letter imploring the state agency to investigate the July election.
On primary day, it would be the absentee ballots—roughly four times more than the county had seen in history—that ultimately pushed the vote in the favor of the black candidates. The sheer volume of absentee ballots counted would be used for years to come as justification for investigating the election.
When Quitman’s get-out-the-vote machine again took to the streets ahead of the November general election, they were not the only ones pounding pavement in the town’s black neighborhoods: Gun-toting investigators from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Georgia’s Secretary of State’s office had arrived in Brooks County and came knocking at many of the same doors. It is widely believed in Quitman’s black community that the state investigators came less to enforce the law and more to chill surging electoral fervor.
Mattie Neloms, who lives in a neighborhood north of downtown that locals call “Slab” because of an old wood mill there, says the GBI interviewed her daughter-in-law, a recent immigrant, and demanded that she get in touch with Neloms’s son. “They told her that if she couldn’t get in touch with her husband, she could get him in some serious trouble and he could get locked up,” Neloms says. “She’s from Africa, where they don’t do all that voting stuff, so she didn’t know what was going on. She was scared to death.”
Neloms tells me investigators then came to her place of work and interrogated her until her boss told the agents to leave, but not before the investigators asked her plainly why she had chosen to vote with an absentee ballot. “I told them it was because that’s my privilege—I can do that,” Neloms says. Neither Neloms nor her son were charged or named as victims in the state’s case.
Witnesses called by the state to testify against Lula Smart in the 2013 case also expressed concerns that the investigation aimed to intimidate. “When y’all came to my house... y’all just kept coming and harassing me. I know who I voted for, and I voted and I thought I was through with that.” Patricia Little, a longtime Quitman resident, told the courtroom in reference to the state’s investigators. “Y’all making me not even want to vote no more.”
Bessie Hamilton, Lula Smart’s godmother, was also named on Smart’s indictment as a victim of her alleged voter fraud. When called to testify against Smart, Hamilton said that GBI investigators actively intimidated her when they arrived unannounced at the doctor’s office where she worked. Hamilton told the courtroom that the investigators brought her into an unused break room and told her she had recently been in danger of incarceration, apparently in regard to the primary election. She then signed a statement that the investigators had written for her, even though she was too frightened to properly review its contents. “I was scared,” Hamilton said on the stand. “The doctor kept checking on me because I have high blood pressure.”
Nancy Dennard says that, by her calculation based on the GBI case file, the agency knocked on more than 450 doors, and that all but seven were located in heavily black neighborhoods. The agency refused to comment to VICE.
As the GBI began its investigation, a number of the town’s prominent whites publicly questioned the increasing use of absentee voting. “It’s the absentee ballots,” Claude Butler, a just-defeated county commissioner told a local news agency after the July primary election. “They have gone rampant here in our county. And it's unethical, and it's unconstitutional."
On October 1, 2010, while state investigators were still making their rounds in Quitman, Larry Cunningham—the school-board member whose concerns the local district attorney originally brought to the GBI—sent out a letter regarding the upcoming election. “There is a political group in Brooks County that does not share the values of the majority of the current board members,” Cunningham wrote. “In the July primary election they narrowly defeated two of our board members… by excessive use of the absentee voter ballot. The evidence of their voter fraud is so apparent it has prompted one of the largest GBI investigations in the history of Brooks County. The members of this party will risk going to jail to gain control of our schools.”
A month later, on November 2, the black school-board candidates who had won the July primary were again victorious in the general election, making certain the first black majority on Brooks County’s school board. The state did not bring any charges in regard to this election, but weeks later would make the first arrests of the Quitman 10 + 2.
Nearly four years since the group’s mug shots became a fixture of the local news, many of the Quitman 10 + 2 still lack basic facts of the cases against them. For all but two of the accused, the prosecution has given no word as to when, if ever, they will see their day in court. (One member of the group, Latashia Head, died in 2012.) The state has, at times, made grand public statements about the case, but has rarely matched this with a straightforward explanation of the evidence.
Similarly, Nathan Deal, Georgia’s governor who removed the members of the school board for as long as he legally could, would not give VICE an explanation for his executive order. His press office refused to tell us whether any documentation exists regarding the order. “When local officials are indicted, the governor puts together a panel of peers—people who hold the same office—from other counties,” Brian Robinson, a spokesperson for Governor Deal, wrote in an email. “They review the case and recommend to the governor is [sic] he should remove the members pending the outcome of their trials.” Voter fraud is of particular interest to Governor Deal, who once said he pushed for Georgia’s voter ID law despite complaints of disenfranchisement from what he called “ghetto grandmothers."
The state prosecutor who has been trying the case, Joseph Burford, likewise refused to help us understand elementary facts of the project his office continues to pursue. He says state ethics rules bar prosecutors from speaking to media outlets about open cases. (Such code did not stop the previous prosecutor on the case, Joseph Mulholland, from appearing on Fox News to tell a national audience of the Quitman 10 + 2 “rigging the election.” Mulholland declined to speak with VICE, as did the local DA, David Miller.)
In response to questions about the case, Burford simply told me to review the transcript of the first mistrial of Lula Smart, the sole trial that has been transcribed. Yet the 678-page document does little to clarify the case against Smart. Key witnesses called to testify against her—the alleged victims of voter fraud—could not recall any clear wrongdoing regarding her role in the primary. One simply asserted that a man named “Virgil” mailed his ballot for him. For another equally useless witness, Burford abruptly dismissed an entire felony count in front of the court rather than allow the defense team a cross examination. Years had gone by since the 2010 primary, and other witnesses simply could not remember the details of their voting.
Smart’s godmother told the court that, during the 2010 primary, Smart came by her house and picked up the envelope containing her completed ballot for her. The prosecution also got a husband and wife who are old friends of Smart to indicate that she may have carried completed ballots to the mail for them. The 2010 primary was the first election in which the couple voted absentee, and the husband asked Smart to come over and review their ballots for technical errors. This is another contention of the prosecution: that members of the group gave assistance to absentee voters without official authorization.
During both mistrials, a number of alleged victims waited a week for their turn to testify against Smart in a back room of the courthouse, but never got their chance. Robby Christian was among those who waited. An entire felony count against Lula Smart relies on the state’s assertion that she criminally handled Christian’s ballot. He sees things differently. “They got the wrong folks— these people haven’t done anything wrong," Christian says. “I know how to fill out my ballot and that’s what I did. Then I put it in my own mailbox—because that’s my right.”
Elvira Sims, a Quitman resident whom the state also relies on for an entire felony count against Smart, says that Smart did nothing improper with her ballot. “That girl didn’t do anything,” Sims says. “If she’d have been white, there wouldn’t have been all of this commotion, but she’s a black woman.”
“It’s bullshit,” Errol Cobb Sr., another witness called by the prosecution, tells me. He says he voted successfully—and without meddling—for exactly the candidates of his choice in the 2010 election. “I get a letter from the state saying I’m a witness against Lula Smart—for what? All I know is it’s a lie. Bottom line. She’s never brought me anything about voting. I’ve only seen that girl twice in the past five years. Racism’s all it is.”
In October 2012, the three indicted school-board members resumed their posts. Having failed to win a conviction against any of the members, the state had no choice but to allow their return. Today, perhaps miraculously, the school board’s deliberations occur with efficiency and mutual respect, according to several members.
David Cunningham, who still sits on the school board, has softened his tone since sending the October 2010 letter that raised the specter of his opponents being incarcerated. He tells VICE that he would be “shocked” if any of his fellow school-board members, or any of their supporters, saw jail time stemming from the prosecutions.
“In the scheme of things, I don’t think it’s the crime of the century, if it is a crime at all,” Cunningham tells me from behind his desk at the peanut-buying center his family owns. Cunningham does still believe that the prosecution could help to discourage voting abuses by clarifying how just how active and aggressive candidates and their supporters can be in pushing absentee ballots on voters.
He believes that the rising popularity of absentee voting opens the door to mischief. “The issue is, do we want the ballot to become nothing more than a petition?” Cunningham says. “It has the potential to remove the curtain at the ballot box—that symbolic curtain—which means when we vote, nobody but the good Lord and us knows how we voted our ballot. The proliferation of the absentee ballot can lead to someone being too persuasive in someone else’s home.”
Cunningham rejects any notion that the state’s investigation had a racial motivation.
Fatigue is perhaps the most universal response in Quitman to the prosecution. Cunningham expresses wonderment at the fact that Smart’s case has twice mistried and says that, whenever the case concludes, he would like to see Quitman move past the saga. Dick Mitchell—the school board’s former attorney who reportedly also pushed for the state’s investigation—refrained from comment, simply allowing his secretary to say, “He just wants this to be over.”
In April, the state prosecutor joined the indictments of Smart and Nancy Dennard, allowing the two to be tried at the same hearing. On August 18, for the third time in two years, Smart will return to Quitman’s courthouse to hear the state’s case against her. This is the first time the state has given Dennard a court date.
The Quitman 10 + 2 have differing opinions on what force continues to drive the state’s prosecution. Some think local actors continue to urge it forward from behind the scenes. Others think it has taken on a life of its own, far beyond any control of little Quitman. “In the beginning, I think they just were trying to embarrass us so that people wouldn’t listen to us,” says Diane Thomas, Lula Smart’s sister who sits on the school board and faces several felony counts relating to the 2010 primary.
“I don’t think they ever expected it to go this far and for the state to get so involved,” Thomas says. “But once it got out of hand, it was like, OK, this monster is going to grow.”
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