Trump's Lies About 2020 Election Traumatized Atlanta Election Workers
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As his time in the White House came to a close, former President Trump became obsessed with one office in downtown Atlanta and the people who worked there. The Fulton County elections department was a target of conspiracy theories by Trump and his allies, and that led to threats.
Johnny Kauffman with member station WABE in Atlanta spent months reporting inside the department. He brings us this story about the trauma suffered by local election workers due to Trump's disinformation campaign.
JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: Fulton County's woes started months before November and the presidential election. In April, an election worker died from COVID. Beverly Walker was 62. Known for her goodie drawer filled with tea and snacks, she worked in the department for two decades. Walker was a close friend and mentor to Shaye Moss.
SHAYE MOSS: Miss Beverly let me come to her house every year - every Christmas, every Thanksgiving.
KAUFFMAN: That must have been so hard when she passed.
MOSS: Yes. Very. It's very, very hard. It's just so unexpected and just so fast and just so crazy.
KAUFFMAN: And then just weeks ahead of the November election, COVID hit the Fulton County elections department again. Twenty-three warehouse workers tested positive. Fulton barely got all the voting equipment out before the polls opened. Still, Election Day went smoothly. But late that night, Trump falsely declared victory in Georgia. Thousands of mail-in ballots still needed to be counted in Fulton, and reporters and partisan observers flocked there. The elections director, Rick Barron - he didn't sleep for 36 hours straight. We talked right after the press conference when he announced they finished.
RICK BARRON: Did you notice? I almost lost it up there for a second.
KAUFFMAN: What were you thinking?
BARRON: I don't know. I think when I said something about Beverly dying or, you know, we had a staff member die and - I don't know. Maybe it was a sense of relief too because, I mean, it was stressful worrying about whether that was going to happen to anybody again.
KAUFFMAN: Trump and his allies eventually zeroed in on Fulton County, where, except for Barron, all the staff are Black. Rudy Giuliani spun a conspiracy that targeted Shaye Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman, who had helped out as a temp worker. He compared them to drug dealers. Calls came in to Moss' old phone, which her son was using.
MOSS: And he would answer it, and they're just calling him all kinds of racial slurs and saying what they're going to do to him.
KAUFFMAN: A stranger knocked on the door at Moss' grandma's, where Moss used to live. The strangers said they were there to make a citizen's arrest. Moss' grandma called her, frantic.
MOSS: She was just yelling on the phone, like, no, stop. You cannot come in here. Stop. And so I just had to call the police, and this happens all the time.
KAUFFMAN: Strangers appeared at Ruby Freeman's house too. That's Moss' mom. Pizza delivery showed up that Freeman hadn't ordered. She told police she received at least 420 emails and 75 text messages. One read, we know where you live; we coming to get you. Moss oversaw the most public part of the county's mail-in ballot operation, and she blames herself for what happened.
MOSS: Because I feel like it's all my fault - like, all my fault.
KAUFFMAN: Why? It's not your fault. Why do you think that?
MOSS: Because I'm the one that, you know, told my mom that we was hiring, we needed help. You know, I shouldn't have gotten my family involved at all. I should've just stayed in the office like everybody else, always trying to help and do the most and, you know, be available. But I'm always the one getting [expletive] on at the end every time.
KAUFFMAN: Trump mentioned Ruby Freeman's name 18 times on a now-infamous call leaked to reporters. On the call, Trump pushed Georgia officials to illegally alter the election results. It's cited in the article of impeachment approved by the House.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD TRUMP: I'll take on anybody you want with regard to Ruby Freeman and her lovely daughter, a very lovely young lady, I'm sure. But Ruby Freedman (ph), I will take - Freeman. I will take on anybody you want.
KAUFFMAN: Other Fulton County election workers were also harassed, and it wasn't just there. It happened in every state Joe Biden won and in some Republican states too, according to Jennifer Morrell. She's a consultant with The Elections Group. It's a company that works with state and local election departments. Morrell said the threats and a feeling of helplessness against lies and conspiracies - it's pushing election officials to leave the field.
JENNIFER MORRELL: People who do this job do it because they believe in it, because they have strong convictions when it comes to exercising democracy and serving. But we're certainly seeing an exodus.
KAUFFMAN: When Morrell talks to local election officials, she hears frustration. They tell her about politicians who are undermining the very system that put them in office, sometimes even undermining the idea of democracy itself. That's been weighing on Fulton County's elections director Rick Barron, especially after pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol.
BARRON: I mean, there are days where I just have this - it feels like a - I think the nation is just - has completely lost its way. And I've lost faith in it. And it's like, what is the point of my job anymore? I don't know if you want to call it an existential, internal crisis I'm having. I just feel like I've got a role in this that doesn't matter anymore.
KAUFFMAN: The 2020 general elections were some of the most well-run in Fulton County's history, Barron said. But Trump and his allies made them feel like a disaster.
For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Atlanta.
(SOUNDBITE OF PSALM TREES' "CALL WHENEVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.