They watched 2 election workers face abuse, and it's compelling them to serve in 2024
COLLEGE PARK, Ga. — Outside a neighborhood recreation center, Evelyn Myers steps off a blue and orange bus retrofitted with desks and recruitment posters.
Inside, Myers has just signed up to work her first election, hoping to inspire her four grandkids.
"My 17-year-old will be 18 in June, so he'll have a chance to vote," Myers says. "And I'm so excited for him."
Myers says she also felt compelled to serve after Donald Trump and his supporters baselessly attacked the integrity of Fulton County's 2020 election and the people who ran it, including two Black women who endured threats and harassment once Trump and others falsely accused them of election fraud.
Despite that onslaught, something surprising is happening here in Fulton County: People are still eager to serve as poll workers.
"I'm not a fearful person," Myers says. "God has not given me the spirit of fear, and I think I can do this."
Until recently, fear was not something poll workers had to think much about.
But that changed after the 2020 contest, especially when Trump and allies like lawyer Rudy Giuliani singled out mother and daughter election staffers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, peddling baseless claims about them even after multiple investigations found the allegations to be untrue.
Freeman and Moss reported receiving messages like, "Be glad it's 2020 and not 1920."
"The flame that Giuliani lit with those lies and passed to so many others changed every aspect of our lives, our homes, our family, our work, our sense of safety, our mental health — and we're still working to rebuild," Moss said outside a federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., last year.
A jury in December ruled that Giuliani must pay the women $148 million for spreading lies about them. A judge later lowered that award to $146 million, and Giuliani has since filed for bankruptcy.
"Our greatest wish is that no one, no election worker or voter or school board member or anyone else ever experiences anything like what we went through," Moss said.
A 2023 survey of election officials by the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice found more than half fear threats, harassment and intimidation will affect their ability to recruit or retain staffers and volunteers for the 2024 election.
"There was always a focus on, what if there's a fire, what if there's a flood," says Jennifer Morrell, a former elections official. "I think that has shifted to include threats of violence and acts of violence."
Morrell — who now runs the Elections Group, a firm advising election departments around the country — says election professionals are adapting in other ways. Some provide de-escalation training and offer mental health resources to staffers, and many coordinate with local law enforcement.
"What I'm seeing is election professionals tackling this challenge the same way they always have," Morrell says. "And that's with drive and creativity."
In Fulton County, helping tackle that challenge is LaShandra Little, the voter education and outreach manager. At a recruitment fair in a wood-paneled community center outside Atlanta, prospects sit in rows of folding chairs listening to Little's pitch.
Little says Fulton County provides a shirt to wear as a uniform and lunch, but advises the future poll workers they will need to bring snacks and any medication they take. And she doesn't sugarcoat the long days that come with working an election.
"I cannot promise that you're going to get home by 10," Little tells the group. "I can promise that you won't start earlier than 5."
Little says very few people considering signing up to work elections have flagged concerns about safety. But if they do, Little says the Fulton County Registration and Elections Department is prepared — for any safety challenges and the extra scrutiny.
Despite the well-publicized pressure on election workers, Fulton County has now filled all 2,300 Election Day positions, but hiring is ongoing for early voting and reserve staff.
"We actually haven't had to convince people," Little says. "People literally have been calling, asking, 'How can I sign up?' Even this room, when we first got here at 9, people beat us here."
Among the applicants this year: two friends, Venita Epps and Gloria Smith.
"I became a poll worker in 2002 and since then I have worked every election," Epps says. "It is my passion and my duty as a citizen in Fulton County."
Smith adds: "I'm eating healthy, I'm resting right and I'm looking forward to the long haul of this election coming up in 2024."
Epps says she watched in horror what happened to Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman after the 2020 election, and their experience gave her pause.
"But then I prayed about it and I went on about it," Epps says. "I got up and did what needed to be done."
"That, for me, made me want to go even harder," Smith adds. "As a matter of fact, I think that really motivated people to want to be a part of the elections."
For Smith and Epps, the attacks on the vote also evoked the past. Both were born at a time when Black voters in the South faced literacy tests, poll taxes and other arbitrary criteria to block the ballot box.
"That was the time when they had to count how many jelly beans was in the jar," Smith says. "When we were growing up as kids, our parents would always explain to us why they was voting, how they were voting. And they would have us go with them on Election Day."
Epps' parents, Eddie and Edna Mae Lowe, tried to register to vote in Terrell County, Ga., in late 1957. Even though both attended college, the registrar decided they failed a literacy test.
The Lowes joined a voting rights case that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Every time I get ready to go and get ready to start another election, I think about the words of my mom and how she always said to me, 'I don't feel no ways tired.' That means even when it seems like there are obstacles in your way, like it was back in 1957, you don't get tired when you feel like there is good work that needs to be accomplished," Epps says.
This election year, Smith says she is thinking about her parents, too.
"They said if it's a dog catcher's race, they're going to vote," Smith says. "We have to still keep the movement going and people have to still become a part of it. We cannot let it die."
After more than two decades working elections, Smith says she's "nowhere tired yet."
Copyright 2024 90.1 WABE