How Pickens County, Ga. election skeptics lost fight to make ballots open records – The Washington Post

    “Down the hall,” a security guard said to a man in an American flag golf shirt, a woman holding fliers for a possible victory rally, and others wearing stickers that read, “The machines must go,” and soon every seat was taken in Courtroom A.

    Of all the counties in Georgia, this was the one where the activists believed they would succeed. Pickens County is small, rural, overwhelmingly White and Republican, an under-the-radar place where election disinformation had flourished and the people who believed it had easily overtaken the establishment GOP.

    What they wanted now was a version of what people like them were going for at the grass-roots level all over the country: a way to question the results of a decided election. In their case, they wanted a hand recount of paper ballots cast in the May GOP primary. They wanted to make those sealed paper ballots public records. And they wanted a judge to grant their county election board broad powers to conduct elections in whatever manner it deemed necessary to assuage the doubts of people like them, a ruling that could be applied across all of Georgia’s 159 counties ahead of the midterm elections and beyond.

    Among the many anonymous jobs at the grass roots of American democracy, the county attorney is one of the most anonymous of all. Phil Landrum’s office is a small brick building with a two-chair waiting room and a framed copy of the Magna Carta. His days are usually spent advising county boards on the minutiae of state law, a job that has lately included defending his corner of the nation’s voting system against a barrage of attempts to upend it.

    Thousands of local officials across the country find themselves in a similar position as former president Donald Trump and his allies continue to spread false claims about the security of America’s elections, and urge their followers to take action.

    Hand-marked ballots, hand tallies, hand recounts — grass-roots activists around the country are trying to persuade local authorities to rely less on electronic voting results and more on bygone processes that experts say are far more vulnerable to human error and fraud.

    The momentum had started to build three months before Landrum would stand up in Courtroom A, back in June when a newly organized group of activists launched their campaign at a meeting of the county election board. Typically, only a few people showed up for the meetings, but on that night board members and election staff watched as the door kept swinging open.

    In came about two dozen residents who believed electronic voting machines were corrupted. In came the new chairman of the Pickens County Republican Party, Chris Mora, who had gotten a lawyer to help them with their cause. In came the lawyer, David Oles, who had recently moved to the area, become active in the county GOP, signed up to be a poll watcher, and was now channeling the grass-roots discontent into a demand.

    “I hesitate to say we’ve been lied to about the integrity of the Dominion voting system but it’s clear we’ve been massively misinformed about its security,” he said to the board members as the meeting got underway. “We are now awake to this and the voting public is asking for answers. So, we come to this board.”

    What the people wanted, he said, was a hand recount of two races from the May GOP primary, the one for governor and the one for secretary of state, whose results they did not trust. Those results had been certified. The ballots were sealed, as required by law to prevent tampering. But as Oles explained it, all the board members had to do was assert their legal authority to unseal the ballots. Then just count them.

    He had been the Pickens County attorney for 21 years, the second Landrum to hold the title. His aunt had done it before him. His father had represented the county school board. His grandfather had been a U.S. congressman for the area, and the name Landrum could be found on a brass plaque in front of the historic county jail, on a green sign along a highway, and on a slab of marble in the main cemetery in Jasper, the county seat, where he planned to be buried.

    He was 55, married, had a daughter in college, and was as settled into Pickens County as anyone, accustomed to its conflicts and personalities. But in the past few years, he’d felt that familiarity breaking down. He noticed what he considered a kind of mob mentality taking hold, heedless of law.

    His first brush with it had been just before the pandemic, when some parents were demanding that the county school board forbid a transgender student from using the boy’s bathroom. Landrum advised the board that doing so would be illegal, a position that he said triggered a flood of pressure from friends and some political leaders urging him to just “let it go,” which he did not. Landrum’s photo wound up in Facebook posts suggesting he was part of some larger “deep state” agenda, as well as on a prominent LGTBQ website where he was amused to see it get more likes than that of the drag queen RuPaul.

    Other times he put it a different way: “Imagine a room, at least 40 by 40, no windows, one door. Now in each corner, put a bowl. Then in each bowl, put two parts warm milk and one part LSD. Then at the center of the room, put a cardboard box with 40 feral cats. Walk out and shut the door. Now walk back in and try to get the cats back in the box.”

    He was not an expert in election law but he knew right away that there were at least two legal questions to address before the board could proceed. One was whether a county board had the authority to conduct a hand recount at this point, given that the results had been certified, and the candidates involved had not challenged them, and the county had conducted an audit that showed no problems.

    The second issue was that a hand recount would require unsealing the already sealed ballots, and Landrum started there, reading deeper into Title 21. He flipped to Chapter 2, Article 12, Section 500, which governs what is supposed to happen to ballots after an election is over. He zeroed in on one sentence: Officials “shall hold such ballots and other documents under seal, unless otherwise directed by the superior court.” He zeroed in on five words in that sentence: Under seal. Unless otherwise directed.

    Landrum had fielded hundreds of open-records requests in his 21 years as county attorney, and to him, this one was easy. The Open Records Act did not apply. The ballots were sealed, sealed records were exempt, and turning them over to the public could be a crime.

    Given how straightforward the law seemed to him on this point, Landrum thought it was an odd request, and he found a phone call he received after that odd as well. It was from a state representative he’d known for years, urging him to grant Mora’s request. “He was saying he can’t understand why the records can’t be released,” Landrum said. “He was downplaying the repercussions.”

    Landrum rejected the request, put it out of his mind, and returned to what he considered the proper path forward, which was guided by what he had been reading in Chapter 2, Article 12, Section 500 of state election law. He zeroed in again on the five words.

    It was clear to him that only a court order could unseal ballots. Less clear was what exactly could justify such an order. Landrum suggested to Oles that they go to court to sort it out. He figured Oles would file what he called “a friendly petition,” a chance for two lawyers and a judge to clarify a vague part of the state election code at a time when clarity was critical.

    Starting on Page 5 and going on for six paragraphs, the petition referenced Mora’s rejected request, arguing that the sealed primary ballots were public records, that Mora had been “denied access to the records,” and that the court needed to “enforce the Open Records Act.”

    To Landrum, this part of the petition seemed so out of place, so unnecessary — almost tacked on — that he began to wonder whether this was the whole point. He wondered whether the original push for a hand recount was being used as a pretext to get the sealed ballots declared public records, and he began imagining what might happen if a judge agreed.

    “They could send an open-records request to all 159 counties in Georgia with that judge’s order stapled to it,” Landrum said. “Any citizen could get those records for any reason. If you have that declaration, then that is your Trojan horse. You’ve gotten under the tent, and you can do whatever you want with the ballots now.”

    He kept spinning out the implications, imagining citizens all over Georgia demanding sealed paper ballots, conducting their own hand tallies and coming up with a thousand different results. He imagined county election boards asserting broad authority to do whatever they wished to address the doubts of voters. And as a Southerner, Landrum could not help but see parallels to a time before the civil rights movement, when White officials used the “local authority” argument to create all kinds of rules to keep themselves in power and others out.

    The more he read into the petition, the more he found himself thinking about what had happened four hours to the south, in Coffee County, where local election officials claimed they had authority to allow a Trump-allied forensics team to copy software and other data off voting equipment, and are now under criminal investigation.

    The reason, he told them, was that the petition with the six paragraphs about open records, still pending in court, had to be addressed first. He explained to the board that in his reading of it, the petition was saying that the election board had violated the Open Records Act by not turning over the ballots. He explained that violating the Open Records Act was a crime. He said that either he was going to have to go to court to defend the county, or Mora was going to have to drop his petition, at which point he could do what the board was asking him to do.

    And in the weeks that followed, word began spreading to neighboring counties and out into the vast social media maw of the election-denier movement that the person standing in the way of progress in Georgia was a county attorney named Phil Landrum.

    One story accused Landrum of “violating his oath” and ignoring “a lawful order” from the election board. Another included his photo along with a post, “The old establishment will do anything to cover up the corruption and protect the system.” A prominent lawyer in the election-denier movement posted the hearing date and location on social media: “Pack the courtroom!” he wrote. At the next election board meeting, a man in the crowd asked the board, “Who is running the Pickens County board of elections? Is it the board of elections? Or is it Mr. Landrum?” Then members of the local GOP began lobbying the county commission to fire him.

    And then for roughly 30 minutes the judge listened as Oles argued that the case was not at all about making sealed ballots available to the general public, as Landrum had said, but rather it was merely about making those ballots available to the Pickens County election board for the purpose of a hand recount.

    “And why are we interested in these ballots?” he continued, explaining that voters had questions about the ballot marking devices, and the QR codes on the ballots, and the scanners, and the software. “So many reports have been done about the vulnerabilities of the system that our board of elections here in little Pickens County thought it was a sensible thing to do this check.”

    “Judge, if you grant the relief that my client is asking for, the very worst that happens here is those ballots would become available to the board for the board to do what it said it was going to do,” he said. “They’re not going to be released to the public. No harm is going to come to anyone as a result of it. But we will have been able to eliminate an important roadblock in the process. So. Thank you, judge.”

    “Specifically, they are saying those are subject to the Open Records Act,” Landrum said. “I think once you declare them subject to the Open Records Act, you cannot limit them to anything other than full public access, which is specifically what the legislature said they did not want to do. … If it’s granted to one person, it must be granted to every person.”

    At the county election office, more open-records requests that he would have to review continued to pour in, including an automatically generated request that kept popping into the election supervisor’s inbox every five minutes one day, until there were roughly 1,000 identical requests from 1,000 different people.

    “My argument is that the whole 2020 election was illegal,” she began, explaining that she had filed a lawsuit in Wisconsin and was bringing one to Georgia and needed people to sign on as victims. “How many of you are hopeless?”

    He thought about how he might tell the story if he wasn’t confined to the demands of a court order. In his mind, it would be a story about the fragility of the moment in America, and the importance of the law in holding the nation together.

    This content was originally published here.

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