“The Worst Case of Voter Suppression That I Have Ever Seen”
What is Happening in Hancock County, Sparta, Georgia?
Hearing her name being called at the council meeting had surprised her more than anyone.
She had come to be a spectator, not a participant, and had listened impatiently as dozens of names had been called before her.
The meeting had been called to determine the voter eligibility of residents in Hancock County, Sparta, Georgia, a small town ninety miles southeast of Atlanta, with a population of a little under one thousand people. 821 Black. 96 White.
Angela had no idea that her voting eligibility in the city that she was born and raised in was being challenged. She had received no notification. No phone calls. No letters. In fact, she had come to the meeting for another reason all together.
She barely responded before the speaker was moving on to the next name on the long list. The speaker hadn’t expected her to be there; but she was, unlike the vast majority of the names that had been called before her. After a brief discussion, the entire matter was cleared up and Angela was allowed to vote this past month in local elections.
176 residents weren’t so fortunate, many finding out when they arrived at polls that their names had been purged from local voter lists. 174 of them were Black.
And by the time the elections were over, Sparta, Georgia had its first White mayor in 32 years.
R. Allen Haywood.
Before the election it was revealed that Haywood had at least one felony conviction in Alabama, making him ineligible for office. He was accused of taking $69,000 in 1983 and sentenced to five years probation later that year, according to Montgomery County, Alabama court records. He spent 20 days in jail.
This information wasn’t officially revealed until after the election because a local Sparta judge overturned an injunction demanding that Haywood provide evidence that he was legally eligible to run for office. Haywood now claims that the state of Alabama pardoned him of his crime. A hearing concerning the matter was scheduled for after the elections, but has now been cancelled.
Haywood won the election by less than 100 votes.
It all started a year earlier when “Her Majesty”, the county’s courthouse, set on fire.
August 10, 2014, the building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, nearly burned to the ground at three in the morning, destroying local documents — including voter registration records — that had been stored there since its construction in 1881. The cause of the fire still remains a mystery, but the theory that wire chewing rodents might have been the culprits has been suggested. The courthouse was insured for five million dollars.
Aretha Hill made it her mission to make sure every resident of her hometown was re-registered to vote by this November.
She had been Hancock county election supervisor since 2011 and a deputy clerk 34 years before that. She took her job seriously and volunteered to go door to door to get signatures. The county’s Board of Elections and Registration didn’t think that it was a good idea. She did it anyway.
On April 23rd, Hill was fired at a Board of Elections and Registration meeting because board members said that she was rude to citizens and reprimanded board members.
Hill denies these accusations and had to a take a job at a local convenience store to support herself and her family after her termination.
Marion Warren, Assistant Superintendent to the Supervisor of Elections, says, “Many Black residents were intimidated and bribed into not voting or voting for Haywood.”
Discarded write-in ballots were seen in dumpsters. Local citizens demanded the right to use paper ballots, but were forced to use archaic voting machines. Many citizens asked for outside election monitors. They didn’t get them.
Warren tells stories of some younger Blacks being given as little as ten dollars and others as much as a hundred for their votes by local White organizers. Some were allegedly also given hot dogs.
“There are some young people in this community who don’t understand what we as a people had to go through to vote in this country.”
“The Worst Case of Voter Suppression That I Have Ever Seen.”
That’s what John Powers, Associate Counsel, Voter Rights Project (Formerly Voter Section at the Justice Department), calls it. He was part of a litigation team challenging the Texas voter ID and North Carolina omnibus election laws in federal district court. He received the AAG Distinguished Service Award and other awards for his work and wrote “Statistical Evidence of Racially Polarized Voting in the Obama Elections,” which was published in the Georgetown Law Journal.
He is a part of a legal team preparing to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of local Black residents whose civil rights have been violated. He sits quietly and takes notes as locals share their stories in a small Southern church off of a dark highway.
It looks like a scene out of 1965 in Selma, Alabama, but it isn’t. It is Friday the 13th, November 2015.
“This is the first case (of voter suppression) that I’ve seen where Blacks were singled out from Whites.”
And likely not the last.