How a criminal investigation in Georgia set an ominous tone for African-American voters

QUITMAN, Ga. — Nancy Dennard was in a festive holiday mood when police arrived at her front door in the early morning of Dec. 21, 2010.

Her son’s birthday, on Christmas Eve, was three days away, and he was supposed to arrive in town the next day.

Dennard, a county school board member who had just turned 50 and recently helped elect a slate of new candidates, slept in that morning and was still in bed when her husband left for work a little after 7 a.m. She thought it odd when he returned a few minutes later to wake her. “There’s some people here that want to see you,” he told her. “They’re law enforcement.”

Dennard was taken away in handcuffs, placed in a squad car and spirited into the police station.

The early-morning arrest began a multiyear nightmare for the mother of two. The state government, operating under the authority of a newly appointed secretary of state named Brian Kemp, arrested Dennard and 11 of her political allies and charged them with 120 separate felonies.

To Dennard and her allies, who became known as the Quitman 10+2, the reasons for their arrests were simple. They were black candidates who won an election in the Deep South, upsetting a white-dominated power structure.

“They thought they could make an example out of me, and that would kill the spirit of this movement,” said Dennard, who has a master’s degree in speech pathology, as well as an educational doctorate. “I knew we had done nothing wrong.”

Yet the mug shots taken at the jail that first day of African-Americans wearing orange jumpsuits would be an enduring image. The photos were plastered across newspaper front pages, broadcast repeatedly on local TV news and finally displayed on the screens of Fox News viewers as evidence of voter fraud.

The voter fraud arrests story on the front page of The Quitman Free Press in 2010.
The voter-fraud arrest story on the front page of the Quitman Free Press in 2010.

That perceived threat of organized voter fraud has been used for the past decade by Republicans to enact a series of measures in many states that have made it harder to vote, especially for poor and nonwhite voters. Kemp, in Georgia, has been one of the most aggressive politicians involved in purging voters from the rolls. Kemp and his aides often spoke of how they were “fighting to protect the integrity of our elections.”

Quitman became a poster-child case among conservatives that voter fraud was a real and serious threat. “So many absentee ballots flooded in, it set off suspicions of possible hanky-panky,” Fox News anchor Eric Shawn crowed in a 2012 segment in which he described what had happened in Quitman.

The Quitman case was the first major investigation under Kemp during his time as secretary of state, and it set a tone for his tenure. It also provided fodder for Republicans around the country who argued that voter fraud is a significant problem, despite a lack of evidence of any widespread or large-scale examples. In more recent years, President Trump himself has raised the specter of voter fraud to argue without any proof that he was cheated in the 2016 election, and that’s why he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton.

But for Dennard and the rest of the Quitman 10+2, the events of 2010 were far more than a talking point in a broader political battle. It created an impression in the African-American community that any attempts to aggressively claim the right to vote would be punished, and the punishments portrayed as an act of justice.

Yahoo News interviewed two dozen people involved in the case, including members of the Quitman 10+2, prosecutors, local officials and state law enforcement officials. Yahoo News also reviewed more than 1,100 pages of documents obtained through open-records laws from the Georgia secretary of state and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The Quitman story, according to those records and interviews, is of an overzealous law enforcement response to a school board election, which exacerbated racial divisions and demonstrates how voter suppression plays out at the local level.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Georgia Stacey Abrams speaks as Republican candidate Brian Kemp looks on during a debate in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 23, 2018. (Photo: John Bazemore/Pool via Reuters)
Georgia's Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams, and Republican nominee Brian Kemp during a debate in Atlanta in 2018. (Photo: John Bazemore/Pool via Reuters)

The Quitman story also helps explain why many, especially in the African-American community, look at the policies Kemp enacted during his time as secretary of state and see them as part of a larger pattern in Georgia — and in many other states around the country — where the law, government authority and conservative media are used to try to intimidate them away from exercising political power.

It’s incidents like these that prompted Stacey Abrams, when she ran for governor against Kemp in 2018, to say during their debate that “voter suppression isn’t only about blocking the vote, it’s also about creating an atmosphere of fear.”

Quitman is the seat of Brooks County, which is named after Rep. Preston Brooks, who was not even from Georgia. Brooks, of South Carolina, infamously beat Sen. Charles Sumner within an inch of his life on the floor of the Senate, in 1856, for his criticism of slavery. Brooks was seen as a hero in many parts of the South for his brutal caning of Sumner, who was from Massachusetts. In 1858, when the Georgia Legislature decided to divide Lowndes County into two, it named the new locale after Brooks, the man who almost killed a fellow member of Congress. A grammatically incorrect plaque standing today in the town square of Quitman, erected in 1954 by the Georgia Historical Commission, describes Preston Brooks only as a “zealous defender of States Rights.”

After the Civil War, Brooks County was a hotbed of racial terrorism by white supremacists bent on maintaining the ethnic caste system that had been in place during slavery. Of all Georgia counties, it had the third-highest number of lynchings from 1877 to 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. This was due in large part to two outbreaks of violence by white mobs, one in 1894 and the other in 1918. In the second episode, mobs lynched at least 13 people over a two-week period after a black worker murdered an abusive white plantation owner. One of those lynched was Mary Turner, a 33-year-old mother of two who was eight months pregnant.

Turner’s lynching, which occurred just over the Brooks County line in neighboring Lowndes County, was one of the most horrific in American history. She was hung upside down, burned alive, and her unborn child was cut out of her and stomped on. The mob then riddled her body with bullets.

A plaque in Quitman town square honoring Preston Brooks, right and a plaque near what is believed to be the site of the 1918 lynching of Mary Turner and 12 others in Quitman, Ga. (Photos: Sam Matthews/Yahoo News)
A plaque in Quitman town square honoring Preston Brooks, right and a plaque near what is believed to be the site of the 1918 lynching of Mary Turner and 12 others in Quitman, Ga. (Photos: Sam Matthews/Yahoo News)

In 2010, a marker was erected by the Mary Turner Project — a group created to remember Turner and to advocate for social justice in the local community — at the spot where she is believed to have been killed. In the few years since then, the plaque — made out of a heavy metal material — has been shot at by those who apparently resent the memory of that history. There are 13 bullet holes in all, matching the number of known victims in the century-old rampage.

Many local residents, black and white, avoid talking about that monument and the past it represents. The more common description of a place like Quitman is that it’s a quiet small town with a strong sense of community, albeit one that is largely divided along racial lines.

“It’s a really good community. People tend to respect one another. They’ll help one another. … It’s kind of a Norman Rockwell painting in real life,” said Larry Cunningham, who has been a school board member since 1993, and became a pivotal figure sparking the investigation.

It’s not just members of the white establishment who describe it that way. Members of the black community, including Dennard, appreciated Quitman’s sense of community, at least until that election. “I always liked the hometown, Andy Griffith-type thing, where everybody knows your name. … Everybody knows everybody, and it's quiet,” Dennard said of Quitman. “But that was before I started looking at it differently.”

Dennard was born in Quitman, but spent the first decade of her life living on military bases. Her father, an enlisted Navy man, ran a disciplined household. The family had dinner at 5 p.m. and abided by strict rules. No hats were allowed in the house. Dennard’s father also stressed the importance of education, and of speaking up for one’s self.

“My father was very careful in shaping how we spoke,” Dennard said. “We were never disrespectful, never challenging, but when we had an opinion, we were committed to it and we did all we could to support it.”

She spent much of her life traversing back and forth between monoracial cultures. Until she was 10, she went to military-base schools where she and her three brothers were the only black students. When she returned to Brooks County and went to an all-black school, Dennard experienced culture shock.

“I just remember being fearful that I was in a school surrounded by nothing but black people. Never in my life had I experienced that before,” she said. “The principal, everybody was black. I’m like, ‘Wow.’”

Then as a young professional, Dennard spent two years working in Calhoun, a northern part of Georgia where she was the only person of color in the entire county school system. “The only black person I would see was a black guy on the back of a garbage truck,” she said.

Dennard, during that time, traveled to Forsyth County in 1987 to take part in a march supporting civil rights leader Hosea Williams, after he and others were pelted by rocks hurled by Ku Klux Klan members in the all-white county just northeast of Atlanta.

“I was not prepared for what happened when I got there,” Dennard said. Counterprotesters shouted and spit at her and the thousands of other marchers, she said. “I felt very unsafe and just very threatened.”

“That was probably my first face-to-face encounter with racism,” Dennard said. “That was scary, but it was also an awakening. … It awoke something inside of me that made me realize that I really need to use my voice not so much for myself but for others.”

Nancy Dennard in 2019 in Quitman, Georgia. (Photo: Sam Matthews/Yahoo News)
Nancy Dennard (Photo: Sam Matthews/Yahoo News)

Dennard moved back to the area to help her ailing mother, and by 2000 she had spent about a decade living in Quitman but working in schools in neighboring counties. It was only when she took a job in the Brooks County school system that year that she began “looking at the structure of who was making the decisions.” Dennard said she thought the African-American community in Brooks County had no representatives in key positions.

The public schools were composed mostly of African-American students, despite the fact that Brooks County is almost 60 percent white. Many white families had for decades — going back to the forced desegregation of public schools — sent their children to private schools, which tended to be mostly or all white.

Dennard felt that some members of the school board were there to prevent property-tax hikes more than they were interested in giving schools the resources they needed. Cunningham disagreed, noting that in 2009 all the members of the school board either had children in public schools or had sent them through, or had a spouse working in the system. But nonetheless, in 2004, this was what launched Dennard into campaigning for the school board.

Dennard lost in 2004. She ran again in 2008, and once again came up short. But she continued to refine precision targeting of key voters in the county. “I did a lot of work. I called and paid for the voter rolls for the county. I studied them,” Dennard said. “I targeted people who had never voted before.”

And she also began to home in on the possibility of using absentee ballots as a game-changing tactic. The Republican-controlled state legislature had changed the law in 2005 to make it easier to do, easing some restrictions around it, at a time when the GOP relied more on the practice. But Dennard co-opted the tactic, and on her third try, in a special election for a school board seat in the spring of 2009, she prevailed.

But Dennard’s aggressive campaigning in 2009 didn’t go unnoticed by local officials. Postmaster John Boone notified the secretary of state’s office, then run by Karen Handel, a Republican, that large numbers of absentee ballots were arriving at the post office “rolled together and tied with a rubber band in groups of anywhere from 6 to 10 at a time,” according to a report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, obtained by Yahoo News under Georgia’s Open Records Act. County Registrar Melba Lovett had previously notified the secretary of state’s office that she was receiving large numbers of absentee ballot applications.

Laurie Haggen, the school board member defeated by Dennard, filed a complaint with the secretary of state because of the large number of absentee ballots that swung the election to Dennard, according to the GBI report. The secretary of state’s office conducted a “cursory investigation,” the report said, but took no other action at that time.

In the 2010 election, the July primary was the key contest, since most voters, including white conservatives, still all voted Democratic at the time. Dennard had recruited two African-American women to run for two seats on the school board: Diane Thomas, a middle-school math teacher, and Linda Troutman, a lifelong educator.

Thomas’s sister, Lula Smart, was an active volunteer who embraced the work of campaigning. “At first it was just a fun thing for us. I was meeting people and sitting down to talk to people. You had elderly people who couldn’t get out to vote and didn’t know they could do absentee ballots,” Smart said.

Lula Smart in 2019 in Quitman, Georgia. (Photo: Sam Matthews/Yahoo News)
Lula Smart (Photo: Sam Matthews/Yahoo News)

Smart, who had lived in Quitman her entire life, was a waitress at her mother’s restaurant, a local soul food establishment called Rosie’s.

Thomas and Smart got guidance from Dennard on how to utilize absentee ballots and also how to stay within the law. “I called frequently to the secretary of state’s elections division for information and to get clarification,” Dennard said. “I would call and say, ‘Am I reading this correctly?’ … I was always on top of what’s legal and what’s not.”

Ahead of the July 2010 primary, Boone, the postal clerk, once again notified the secretary of state’s office — now run by Kemp — that he was seeing a large number of absentee ballots coming in by mail. A week before the primary, Boone met with Mike Browning, an investigator from Kemp’s office, to relay his concerns, according to the GBI report. Boone was keeping a list of Brooks County voters who had voted by absentee and whose ballots were arriving in large batches.

Boone pointed the finger at Smart as one of the most active organizers. He told the investigators that Smart had told him she was helping voters with their absentee ballots, because “I got to help my black people.”

Smart said that Boone, who is white, seemed offended by her statement. “I think he got mad. He said, ‘You want to help your people? You need to be helping all people,’” she recalled him telling her.

Boone confirmed Smart’s account to Yahoo News, but said he was not angry. He also called the Quitman saga “a dead, beat-up horse.”

Unbeknownst to Dennard and the other candidates, one week before the election the school board attorney, Daniel M. “Dick” Mitchell, had hired a private investigator to look into the black candidates. Boone handed his list of names and addresses to the private investigator, Johnny Sansberry.

Sansberry followed Dennard and her campaign manager, Kechia Harrison, around Quitman and took photo and video surveillance. He later told GBI investigators, according to their report, that he had been “trying to watch them but … he could not watch them all.”

The day before the election, Cunningham, who had served as a school board member for more than two decades, filed a complaint with local district attorney David Miller. Cunningham said he “saw fraudulent activity firsthand” when he dropped by a county office to ask about how officials were verifying absentee ballots.

Larry Cunningham in 2019 in Quitman, Georgia. (Photo: Sam Matthews/Yahoo News)
Larry Cunningham (Photo: Sam Matthews/Yahoo News)

In an interview with Yahoo News, Cunningham said he saw one ballot filled out for an overseas member of the U.S. military who claimed to be illiterate so that her mother could fill out her ballot for her. The same day that Cunningham filed his complaint, Miller formally requested that the GBI launch an investigation into potential voter fraud in the Brooks County elections.

“The prosecutor told us this was something he couldn’t ignore,” Vernon Keenan, then the GBI director, told Yahoo News. “We got a commitment from the prosecutor that if we expended resources and the case was there, it would be prosecuted.”

The next day in the election, black turnout tripled from the previous two midterm elections, going up to 1,461 votes. That was more than the 1,259 whites who voted in the Democratic primary. Troutman and Thomas both won. Absentee ballots made the difference. Three days later, investigators from Kemp’s secretary of state office met with GBI agents in Thomasville, 30 minutes west of Quitman, to discuss an investigation into the Brooks County election.

Keenan, who retired from the GBI this year after 15 years as the director, said it was unusual for the GBI to get involved in a voter fraud case. “The secretary of state’s voter fraud unit has statutory authority to conduct those kind of investigations,” Keenan said. “It’s really extraordinary that the GBI would conduct voter fraud investigations. There has to be a clear-cut predicate for us to get involved, because it’s not our responsibility, nor do we have jurisdictions to do those.”

Kemp’s agents, Chris Williams and Glenn Archie, notified the GBI that a formal investigation into the Brooks County election, involving both their agencies, was moving forward.

Since the fall election was a formality in a one-party county, the Democratic primary had effectively flipped the board from a white majority to a black majority. But as the formal election approached, Kemp’s office moved forward with its probe. Between late July and the end of October, going almost all the way up to Election Day, Kemp’s investigators, along with the GBI, interviewed around 400 people.

In the meantime, the two white Democrats who had lost to Thomas and Troutman in the Democratic primary — Mayra Exum and Gary Rentz — got permission from a circuit judge to run again in the fall general election as write-in candidates. The decision ignored a sore-loser law in the state that usually prevents candidates from running in the same election twice.

Diane Thomas in 2019 in Quitman, Georgia. (Photo: Sam Matthews/Yahoo News)
Diane Thomas (Photo: Sam Matthews/Yahoo News)

Even if no one explicitly said that whites in the community were unsettled by the assertiveness of blacks in the election, and on edge about the outcome, the underlying tensions were clear from interviews the investigators were conducting at the time. The day before the Nov. 2 general election, Brooks County Sheriff Mike Dewey spoke with Chris Owens, who had opened a gun shop in Quitman three months earlier, “in reference to a large amount of ammunition that was purchased at his store the previous Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” according to the GBI report.

Owens said that “all day Thursday, Friday and Saturday he had black customers coming into the store all day long buying ammunition” and that “he had black customers asking him about getting scopes mounted on rifles.” The sheriff said that “rumors around town and at the football game on Friday was that if the election did not go ‘their’ way on Tuesday that Quitman would burn to the ground,” the GBI report stated.

In the midst of all this, Kemp himself — who was seeking reelection to a full term after being appointed earlier in the year — campaigned in Quitman on Oct. 20, and heard from local citizens about their concerns over how the black community was allegedly abusing the absentee ballot process. Kemp “came down and people expressed to him their concern about voter harvesting, and the abuse of the absentee vote,” Cunningham said in an interview. “Basically, he said, ‘Well, there’s just not a lot we can do about it.’”

But in reality, Kemp’s investigators, working with the GBI, had conducted most of their 400 interviews by this point, and were nearing a decision to bring charges against the black Quitman organizers.

When voters went to the polls a few weeks later, Troutman and Thomas won again, even though white turnout was higher than black turnout by a little more than 300 votes.

Six weeks later, state and local police showed up at Dennard’s home at 7:39 a.m. and arrested her. Within an hour, Thomas and Troutman — the two new school board members — had been arrested, as had Smart. And by 10:15 a.m., authorities had rounded up 10 people in all.

It was almost a full year before any charges were brought against Dennard and the others. The same week that those charges were filed, authorities arrested two more women: Debra Dennard and Brenda Monds, making the Quitman 10 into the Quitman 10+2. A different district attorney, Joe Mulholland, filed 120 felony counts against the 12 individuals on Nov. 22, 2011.

Five days later, Mulholland appeared on Fox News and talked about the Quitman case.

“We don’t ask a lot of our electorate. We ask them to serve on juries, and we ask them to vote for whoever they might want to vote for,” Mulholland said. “And when they see that kind of corruption and they see this kind of malfeasance in office, it really just leaves everyone with a bad taste in their mouth. So obviously we’re going to do everything that we can to make sure that those people are held accountable in a court of law.

“The one great thing about our country is that we have a democratic society,” Mulholland said. “There’s not much difference between us and a socialist network or tyrannical country when you start talking about ballot corruption.”

In an interview with Yahoo News, Mulholland grew agitated when asked about whether it had been appropriate to talk about the Quitman defendants as if they were already guilty before a trial had taken place. “I think that’s pretty much the most ridiculous question I’ve been asked by a journalist in the last 16 years. Congratulations! You can quote me on that too,” he said.

Nancy Dennard was charged with eight counts of “unlawful possession of ballots” and three counts of “interfering with an elector.” Smart was the biggest target. She was charged with 25 counts of “unlawful possession” and seven counts of “interfering.”

The Quitman 10 in 2013. Front Row: Linda Troutman, Lula Smart, April Proctor, Diane Thomas. Back Row: Latashia Head, Sandra Cody, Robert Dennard, Angela Bryant Nancy Dennard, and Kechia Harrison. (Photo: courtesy of Nancy Dennard)
The Quitman 10 in 2013. Front row, from left, Linda Troutman, Lula Smart, April Proctor, and Diane Thomas. Back row, from left, Latashia Head, Sandra Cody, Robert Dennard, Angela Bryant, Nancy Dennard and Kechia Harrison. (Photo: courtesy of Nancy Dennard)

Each felony charge carried at least a year in jail, and the charges of interfering — or marking an actual ballot for someone else — carried up to 10 years in prison. Nancy Dennard was staring at potentially three decades in jail, and Smart was looking at possibly the rest of her life in confinement. Every member of the group, in fact, was facing at least two decades in jail.

Prosecutors based these charges on a few things. Some voters told investigators that they received assistance in filling out their ballot from one of the Quitman 10+2. Assistance was vaguely defined, and most of these people said they were simply given help to vote the way they wanted, according to the notes taken by investigators and included in the documents obtained by Yahoo News.

Prosecutors also charged that Dennard and other organizers had taken the ballot into their possession unlawfully when they delivered sealed ballots to the post office on others’ behalf.

The problem with this charge is that the law about who can take a ballot from a voter to the mailbox or post office is not clear and was not clearly enforced by state authorities. The law says voters must “mail or personally deliver” their ballots to the voting office, which leaves room for the act of mailing a ballot to be done by the voter or by someone else. But the state has sometimes enforced the law as effectively saying a voter must “personally mail” the ballot.

In addition, there are portions of the law that clearly state that any person can deliver a ballot on behalf of a family member, and some in the Quitman 10+2 were charged for doing exactly that. For example, Debra Dennard’s father, David, had lost both feet to diabetes, had damage to his hands from the disease and was in a wheelchair. Debra helped him fill out his ballot and took the ballot to the post office for him, and was charged by Mulholland with two felonies for doing so, even though the law says that this is allowed, a fact that Mulholland himself stated in his Fox News interview.

“Sometimes they would actually interfere with the ballot itself either by marking it or by helping the person mark it, and in Georgia you’re only allowed to do that if you’re a family member,” he said on Fox.

When Yahoo News asked Mulholland why he charged Debra Dennard with felonies for helping her disabled parents, Mulholland maintained that what she had done was not legal, and based this assertion on the fact that a grand jury had indicted her.

“You don’t charge and indict people with something that’s legal. That would be a violation of my oath as an officer of the court,” Mulholland told Yahoo News. “The grand jury of Brooks County, which was made up demographically of African-Americans and Caucasians, felt there was enough evidence and probably cause to issue an indictment. They based their decision on the law given to them, and facts and circumstances of the case, not on any particular political agenda or hearsay evidence or opinion testimony that seems to be what you and — sounds like some of the people you’ve talked to — are basing your opinion on.”

Yahoo News reviewed an 889-page GBI report and a 248-page report from the secretary of state’s office, which documented the roughly 400 interviews conducted in Quitman. Of those, only five people documented by Kemp’s office and the GBI said they had not been able to vote for who they wanted to because of interference from one of the Quitman defendants. Three of these people were around 80 years old at the time, according to state documents, and attempts to reach them were unsuccessful. Nancy Dennard said two had been “confirmed” to have dementia, and that others “were intimidated and not fully understanding the questions.” None of the five, she said, were called as witnesses in any of Lula Smart’s three trials.

Yet the state held on to the case, and offered a series of plea deals to the Quitman 10+2, according to Dennard.

“If you've got 10 people, surely of the 10, you can just get one person to say, ‘I'll take a guilty plea,’” Dennard said, musing on the thought process of Kemp’s office and the prosecutors. “That’s all they would have wanted to get out of that.”

“I think they thought when they came down like that, the community was going to get scared. It was going to intimidate [us]. It was going to shut it down,” Dennard said. “They thought if they came down like that, they could kind of squish it, get the people back under control, intimidate them, and then everything would go smooth again.”

Boone, the postmaster who helped spark the investigation, said he disagreed with the way the affair has been characterized. “It all boils down as voter suppression. And that was never, ever the intent of me getting involved,” Boone said. “All I know is that one individual, I thought, had done something wrong.”

In the meantime, then-Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal removed Thomas, Troutman and Dennard from the Brooks County school board in January 2012, two months after the indictments were filed. Dennard had been voted president of the board but was stripped of that title as well.

Even as the court case against them moved forward, Dennard won reelection by a comfortable margin in the fall of 2012, along with the other African-American member of the school board, Frank Thomas, and in early 2013 Dennard, Troutman and Diane Thomas were reinstated according to the law. For the next 22 months they served together on the board.

Diane Thomas, Nancy Dennard and Linda Troutman reinstated to the Brooks County school board as covered by the Valdosta Daily Times.
Diane Thomas, Nancy Dennard and Linda Troutman reinstated to the Brooks County school board as covered by the Valdosta Daily Times.

In the fall of 2014, Troutman and Thomas, still under indictment, were both defeated in their attempts to seek reelection, and the board flipped back to majority white control. Thomas’s loss to Republican Kasey Knight for the at-large seat broke down almost exclusively along racial lines. There were 2,903 whites who voted in the 2014 election in Brooks County, and Knight — the white candidate — received 2,964 votes. There were 1,653 blacks who voted, and Thomas — the black candidate — received 1,752 votes.

For the next four years, the Quitman 10+2 lived under a legal cloud as the prosecutors dragged their feet. One of the Quitman 10+2, Latashia Head — facing five felony counts — died during this time. Diane Thomas’s mother, Rosie, had to close her restaurant, in part because her daughter Lula Smart could no longer work there.

Smart fell into despair during this period. “I was actually thinking about killing myself,” she said. “I thought, ‘If I just commit suicide, this will be over for Diane and them.’”

In the fall of 2013, Smart went to trial, but that ended in a mistrial. But the prosecution wanted to try her again. A second trial in April 2014 also ended in a mistrial.

When Smart’s third and final trial finally began in August 2014, the only evidence of an infraction were five cases in which Smart appears to have helped voters fill out their ballot without filling out the oath on the back of the ballot saying she had done so. After a nearly monthlong process, the jury returned a verdict in September 2014: not guilty on all counts. “I was so ecstatic, I just started crying. It was just a great feeling to know that I don’t have to go through this anymore,” Smart said.

Prosecutor Lalaine Briones maintains to this day that Smart was guilty. “There was sufficient evidence to convict [Smart],” she said in an interview with Yahoo News, and blamed the majority of potential witnesses for refusing to testify. “This was a small town. It felt like a lot of the witnesses and the victims, there was a lot of pressure on them to recant, and they did,” Briones told Yahoo News.

Briones pointed in particular to two people — Johnnie F. Parker and Alice Hollis — who signed complaint forms on Election Day. Both said they had voted for Thomas on an absentee ballot at Smart’s instructions, but hadn’t voted the rest of the ballot and wanted to do so. But Hollis later told investigators that “all of that was just a misunderstanding and she was confused about not being able to vote absentee for one candidate and then being able to show up at the polls and vote for the rest of the candidates on the ballot,” according to the GBI report.

Parker, reached by phone, said he did not want to discuss the matter.

Smart was the only one of the Quitman 10+2 to go to trial. Three months after her acquittal, after three trials, and almost exactly four years after they were arrested, all remaining charges were dropped against the Quitman 10+2 at the end of 2014.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution documented in late 2015 that Georgia’s attorney general’s office had planned to offer guidance about the law earlier that year, to make clear that delivering a sealed ballot to a mailbox or the post office was not a crime. But then Kemp himself told a reporter for the paper that he might not follow the attorney general’s guidance, because he thought the state’s enforcement was proper.

“I don’t know that there can be just an arbitrary decision by the attorney general’s office. … We have precedent that’s out there and we have what the law and the rules say today,” Kemp told the newspaper.

On June 15, 2016, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens issued an official opinion advising, “It is not a violation of the law for a person other than the elector to whom the absentee ballot was issued to take possession of and mail absentee ballots for that elector or electors” and that “it is not a violation of the law for any person to simply possess any absentee ballot outside of a polling place.”

Sam Olens, Attorney General of Georgia speaks at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida in 2012. (Photo: Harry E. Walker/MCT via Getty Images)
Sam Olens, then attorney general of Georgia, at the Republican National Convention in 2012. (Photo: Harry E. Walker/MCT via Getty Images)

It wasn’t until this point that the state elections board, chaired by Kemp, finally closed the Quitman case for good. The board had been holding it open, even after Smart’s acquittal, with the possibility that it might recommend more criminal proceedings. The board quietly dismissed the case in a barely noticeable vote at a June 28 meeting.

Smart said that despite the stress and trauma of the ordeal, their refusal to seek a plea deal and then their exoneration in the court of law was a huge victory for the African-American community. “Now the people know that you don’t have to just be afraid to vote,” Smart said. “They’re not used to black people being in charge, and that’s something they don’t like because they’ve been in charge their whole lives. It’s hard for them to deal with it. But we’re doing good.”

Some in the black community decided that after the 2010 election and the incredibly aggressive reaction by armed agents sent from Kemp’s office, voting was not worth the trouble, according to Dennard. “I’ve got a few elderly that just have not gone back to vote. They’re just like, ‘No, I’m not going to do that anymore,’” she said. (While African-American participation rates in Brooks County elections have dipped a bit since the 2010 surge, they have remained significantly higher than they were in the elections before that.)

Yet there were also reasons for optimism. Smart won a seat on the county commission in 2015, and Thomas ran for Dennard’s spot on the school board in 2016 and won. Dennard stepped off the school board for a very specific reason: She had decided to run for mayor of Quitman in 2017. A year after Kemp’s election board had finally removed the threat of legal penalties for her voter-mobilization efforts, Dennard was elected to run the city in which she had been imprisoned seven years earlier.

Almost a decade after the election that first sparked the Quitman investigation, those involved have moved on with their lives, though several still said they were bitter over how the case played out. The Quitman 10+2 said there has never been an apology or restitution from the local or state officials who pushed the case forward. “I do feel like I’m owed an apology. I really do,” said Smart, who now works at Home Depot. “Now, me being bitter toward them? No, I’m not going to let them steal my joy. … If I do, then that means that they got power over me.”

Thomas, who is now on the school board, related a similar sentiment. “They made me feel lower than dirt … like I was nothing,” Thomas said. “I don’t ever want that feeling, ever, even for my enemies.”

While Kemp has never commented publicly on the case, those involved still blame him for allowing it to drag out. Kemp “had an obligation … to step in and stop it” at a certain point, especially as it dragged on and it became clear there was no case, Dennard said.

A spokeswoman for Kemp received written questions submitted via email but declined to comment on the record.

Kemp, who spent eight years as secretary of state, has seen his political future soar — in part, according to his critics, by suppressing the minority vote. In the 2018 gubernatorial election, Kemp ran as the Republican candidate while also overseeing the election as secretary of state. His Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, called him an “architect of voter suppression,” and her allies said Kemp erected an “obstacle course” of hurdles to voting for poor people and minorities in Georgia. Kemp and his defenders pointed to record-high participation rates in the 2018 election as evidence that he didn’t seek to suppress votes. Kemp won by 55,000 votes out of nearly 4 million cast.

Then Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp gives a thumbs-up to supporters, in Athens, Ga. in 2018.  (Photo: John Bazemore/AP)
Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp in Athens, Ga., in 2018. (Photo: John Bazemore/AP)

And while the Quitman episode was, in the end, a victory for African-American participation, it sparked another unexpected reaction along racial lines. Before 2010, there wasn’t a local Republican Party politics to speak of in the county. Fewer than 200 people voted in the 2006 GOP primary, most of them white. But in 2018, there were 1,253 white voters who took part in the Republican primary.

And turnout among white voters in Brooks County in 2018 was at its highest level in two decades, with 60 percent turnout, up from a norm of roughly 50 percent in midterm elections before 2010. The 2010 election “woke us up,” Cunningham told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It became obvious that you couldn’t sit down and be a Republican but then vote in a Democratic primary.”

Though it was Cunningham who sparked the initial investigation, he said it’s now clear to him that the Quitman 10+2 were not purposely trying to do anything wrong. “Probably they thought everything they were doing was legal. … I know some people that certainly would not be involved in anything they knew was illegal. … If it was illegal, I’m sure they didn’t realize that. It was a lot of enthusiasm. It was a lot of energy.”

Cunningham says he believes the number of felony charges filed against the Quitman 10+2 were excessive. “The seriousness of the number of 100 years in prison or 90 years, that was surprising to me. … I thought it was overkill,” he said. “There might be a fine to pay, maybe have to be removed from office if the person got the office by illegal means. I can see that happening.”

Cunningham said he did not regret, however, his role in the affair. “I believe things were done inappropriately,” he said of the 2010 election.

Dennard, meanwhile, told Yahoo News that she debated whether to revisit this history now and to talk about it publicly so many years later, but concluded that it was important to do so because of what she has seen under Kemp in Georgia, and in other places around the country.

Speaking from her office, which sits across the street from the courthouse where Smart was tried, the same spot where the historical marker sits that refers to Preston Brooks as a champion of “states rights,” Dennard warned that though America has made progress on race, she wanted to talk about the Quitman episode because she also saw “some of the same behaviors that created the Quitman 10 still exist.”

“You know there’s voter suppression, there’s voter intimidation, there’s a lack of knowledge of voters as to the importance of their vote in deciding who their leadership is,” she said. “But I think there's a net positive out there that eventually that’s going to work itself out. You know the good is going to overcome all the evil that’s out there.”

Cover thumbnail image: Brian Kemp and the Quitman 10. Front row, from left, Linda Troutman, Lula Smart, April Proctor and Diane Thomas. Back row, from left,: Latashia Head, Sandra Cody, Robert Dennard, Angela Bryant, Nancy Dennard and Kechia Harrison. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, courtesy of Nancy Dennard)


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