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How Pickens County, Ga. election skeptics lost fight to make ballots open records

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Phil Landrum, who has been the Pickens County, Ga., attorney for 21 years, said he has noticed in the past few years a kind of mob mentality taking hold, heedless of law.
Phil Landrum, who has been the Pickens County, Ga., attorney for 21 years, said he has noticed in the past few years a kind of mob mentality taking hold, heedless of law. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

JASPER, Ga. — Word of the hearing had been spreading for weeks, and on a bright fall Friday, election skeptics from around northwest Georgia filed into the normally quiet Pickens County Courthouse, expecting that a victory for their movement was imminent.

“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.

Amazing,” one woman whispered, noting the size of the crowd, and now they all stood as the judge entered the courtroom.

“This is case 2022SUCV0327,” he began. “Is the petitioner present?”

“Yes, judge, David Oles,” said the Harvard-trained attorney for the county’s Republican Party chairman, who brought the lawsuit in the name of restoring voter confidence, telling his colleagues he anticipated “a slam dunk.”

And momentum had been going in that direction all summer long, except that what happened next turned into a different story, one that began when the lawyer for the opposing side, the Pickens County attorney, stood up from his table and addressed the judge.

“Phil Landrum for the respondent,” he said.

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 activists are making their case in areas they deem friendly — mostly rural, Trump-supporting counties where disinformation is rampant, opposing views are rare, and local officials are usually people they know. And that is what happened in Pickens County.

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.

What is happening?” the election supervisor remembered thinking.

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.

“A modest effort,” he called it, acknowledging there were some legal issues to sort out.

“We’re a relatively small county,” he said. “We have the ballots, it seems a relatively simple thing to count them. And compare those ballots to what the machines have returned.”

“The citizens of Pickens County have lost confidence in the voting system,” a man who referred to himself as a “patriot” told the board.

“What I want to hear is, ‘We’re going to get on it,’ ” a woman sitting next to him told the board.

“As small a county as we are? We could easily knock this out,” Mora said.

“I’m not opposed,” one of the board members said, “but we need to find out what the legalities are.”

“We want to help,” the board chairman told the crowd, and after the meeting adjourned, he got in touch with the county attorney.

Landrum’s first reaction was that he wasn’t opposed to the idea, either, if that’s what the board wanted to do. He would see what the law permitted.

He went into the conference room of his office, where the walls were lined with black volumes of the Official Code of Georgia, dog-eared and marked with slips of paper. He took down the one containing Title 21, Elections, sat at the table, and began reading.

This was the job, burying himself in tiny text and footnotes.

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.

He lost childhood friends, some of whom lobbied for him to be fired, saying that he was against “community values,” to which Landrum responded by explaining what being the Pickens County attorney meant.

“My role is not to represent community values,” he told them. “My role is to tell you what the damn law is.”

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.”

In his office a few days after the June election board meeting, he decided to watch the video of it, since he’d been out of town that day.

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.

So, he decided, a court order would be necessary to unseal the ballots. That seemed to clarify how things should proceed, except that then he received an official request from Mora, the GOP chairman, suggesting a different approach altogether.

Instead of going to a judge, Mora wrote, the county could simply unseal the primary ballots and declare them public records, and let Mora himself do the recount, “so we can prove to the citizens of Pickens County and I that the machines we vote on are true and accurate.”

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.

“I thought we were engaging a question of law,” Landrum recalled.

But when Oles filed his petition on behalf of the GOP chairman, Landrum did not find it friendly at all. Instead, to his surprise, the Open Records Act appeal was back on the table.

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.

“There are implications to seizing this kind of authority,” he said.

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.

“It occurred to me that I didn’t want to be part of that web,” Landrum said. “I needed to be very damn careful.”

Meanwhile, as Landrum was in his office reading further into the law, the election board members were being barraged with form letters urging them to “officially in public session discuss and vote to conduct a hand recount.”

Then, at the next election board meeting, that is exactly what the board did.

“All in favor?” said the chairman, as they voted to adopt a resolution directing Landrum himself to write an order to unseal the primary ballots, and the crowd clapped and cheered.

“I want to congratulate the board for showing courage here today,” Oles said.

“When you came in, we heard you, and we acted on it,” said a board member. “And that’s the way a republic works.”

But when the meeting was over, Landrum told the board why he was not going to be able to do what they were asking, at least not now.

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.

But Mora said that he was not going to drop the petition.

“There was no way I was ever going to drop this,” he said later.

“I guess we’re on now,” Landrum thought to himself.

He filed a motion to have Mora’s petition dismissed. A hearing date was set.

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.

As Landrum heard about all this he kept working, a famous quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VI running though his mind, “Let’s kill all the lawyers.”

He’d always thought that people forgot the larger context of the quote. “You’ve got to realize who said that,” he said. “It was an anarchist. That was the first step in the plan.”

A few weeks later, the county attorney sat down at the defense table inside Courtroom A.

By now things had become so tense that Landrum asked a lawyer he sometimes consulted to sit next to him at the table.

A videographer from a website known for spreading disinformation set up a camera.

Now the judge, assigned to the case from Atlanta after all the local judges recused themselves, took his seat.

“All right,” he said. “Are you ready to proceed?”

“Yes sir,” Landrum said.

He walked to the podium, and aimed his argument at what he described as “an allegation of a violation” of the Open Records Act contained in the petition.

He said that the ballots Mora wanted were sealed, as required by law. He said that sealed records are “not subject to an open-records request.”

“The complaint that alleges that therefore should be dismissed,” he said.

The argument lasted two minutes, and Landrum sat down.

“I’ll hear from the other side,” the judge said, and Oles walked to the podium.

“I’d like to start with what this case is not about,” he began.

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.”

Oles argued that the law gave the county election board “very broad authority in how it discharges its obligation to ensure accuracy and integrity” in the voting process.

“There is nothing in here that places a limit on what they’re allowed to do,” he said, adding that he believed it was not the court’s place to “second guess” the board’s decision.

The judge listened. He asked Oles to address Landrum’s specific argument.

“I want to emphasize that we are not asking for these ballots to be released to the general public,” Oles said.

The judge gave him another chance.

“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.”

Landrum walked to the podium to respond.

“The lawsuit in front of us is an open-records violation,” he said. “The board cannot agree to the commission of a crime.”

“Specifically what they are asking me to do is unseal paper ballots,” the judge said.

“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.”

“The sealing concept becomes —” the judge said.

“Irrelevant,” Landrum said.

The judge asked Oles if he had anything further.

“The Open Records Act — okay, that count is in there,” Oles said. “We’re not asking for them to be given to the entire world, as counsel seems to fear.”

“I’m not unsympathetic to your situation,” the judge said. “But I try to follow the law, because that’s my oath.”

“Judge, I respect that,” Oles said. “But it seems to me the law does grant you authority to do what it is we’ve asked … and all we’re asking —”

“Okay,” the judge said, cutting him off.

He asked Landrum if he had anything further.

“We’ve been accused of violating the Open Records Act,” he said again. “That is what this case is about and —”

“I’m ruling in your favor,” he said.

“Thank you, judge,” Landrum said.

“I like to tell a story in my order,” the judge said. “Prepare one that does.”

“Yes sir,” Landrum said.

If Landrum felt any satisfaction in winning, he did not show it. He gathered his papers and went back to his office off Main Street, and started working on the order for the judge.

He was not used to writing stories, but he had been an English major in college. He knew that all stories needed endings, and he knew that this one was not over yet.

On Facebook, his photo kept appearing in angry posts, calling for him to be fired.

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.

And a few days after the hearing, the Pickens County GOP convened their regular meeting, where the featured speaker was a woman gaining prominence in the election-denier movement. The crowd listened as she explained what she billed as a fresh strategy.

“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?”

People raised their hands.

“I’m going to give you hope,” she said.

Meanwhile, Landrum worked on the order. He sent a three-paragraph version to the judge, who sent it back for further elaboration.

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.

He remembered a conversation he had with a neighbor who was talking about the need for a new civil war.

“I said be careful what you wish for,” Landrum said. “Some of the constructs you want to tear down so badly are the only thing keeping you alive.”

In his office now, he went back to drafting the order, settling on four pages of careful legal prose that ended with, “Respondents’ motion to Dismiss is hereby GRANTED.”

The judge signed it, and the county attorney got back to work, because he knew what was coming.

“November is going to be hell,” he said.

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