Is This a Story? How Much Does Rural Location Affect Voting Rights Coverage?
Nine-term Douglas, Georgia, City Commissioner Olivia Pearson is scheduled to go to trial next week on felony charges of voter fraud. The prosecution says she illegally assisted people in the booth and lied about it. Voting rights organizations say she’s being singled out as an outspoken and politically active leader in a state effort to suppress African American votes. It sounds like a story to us. But like the rest of American media, we’re watching from afar. Why?
UPDATE: After Change of Venue, Jury Acquits City Commissioner in Retrial.
Next week, an African American civil rights activist and city commissioner of a town in rural Georgia goes on trial on charges of voter fraud.
The story hasn’t attracted much attention beyond Douglas, Georgia. We wondered why.
Georgia has been in the news over voting-fraud battles for years. Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp says he is vigorously defending the integrity of the ballot box. He’s moved from administrative review of voting-fraud charges to using grand jury indictments and felony criminal charges, state records show. Democrats say Kemp’s actions are part of a larger effort to use scare tactics to suppress Democratic votes.
While these fights have gotten attention, the individual story of nine-term Douglas City Commissioner Olivia Pearson hasn’t.
The one notable exception was an October 2016 article by BuzzFeed Senior National Reporter Joel Anderson. Anderson spent several days in Douglas and filed his story before the 2016 election. Pearson’s supporters, which include Southern voting rights organizations, had hoped the BuzzFeed article would spark more media interest in her case. It didn’t.
BuzzFeed’s Anderson said one reason the story hasn’t attracted much attention may be location. Douglas is in non-metropolitan Coffee County, roughly halfway between Macon, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida. It’s far from the nearest major media markets — a three hour drive, give or take, from Atlanta.
In fairness, we should point out the obvious: The Daily Yonder isn’t down in Douglas beating the bushes for the story, either. Instead, we took the easier and more practical route of interviewing Anderson about his reporting experience and his views about the newsworthiness of the story. Our edited Q&A interview is below.
Now, just a little more about Pearson: She’s accused of improperly assisting voters in the booth during the 2012 presidential election and of making false claims about her actions. Her indictment came three-and-a-half-years after the election, in May 2016. Pearson is charged with a felony and will be tried in criminal court. We were unable to reach Pearson for comment. Her trial is scheduled for Tuesday, March 28.
Daily Yonder: Tell us about Douglas, Georgia, and your visit there.
Anderson: I’m from Houston, Texas. I have family from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Hot Springs, Arkansas, and West Monroe, Louisiana, so Douglas wasn’t foreign to me. It just seems like another one of those towns that had better days. … Got a little bit of industry, but not much. Deeply segregated, as you might imagine, but I mean that’s not unusual for any city in the country, no matter how big or small it is. I talked to a guy who said it was sort of the epitome of the South and yeah, when I think of a small Southern town, Douglas wouldn’t be a bad stand-in for that.
Daily Yonder: You write that Ms. Pearson has a long history of electoral activism. She’s known for giving people rides to the polls in Douglas on Election Day and helping those who need assistance in the booth. Tell us more about what you learned about her and her role in the community.
Anderson: The way to think about it is that she’s from a family — particularly her mother — that already had a deep civil rights tradition. I guess the fact that she was an advocate, and a strong advocate, for her community would definitely rub people wrong. She’s not a meek person. She’s not a person that’s walking around with their eyes to the floor, you know? She’s very much invested in helping people around her and helping her community and standing up for herself. She’s not the kind of person that cowers. I could see where people would look to her as a target. She would probably create some enemies in a town like that because she’s advocating really seriously for the things that she believes in.
She’s a person that went off to school in Atlanta. She’s educated. She’ll tell you, she told me, “I don’t have to be here. I don’t have to be in Douglas. People told me that I should have stayed in Atlanta and tried to build a career there, build a family there.” But she was devoted to her family and her community and wanted to come back.
Daily Yonder: My impression from your story is that on Election Day 2012 Douglas felt she was doing what she always does, which was getting people to the polls and helping them in the booth if they asked for it and needed it. That’s how it looked from her perspective. Is that right?
Anderson: Yes, it sounds like that was the routine on Election Day there. She reached out to people. If she saw somebody walking on the side of the road and she knew them, or even if she didn’t, she was like, “Hey did you vote today?” If that person hadn’t, she’d take them there. It didn’t seem to be anything unusual. The only thing that would have changed was the attention that people [on the Board of Elections] paid to that.
Daily Yonder: What do you think of the claims that Ms. Pearson was singled out because of her race and political behavior?
Anderson: I don’t want to ascribe any motives to people. I’m a reporter. We have to look at the public record. I don’t have to say that there’s a racial component here that people are targeting them. We can kind of just look at how many people get hit up with these voter fraud charges, right? Look into who disproportionately faces these charges and disproportionately ends up having to settle or get punished in some sort of way. I took a very rudimentary look at state records and it shows, generally, that black Georgians seem to have been the subject of these investigations and these charges more often than white ones. Maybe that’s a coincidence, right? I would just say that the records are what the records are. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Also indicted on voting irregularities the same day as Pearson in separate incidents were one other African American and two whites, according to the local press reports.)
Daily Yonder: Ms. Pearson is one of only a few people charged in this recent round of voter-fraud accusations who is actually planning to go all the way to trial. She has not settled, and she is an elected official. She’s a black woman in a small town in south Georgia. She’s outspoken and maybe ruffled feathers. Those factors hit on a lot of things that say “news” to me, but there’s no state or national coverage. Why do you think that is?
Anderson: I used to work at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. I know when I was there, their coverage area had diminished greatly. They were down to covering a four-county area when I was there. They had already started sort of pulling back on state coverage. (EDITOR’S NOTE: We reached out to the Atlanta Journal Constitution without success and would be happy to include a comment, should we get one in the future.) … Douglas is in this weird sweet spot where there’s not a major newspaper that can cover them. You kind of have to have a reporter that has time to dig into this. Then the other piece of this is that the world was falling apart around here. There was so much election coverage and so much other stuff going on that I could totally see how a story like that could slip through the cracks. Right now, anybody that’s covering politics they’ve got so much else to worry about.
Voter rights, in and of itself, it encompasses a lot. They’re re-litigating that in Texas right now and going over gerrymandering and things like that. There’s all sort of issues that are going on that could be just as illustrative of voter rights debates around the country. I could see somebody being like, “You know what? BuzzFeed already covered that. We don’t need to worry about that.” I don’t know.
I totally get how this case has sort of slipped through the cracks. But I think it’s really important. Olivia Pearson could theoretically face prison time. Obviously, I thought it was important. I still do. It’s an out-of-the-way Southern town. The issue an editor has to decide, is this going to get as much coverage as something Trump did or something that the Trump administration did that’s going to affect our readers? Do people care about that more or do they care about this one case about voter rights? Or voter ID theft? Maybe it’s a much more difficult decision than you think.