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Undaunted by 2020, Georgia election workers return to the polls

Poll workers in Gwinnett — a pivotal county in a pivotal battleground state — said they were deeply aware of the crisis that politics has inserted in the elections process.
A poll worker assists a voter Tuesday at Corley Elementary School in Buford in Gwinnett County, Ga.
A poll worker assists a voter Tuesday at Corley Elementary School in Buford in Gwinnett County, Ga.Lynsey Weatherspoon for NBC News

BUFORD, Ga. — When Zach Manifold tells people he moved to Georgia from Ohio last year to be the new elections supervisor in Gwinnett County, he gets funny looks.

“When I tell them all that I moved here to work on elections and what I was going to be doing, they all look at me like I have an extra head,” Manifold, 41, said.

That's likely because Georgia, for the past two years, has been Ground Zero for President Donald Trump’s stolen election lie. Election workers and volunteers who spent long days counting and recounting ballots were in the crosshairs as Trump and his allies worked furiously to overturn the results in the state, leading Gabriel Sterling, a Republican and a top election official in the state, to warn that “someone’s going to get shot” as a direct result of the misinformation and the lies. The elections director in Fulton County, Georgia, Richard Barron, told NBC News last year his office was deluged with threats of violence and verbal abuse. 

In the aftermath, poll workers quit in droves across the country, saying they now felt unsafe in their job amid an uptick of harassment and threats from people who embraced Trump’s claims. A study last year conducted by the nonpartisan Brennan Center found that 1 in 3 election officials reported feeling unsafe, while 1 in 6 said they’ve been threatened because of their jobs.

And while that was the case in Gwinnett County to a degree, many have stuck around, citing an enormous sense of civic duty and pride they feel comes with being an integral part of democracy.

Absentee ballots are counted at the Gwinnett County Board of Registrations and Elections
Absentee ballots are counted Tuesday at the Gwinnett County Board of Registrations and Elections in Lawrenceville.Lynsey Weatherspoon for NBC News

On Tuesday, as Georgia voters went to the polls to decide closely watched primaries for governor, U.S. Senate and secretary of state, NBC News interviewed a dozen election workers there — some paid staffers who work for the county, others unpaid volunteers — who said they were deeply aware of the crisis that politics has inserted in the election process. But all were fiercely defensive of the work and said they were unwilling to let threats stop them from doing what they view as a crucial public service.

Manifold said what unfolded in Georgia in 2020 is precisely why he took the job. 

“Watching 2020 and the aftermath was really hard. There’s just this huge misconception about what actually goes on, and then what people are talking about,” said Manifold, who two years ago was working for a county auditor in Ohio after previously working for nearly five years helping to run elections in Columbus. “There are a lot of safety rails and guards in place to make sure your vote counts.”

‘If I saw a dead person voting, I’d call the ghostbusters’

Tuesday’s vote count, thanks to the 2,600 volunteers in Gwinnett County, went smoothly. The primaries were the first statewide elections since GOP Gov. Brian Kemp signed a voting law that, among other things, made it harder to cast an absentee ballot and made it illegal for anyone to hand out water or food to people waiting in line to vote.

Enforcement falls on election workers like Manifold, a paid local government official, as well as small armies of volunteers who run polling sites across counties. Still, in Gwinnett, only four of the 156 polling locations in the county were forced to stay open past 7:00 p.m, when polls close, with the longest being for just 16 minutes. Manifold said his office received fewer than five calls about episodes of conflict or perceived intimidation, and that the instances mostly involved miscommunications surrounding poll watchers.

Zach Manifold
Zach Manifold, the elections supervisor for Gwinnett County, on Tuesday.Lynsey Weatherspoon for NBC News

“It was a good dry run for November,” he said, when “volume will be much bigger.”

By all accounts, Tuesday’s race went smoothly throughout the state, as well, with no reports of any major problems.

Angela Wingfield, who worked Tuesday as a poll manager at an elementary school in Lawrenceville, said she’s encountered a handful of voters who have given her a piece of their mind, mostly about the results of the 2020 election, since she began as a volunteer two years ago.

“It does bother me...You can moan and groan all you want, but unless you’re in the game, you really don’t know how it works,” she said. “Trust me, there's no dead people voting,” she added, referring to a disproven claim made by some Republicans. “If I saw a dead person voting, I’d call the ghostbusters,” added Wingfield, laughing.

“Honestly, though, I do not understand why this issue of elections makes people so angry. Come be part of the process, you’ll see it’s nothing to be angry about,” she said

Angela Wingfield, poll manager at Corley Elementary School, in Buford, Ga., on May 24, 2022.
Angela Wingfield was a poll manager Tuesday at Corley Elementary School in Buford, Ga.Lynsey Weatherspoon for NBC News

Menorca Collazo, 48, also said tense encounters with voters haven’t been particularly common. But when it happens, she’s prepared, thanks to 24 hours of training she completed, in-person and online, ahead of her stint this year as a poll manager at Buford City Hall— her first time in that position.

She first began volunteering for elections when she was in college in Massachusetts, resuming her service in Georgia in 2020. As the poll manager this year, she oversaw a team of greeters (called non-issuing clerks in Georgia) and staff assisting with checking identification and making sure voters are at the correct polling location (called issuing clerks). 

Her training this year incorporated all the changes introduced by the state’s new voting law.

“Some people don’t like it, but we are here as public servants. We don’t make the rules. Actually it’s the opposite. The rules are made as a product of the vote,” she said. 

Despite the chaotic aftermath of 2020 in her state, Menorca said she was motivated to continue as an elections worker out of a sense of civic duty. A native of Puerto Rico, she described her “pride” and “passion” in “doing something that helps people not take the right to vote for granted.”

“It’s not a political thing for me. It’s a civil liberty that a lot of people take for granted. For me, it’s about playing a role in making sure people have their rights and that people are educated,” she said. 

Her training also touched on “how to deal with possible conflicts and problems and conflict resolution techniques.” Fortunately, Collazo’s 15-hour shift was entirely free of dispute.

Menorca Collazo
Menorca Collazo, who has been a poll worker for several years, at City Hall in Buford, Ga., on Tuesday.Lynsey Weatherspoon for NBC News

That wasn’t the case last week, however, for Laura Michelle, a poll manager at the Bogan Community Center, in Buford, during an early voting window at that location.

A poll watcher — someone, often at the behest of a candidate or political party, who is allowed to observe the goings-on at polling locations to protect against election law violations — took offense to a procedural issue and told Michelle he found it to be proof of his belief that the 2020 election had been stolen from Trump.

“I defused the situation. We had a quick little talk about his rights and we resolved it,” she said. “When someone comes at me, I deal with it the way I have been trained to.”

Do these types of incidents get frustrating?  “We are literally here to make sure the vote is secure for everyone. It might be the case that some poll watchers don’t understand the process,” she responded. “I just hope they see that I’m only here to secure their vote.”

‘Trying to meet the moment’

A rapidly growing and diversifying suburb of Atlanta, Gwinnett County — the second most populous in the state — has trended blue in statewide and national elections. After being reliably red for decades, Hillary Clinton flipped it in 2016 and in 2020 Biden won 58 percent of the vote (compared with 40 percent for Trump). That year, however, elections in June, as well as early voting during October, were plagued by problems including long waits and lines

Manifold’s primary focus since he started his job 10 months ago has been voter education, he said.

He expanded his office’s outreach unit, with new staff focusing on voter education and regularly attending community forums and mailing materials to residents to explain the new rules regarding voter ID requirements for absentee ballots, as well as other changes, that were mandated by the new voting law. Materials are mailed in five languages — English, Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Korean — so all voters in the increasingly diverse county have a chance to make the necessary changes. In 2012, the county’s office of elections had 10 full-time employees. Now it has 42.

“We’re really trying to meet the moment,” Manifold said. 

As for election denying critics, many election workers interviewed had some advice: the best remedy for them would be to get involved in elections themselves.

“With all the information out there about the ‘Big Lie,’ it’s so important people see that there is a lot of integrity, reverence and security in the process,” said LaTina Lewis, a volunteer clerk at Buford City Hall. “You see it when you’re a part of it.”

Voters cast their ballots at Buford City Hall in Buford, Ga., on May 24, 2022.
Voters cast their ballots Tuesday at City Hall in Buford, Ga.Lynsey Weatherspoon for NBC News

Collazo, the poll manager at Buford City Hall, also encouraged people to move on and get involved.

“That election is over. We certified that election. We are moving forward. We have made enhancements. We are trying to make it better and want people to feel confident about the voting process and the experience,” she said.

“If people continue to have doubts, hopefully that can be a way for them to become involved themselves,” she said.