black women

Woman registering people to vote is charged with 32 felonies on a technicality

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lulaApril V. Taylor

After Lula Smart helped the Brooks County Board of Education win the first ever black majority, her and eleven other people who helped register voters through a get-out-the-vote campaign face felony criminal charges for their efforts.  Brooks County is located in Quitman, Georgia.  Quitman is a small town of around 5,000 people with 67 percent of the population being African American.    Smart was part of a group who decided that they were fed up with not having a voice in their local school system, despite being the majority population segment.  The group, now referred to as “The Quitman 10 + 2” decided to encourage residents to vote through helping with voter registrations and providing education about the voting process.  The group successfully registered hundreds of new voters, and largely due to their efforts, three African American candidates were able to beat white incumbents during the Democratic primary.  Despite the white incumbents attempting to get their seats back as write-in candidates during the November 2010 general election, they still lost.

Smart’s actions and the actions of those she worked with seem pretty straight forward.  They helped voters learn how to use an absentee ballot since Georgia does not place any restrictions on who is eligible to use one.  This allowed many black residents whose jobs or family obligations prevented them from voting in previous elections to participate in the election that finally made school board members more accurately reflect the community.

Those who had been unseated from their positions were angry, and the local district attorney ordered an investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.  It must be noted that the senior assistant attorney at that office sat on the Brooks County school board, which represented a conflict of interest.  Not long after the newly elected school board members took office, 10 people, including the newly named African American chair of the Board of Education Nancy Dennard, were arrested and charged with unlawful possession of ballots.  Officials alleged that workers had illegally submitted absentee ballots on behalf of voters rather than having the voters submit the ballots themselves.  Following the arrests, some 500 people protested at the local jail until the group was released.

For her role, Lula Smart received 32 felony charges.  Despite the arrests and charges, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation inquiry did not uncover any instance of the group defrauding or coercing any of the voters.  The state then decided to build its case around a technicality of workers having carried envelopes containing ballots to the mail without proper authorization.  Upon further probing, was unable to find any Brooks County residents who could corroborate that claim.

During the November general election when the group held another get-out-the-vote effort, GBI investigators carrying guns knocked on many of the doors the group visited.  Quitman resident Mattie Neloms reported to Vice that she and her daughter-in-law had been harassed at home and at her job by GBI investigators who wanted to know why she had decided to use an absentee ballot.  She simply stated that it was her right to do so.  It’s reported that GBI went to the homes of more than 400 black Quitman residents.

Despite the lack of evidence, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal removed the three newly elected black school board members from their seats through an executive order.  However, the group was able to win back their seats during the general election and resume their posts in October 2012.  Smart is now facing a third trial after the first two ended in mistrials.

Elvira Sims, a Quitman resident who the state is basing an entire felony count against Smart, stated to Vice, “That girl didn’t do anything.  If she’d have been white, there wouldn’t have been all of this commotion, but she’s a black woman.”  Prosecution witness Errol Cobb Sr. stated, “It’s bulls&*!.  I get a letter from the state saying I’m a witness against Lula Smart – for what?  All I know is it’s a lie.  Bottom line.  She’s never brought me anything about voting.  I’ve only seen that girl twice in the past five years.  Racism’s all it is.”

To date, nine of the Quitman 10 + 2 still have no word about when they will be tried for their alleged crimes, and many still do not have access to the basic facts of their cases.  Fifty years ago today, during Freedom Summer, 111 SNCC volunteers and local residents were arrested for trying to register voters in Greenwood, Mississippi.  The case of Smart and the Quitman 10 + 2 make one wonder if much progress has been made in the last five decades.