'It's All Gone Too Far:' A State Election Official Takes on Trump and the Age of Misinformation

Gabriel Sterling, Georgia's voting system implementation manager, speaks on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, during a news conference, in Atlanta.

Gabriel Sterling, Georgia's voting system implementation manager, speaks on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, during a news conference, in Atlanta. Associated Press

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Gabriel Sterling, Georgia's voting system implementation manager, called out his fellow Republicans for failing to condemn threats and conspiracy theories in the wake of the election. The world heard him.

Walking to the podium last week to give a media briefing that would thrust him into the national spotlight, Gabriel Sterling had only a rough idea of what he wanted to say.

“I never use notes,” said Sterling, Georgia’s voting system implementation manager. “I knew sort of the direction I was going to go. But I didn’t know that I was directly going to call out the president of the United States until about 10 to 20 seconds in. I was just pissed, and it was one of those things that flowed from my gut.”

Sterling, a lifelong Republican, had watched for weeks as President Donald Trump spread misinformation about the integrity of the state’s election results, which—after two recounts—continued to show that Joe Biden had won by roughly 12,000 votes. 

Trump’s repeated claims of fraud had led to death threats—and police protection—for Sterling and his boss, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who is also a Republican. But by last Tuesday, those threats had spread much farther, to a 20-something temporary election worker in Gwinnett County who’d been accused of “treason” and threatened on Twitter.

The incident in question, Sterling said, stemmed from a video uploaded to YouTube by someone espousing the QAnon conspiracy theory, showing the election worker in question moving a thumb drive from an election management system to a laptop. Sterling hadn’t seen it—”I’d heard about these videos going around, but it had become almost white noise in our office,” he said—but was alerted to the fallout by another Dominion Voting Systems employee who’d called him, audibly upset.

Sterling said he’d look into it. He found the video and quickly identified what the worker was doing (transferring a “batch report” from one machine to another, allowing the information to be read), noted the narration (accusing the employee of manipulating data), and found a tweet with the man’s full name and a gif of a slow-moving noose accompanied by the words, “You have committed treason. May God have mercy on your soul.” The name was unique and easy to Google, and now the man and his family were being threatened with violence, according to the Dominion worker. 

And something in Sterling snapped.

“At that moment, I was done. I was vibratingly pissed,” he said. “It’s one thing if the secretary of state or I have to get police protection—nobody deserves that to happen to them and it’s unfortunate, but you can’t really complain knowing that we’ve signed up for this and it’s just the way the world is. But this kid just took a job. He’s just trying to take care of his family. He didn’t deserve it.”

And it wasn’t just him, Sterling knew. Across the country, local election administrators and volunteer poll workers had pulled off a successful election in the midst of a raging pandemic, only to have their integrity questioned by the president of the United States and millions of his supporters.

“The conspiracy theories—that these people are involved in a giant scheme to steal an election—are, of course, insane, but I could see the level of potential violence ratcheting up,” Sterling said. “I could see it getting worse and worse, and this was the last straw for me.”

Sterling, along with Raffensperger, had been giving frequent briefings on the state’s election results and, later, its recounts. There was another one scheduled that day. Sterling called Raffensperger’s office, telling the deputy secretary that he’d like to make a statement. She relayed the request to Raffensperger, who agreed. 

An hour later, Sterling strode to the podium at the state’s capitol. He told the reporters in attendance that it would be a “two-part” press conference. And then he let loose.

“It’s all gone too far,” he began, his voice shaking. “All of it.”

He outlined the physical threats made against state officials and the Dominion employee. Someone was going to get hurt or killed, he warned. And then he spoke directly to the leaders of his party.

“Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language. Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions,” he said. “This has to stop. We need you to step up, and if you’re going to take a position of leadership—show some.”

“This is elections,” he added. “This is the backbone of democracy. And all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this. All of it.”

It was one of the sharpest rebukes against the president from a member of his own party since Trump began claiming the election was rigged against him. Still, Sterling didn’t think his comments would be that big of a deal. After the briefing, he headed directly to a press interview and then to celebrate his fiancée’s new job over dinner. He’d promised not to look at his phone all evening, and checked it just once, quickly, before going to bed. 

“And I was kind of like, ‘Huh,’” he said. “‘This is more than I anticipated.’”

Since then, Sterling’s appeared on Meet the Press, been profiled in Time magazine, and interviewed on the New York Times' Daily podcast. It’s been “surreal,” he said, and proof that the current political climate is “just not normal.”

“I’m spending a lot more time talking to the press than I ever anticipated I would in this job,” he said.

It’s unclear how effective it’s been. Trump has continued to tweet conspiracy theories and to claim, without evidence, that he actually won in Georgia. Last week, he began pressuring Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, to call the state legislature into special session to appoint a slate of pro-Trump electors (Kemp declined). In the week since his speech, Sterling has received messages of support from both election officials and members of the public, but he’s also received additional death threats (his current “favorites,” he said, “are the people who want to see me in Gitmo”). 

Meanwhile, the machinery of the elections process has continued on. Georgia on Monday certified—for the third time—its election results, while a federal judge rejected the Trump administration’s latest attempt to overturn them. The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a request by Pennsylvania Republicans to overturn Biden's win there. Meanwhile, Georgia election officials are continuing to prepare for the Jan. 5 runoff elections, which will determine party control of the U.S. Senate. Still, Sterling is hesitant to proclaim that the presidential election—or at least the drama surrounding it—is over.

“‘Over’ is a very relative term,” he said. “We have, I think, reached the safe harbor,” a deadline set by federal law when Biden’s victory is cemented, as long as enough states certified their votes. As this has occurred in every state except Wisconsin, it means that Congress is required to accept the results.  

Despite this fact, Sterling said he expects the debate to continue. “There’s the technicality of it being over, but I think it won’t be if he decides to run again,” he said. “He’ll say ‘They stole this from me.’ And there are millions of Americans who love him, and they’re going to believe him.”

But Sterling has no regrets. Someone, he said, needed to say it.

“All these election workers you see—they’re your neighbors,” he said. “They go to the same churches and the same grocery stores as you. Their kids go to the same schools. It’s your neighbors who run these elections, so when you’re saying the ghost of Hugo Chavez with Chinese money is corrupting everything, you’re really talking about hundreds of thousands of Americans who are just doing their jobs.”

As of now, Sterling hasn’t spoken to the Dominion worker whose experience sparked his outburst; he's waiting for Raffensperger to make contact first, he said. But he hopes to reach out after that.

“In retrospect, if that hadn’t happened, I don’t know if I would have been pissed off enough to do what I did,” he said. “I’m not going to say that I’m happy it happened, but the impetus existed for me saying something, and I didn’t know how much it needed to be said until I saw the outpouring from it.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

NEXT STORY: As the Pandemic Rages, the U.S. Could Use a Little Bit More 'Samfundssind'

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