Election focus group (pt. 2): Democracy faces challenges, but confidence remains strong

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This story is Part II of a two-parter highlighting what Georgians have to say about the state of our democracy. Subscribe at STATEAFFAIRS.COM to read all of our election coverage.

The Jan. 6, 2021 siege on the U.S. Capitol may have been a political litmus test for our country moving forward but it’s not the defining moment for American democracy, according to State Affairs’ latest conversation with its 10-member election focus group.

Many of the Georgians we talked to are more concerned about partisan rancor in public dialogue, and with the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over the fairness and accuracy of Georgia’s  election processes, past and present. 

Some believe that SB 202, the election reform bill passed by the Georgia legislature in 2021, provided some needed safeguards, while making voting access easier.  “There are poll watchers and poll workers on both sides,” says Ellis Davis, 19, a student at Valdosta State University. “If someone doesn’t have a valid ID they’ll be discovered and turned away.” 

Conservative James Flanagan, 39, is proud to see Georgia voters “breaking some early voting records all across the state.

“ And I think that’s great and it puts to bed the myth that recent laws are unfairly restricting folks,” he said.

Others see signs of voter suppression. “Seems like they’re making it harder to vote, and doing it kind of underhandedly,” says Marion Butler, 76, a Democrat who’s volunteering to help her disabled and elderly neighbors in Randolph County get to early voting venues that are now fewer and farther between. 

With the midterms less than two weeks away, we asked the group to weigh in not only on their concerns about the election process, but their overall concerns about U.S. democracy and preserving its principles. 

Here’s what five of the group members had to say. The rest of the group’s comments were published Wednesday .

James Flanagan

James Flanagan, 39, Conservative, veteran and veterans’ advocate, married with two children, lives in Peachtree Corners.

Do you have concerns about democracy? What does preserving democracy mean to you?

So I do have concerns. I think as Americans if we really want a strong, functioning republic we need to toughen up as citizens. It’s unfortunate that so many people are afraid to get outside of their news and political bubble. I think that leads to a big threat to this country. It’s really tough to have critical policy debates if we can’t even agree on facts, let alone other people’s perspectives.  

Every day on social media we have an echo chamber.  Folks on the left only listen to folks on the left.  Folks on the right only listen to folks on the right. That creates a situation where a lot of half-truths or complete falsehoods are amplified. When we don’t have a common set of facts or understand each other’s perspective it’s a challenge to come together at any point.  I’ve always encouraged folks to try to listen to and read other points of view. If you’re a Democrat, listen to Fox News.  If you’re a Republican, watch MSNBC.  Just to break out of that bubble. And I think we need more of that. 

How confident are you in the election process?

I really believe in our elections here in Georgia. I was really proud and impressed to see that Georgia is breaking some early voting records all across the state. And I think that’s great and it puts to bed the myth that recent laws are unfairly restricting folks. It’s clear more people are participating across the board, and we need more participation as a whole. So I’m very proud of where we are as a state. The only other part of it I think about is a lot of our election workers, poll workers, get unfairly attacked. They do a lot of hard work leading up to elections and on election day that really makes our republic happen. We need to give kudos to those folks who make that happen, who often do that work without a ton of compensation or credit.  


Marion Butler

Marion Butler, 76, retired in 2008 from a 34-year career as a developmental disabilities caretaker; lives in Cuthbert; single, widowed, lifelong Democrat.

Do you have concerns about democracy? What does preserving democracy mean to you?

When I think about democracy, I’m thinking about all of us having equal rights. And equal responsibilities. And it doesn’t always have to be political. To me, there has to be a way to get people to get up and do for themselves.

But I will say democracy is under some threats. The places where we can vote, the polling places, have been reduced. They’re trying to take away our voting rights. Randolph County used to have all these places you could go and vote; now there are less and we have to drive farther. That is especially challenging for some people who depend on others for rides. And then when you get there, sometimes they challenge you, and tell you that you can’t vote there.  That didn’t use to happen so often. Seems like they’re making it harder to vote, and doing it kind of underhandedly.  

How confident are you in the election process?

I feel kind of okay about the election process, I guess because I’m involved in it with my church as a volunteer and letting people know what their rights are. We’re going door-to-door and letting people know what the ballot looks like, the choices they have, how to figure out where you’re supposed to vote, if it’s early or on November 8. We’re trying to make sure every household in Randolph County is contacted. We’re making plans to provide transportation to disabled folks and people who don’t drive. And so far, that’s going pretty well.


Ellis Davis

Ellis Davis, 19, political science major at Valdosta State College; Republican; hometown St. Mary’s, in coastal Georgia.

Do you have concerns about democracy? What does preserving democracy mean to you?

My biggest concern is people not being confident in the election and believing conspiracy theories and falsehoods that are being shared. That makes people not go to the polls and vote, and their voices are not being heard and their rights are not being exercised. I believe that’s what lost us the two Senate seats with the two runoffs in 2020.  [U.S. Dist. 14 Rep.] Marjorie Taylor-Greene is partially to blame for that. People voted in the general election, and then after the conspiracies started flying everywhere, a lot of Republicans didn’t vote in the runoff.  hat is a huge concern when it comes to democracy.  

Also, people not conceding elections – that falls on both Republicans and Democrats.  President Trump and the Republicans did that after the 2020 election, and Stacey Abrams and some of the Democrats in 2018 did the same, never giving a proper concession. They never really admitted that they lost. I think [Governor Brian] Kemp and [Secretary of State Brad] Raffensberger are more with the common man and do what the law says and what their consciences say to do. Marjorie Taylor–Greene says her husband has proof of voter fraud.  Well then, show us if you have that proof, so it can be investigated by the secretary of state.  And [former U.S.] Senator [David] Perdue says, ‘We have someone who has evidence of voter fraud.’ And then they give out little to no evidence of it. I don’t believe they have any proof. That kind of talk does not preserve our democracy.

How confident are you in the election process?

In Georgia I’m absolutely confident.  In my hometown in Camden County, we have Democratic and Republican poll watchers, and a lot of oversight, and it’s all open to the public.  I have faith in Brad Raffensberger to oversee the election fairly.  With how he and Kemp handled 2020, I believe they did the right thing.  Certain people asked them to do illegal things and take certain measures to ensure an outcome, and they didn’t cave to the pressure, and they stood firm and confident.  So I’m confident in Georgia.  There are poll watchers and poll workers on both sides.  If someone doesn’t have a valid ID they’ll be discovered and turned away.  We had two people that Brad Raffensberger said committed voter fraud last time, in a state with millions of people voting–that’s pretty good.  The Georgia Votes program is awesome, where you can vote by absentee ballot or early vote. I’m very pleased with election bill SB 202.  It gave a lot more opportunities to early vote.  Democrats criticize our process but we have a lot more early voting days than other states. 


Art Gallegos

Art Gallegos, 48, Republican, community organizer with Latinos Conservative Organization; married, 5 children, lives in Gainesville, second generation Mexican-American.

Do you have concerns about democracy? What does preserving democracy mean to you?

Democracy is a huge foundation of our nation. It means we have the freedom to elect people as government officials, to govern the nation, and that the authority and power is always with the people, and those officials work for the people. That’s what makes us different from other nations.

We see threats to democracy now with this administration, how radical they’ve gotten.  When JFK was in office, the Democratic Party stood by fundamental beliefs. Now we see that socialist views have infiltrated the Democratic Party. For example, we never used to hear that education was going to be free. Sure, kindergarten through 12th grade education is provided, but education at the university level? We have this mentality now that we’ll waive that cost, and we’re going to have free this, free that – where people commit to doing certain things in their lives, and then want to pass that cost on to someone else. So now we have student loans and all these other programs paid for by taxpayers. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of need in the homeless community, especially with local veterans that need help with health care, housing, recovery and addiction. And this administration is giving so much free stuff to people, including people who are not citizens, who are not coming into this country the right way. And for me, I take it personally; it’s like a father supporting the neighbor’s family and not taking care of his own household. It’s a great deed to do so the world can see we’re a melting pot and we help everyone; we’re the big guy in the world, but at the same time there’s rules and laws. And it’s upsetting and if we don’t watch that, our democracy is going to fade away, little by little. So people need to speak out against it and also go out and vote.

How confident are you in the election process?

I want to believe that we have the freedom to vote for who we want to vote for, and that our vote is going to count. But so many things have happened that I have some reservations, and I wonder, will elections be rigged? Or will elections be truthful and run smoothly? There is that doubt in certain states run by a party that is not implementing the guidelines.  

In Georgia, I believe that because of everything that happened in the past two years, and some flaws in voting in different cities and counties, it brings doubt that our elections will be accurate. When we see bad things happening with the machines, or voter fraud, it’s a concern. But as citizens, we have to trust God, trust ourselves and trust officials in government that they’ll implement better safeguards to the election process this time. I think many people have lost faith in government, and in elected officials, and we need to regain that, because the opposite of faith is hopelessness, and that’s not the nation that God intended us to be or that I want to leave behind to my kids.


Casey Villarreal

Casey Villarreal, 38, Conservative, mother of three children, lives in Cartersville. 

Do you have concerns about democracy? What does preserving democracy mean to you?

I do have some concerns. It seems our nation in general has a pretty high tension level, and that  things are always right on the surface of boiling over. It used to be that we could agree to disagree and have debates. We’ve lost that ability to respectfully disagree. People get so offended.

The way to preserve democracy is that we all need to be informed and get out there voting.  You can’t just complain. Get educated on what is affecting you and your family. People are not only so easily offended these days, but they’re also lazy, and some people don’t even show up at the polls. It’s such an amazing right that we have, and we all need to take it more seriously. You’re casting your vote to effect change at the state or national level. If we aren’t heard in that, in a bipartisan way, we’re not putting the people in place to best represent us. 

How confident are you in the election process?

I do think we’ve had some issues with our elections, with mail-in ballots, and making sure who’s going in to cast a vote is actually that person. Just here in Georgia, it really came into play with Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp in 2018. There were a ton of issues of possible voting fraud. People saying mail-in ballots weren’t done correctly, identities not matched correctly in certain precincts, and that does give me some cause for concern. I really hope that the votes will be accurately counted this time.

Want to participate in the conversation? Share your thoughts on social media: 

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Contact  Jill Jordan Sieder at jilljordan@stateaffairs.com or on Twitter @journalistajill 

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