ATLANTA—On a busy Wednesday morning, Gabriel Sterling—the de facto face of Georgia’s election system—was catching up on his emails when one message caught his eye. He did not recognize the sender, but their message was clear: his home address, followed by a winking face.
For weeks, Sterling, the voting systems implementation manager for Georgia’s government, has come before the cameras daily to affirm the integrity of the state’s election in the face of attacks from President Trump and his supporters, who are outraged that President-elect Joe Biden won the state.
That public service has earned him protection from local police outside his home in a quiet suburb. When a mysterious FedEx package recently showed up at his door, he turned it over to them; his next-door neighbor has angled his numerous security cameras toward Sterling’s home, just in case. On his neighborhood’s Facebook page, Sterling posted an apologetic note for the increased police presence and general air of tension.
“That’s not something you ever want to have to do,” he said in an interview with The Daily Beast on Wednesday “You want elections to be boring and simple. But that’s not the case here, unfortunately.”
This all happened before Dec. 1, when Sterling arrived at the state capitol for his regular press conference and delivered an emotional rebuke of Trump and his allies, calling on them to stop their torrent of conspiracy-laced, evidence-free fulminations that Georgia officials had presided over a “stolen” election.
“It has to stop,” said Sterling. “Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right.”
The no-nonsense official and committed Republican, who’d appeared at the same lectern almost every day for the past month—sometimes twice—to deliver updates and answer questions on Georgia’s endless recount had seemingly hit the limits of his patience. “This is the backbone of democracy, and all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this,” he said. “It’s too much.”
That a threatening email landed in his inbox the next day was hardly surprising to Sterling. If anything, it’s simply been par for the course for his life since Nov. 3. And it may continue: Despite Sterling’s pleas, and the pleas of his boss, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the president and his most devoted supporters are not stopping.
If anything, they are sinking their teeth even deeper into a conspiracy-laden fantasy, one that posits a web of nefarious actors—George Soros, Mexicans, the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez—have conspired to deny Trump his rightful victory in Georgia.
On Wednesday, Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood—the duo of staunchly pro-Trump lawyers no longer affiliated with his legal team—appeared before a raucous crowd outside Atlanta, vowing to deny Biden’s victory and throwing out an increasingly far-fetched, evidence-free string of conspiracy theories. Later, Trump echoed many of these theories himself in a 45-minute long video posted to social media, amplifying the very claims that have contributed, in Raffensperger’s words on Wednesday, to a “growing threat environment” for election workers trying to do their jobs.
Indeed, Sterling is far from the only election official in Georgia who’s been subject to threats and harassment. Statewide and county-level officials, as well as volunteers and employees of third-party companies, have all found themselves targeted in recent weeks as they work to complete the task of counting every vote—and in the case of Georgia, count every vote a second and third time over.
“Some days I get so much hate mail that when I open the post office box, there’s just a key,” said Matt Mashburn, a Republican member of the state Board of Elections. “To a bigger post office box.”
Mashburn is one of the board’s five members, all of whom are named in Powell and Wood’s lawsuit, which they have dubbed the “kraken” for its supposed strength. It’s actually an error-riddled document full of debunked claims about Georgia’s election system, but it’s nevertheless driven harassment and abuse toward the officials whose names are on it.
“People think that they are just raging against ‘the system,’ and they forget that there’s a real human being on the other side of the tweet,” Mashburn said in an email to The Daily Beast. “Who doesn’t know if the threat should be taken seriously or not.”
David Worley, the only Democratic member of the Georgia Board of Elections, has served on the panel for 16 years. “I’ve gotten more emails urging me to do one thing or another,” he told The Daily Beast. “Obviously, I’ve been the subject of more lawsuits than normal.”
Worley said that recently, on the side of a road near his home, someone put up a white banner and spray-painted on it the message: “The people versus David Judas Worley. You violated the Constitution. Enjoy prison.”
“I’ve been called worse by better people,” quipped Worley, who has been active in Democratic politics in Georgia for decades. The homeowners’ association president, he said, took down the banner.
The environment has become dangerous enough that two weeks ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in to investigate several cases. In recent days, some conspiracy adherents have shown up and lingered at recount sites in Georgia to take video of election workers; Sterling said that some have been followed in their cars as they left.
Some of these videos have spread quickly in right-wing conspiracy circles, stoking imaginations, fears, and threats. In particular, one recent video showed a staffer for the company Dominion Voting Systems, which is at the heart of Trump’s conspiracies, simply doing their job in Gwinnett County. But some believed something nefarious was afoot, and quickly identified and released the employee’s name. One person posted a GIF of a noose in response.
Sterling said that put him over the edge. “I took a higher-profile job, that’s the kind of crap you’re going to deal with sometimes,” he told The Daily Beast. “This tech… took a job as a tech. He’s trying to make some money. His family didn’t sign up for this.”
With Trump slated to come to Georgia on Saturday for a rally in support of Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA), many are expecting him to air his baseless theories about the state’s voting system in his most high-profile setting yet.
Sterling brushed off concern about the rally, saying “we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing… playing whack a mole with every bizarre rumor.”
“At some point, facts, and light, and information, should break through the hyperbole, half-truths, and disinformation that comes from people who are pissed about losing an election,” he said.
Worley, for his part, was resigned to the likelihood of an indefinite stream of venom from a portion of the country that may simply never believe justice was served—but believe that people like him denied Trump his rightful win. With the president teasing an immediate run for the White House again in 2024, there’s little indication this drumbeat will let up.
“As long as he’s out there making comments like this, there’s going to be a segment of people who are going to be outraged,” said Worley. “I guess we just need to get used to that.”