|Trump campaign demonized two Georgia election workers – and death threats followed|
Many of former President Donald Trump's false claims of election fraud have focused on Fulton County, a heavily Democratic area that includes Atlanta. REUTERS/Brandon Bell/File Photo
Desperate to overturn his election loss, Donald Trump and his team spun a sprawling voter-fraud fiction, casting two rank-and-file election workers, a mother and her daughter, as the main villains. The women endured months of death threats and racist taunts – and one went into hiding.
By JASON SZEP and LINDA SO
Filed Dec. 1, 2021, 8 p.m. GMT
This story contains offensive language.
As Donald Trump’s campaign sought to overturn his shocking loss of the state of Georgia in the 2020 presidential election, it hatched a conspiracy theory.
At its center were two masterminds: a clerical worker in a county election office, and her mom, who had taken a temporary job to help count ballots. The alleged plot: Wandrea “Shaye” Moss and mother Ruby Freeman cheated Trump by pulling fake ballots from suitcases hidden under tables at a ballot-counting center. In early December, the campaign began raining down allegations on the two Black women.
Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, falsely claimed that video footage showed the women engaging in “surreptitious illegal activity” and acting suspiciously, like drug dealers “passing out dope.” In early January, Trump himself singled out Freeman, by name, 18 times in a now-famous call in which he pressed Georgia officials to alter the state’s results. He called the 62-year-old temp worker a “professional vote scammer,” a “hustler” and a “known political operative” who “stuffed the ballot boxes.”
Freeman made a series of 911 emergency calls in the days after she was publicly identified in early December by the president’s camp. In a Dec. 4 call, she told the dispatcher she’d gotten a flood of “threats and phone calls and racial slurs,” adding: “It’s scary because they’re saying stuff like, ‘We’re coming to get you. We are coming to get you.’”
Two days later, a panicked Freeman called 911 again, after hearing loud banging on her door just before 10 p.m. Strangers had come the night before, too. She begged the dispatcher for assistance. “Lord Jesus, where’s the police?” she asked, according to the recording, obtained by Reuters in a records request. “I don’t know who keeps coming to my door.”
“Please help me.”
“Lord Jesus, where’s the police?”
Ruby Freeman, in a Dec. 6 call to 911
Click to hear excerpts from Ruby Freeman’s Dec 6 call to 911
Click to hear excerpts from Ruby Freeman’s Dec 4 call to 911
Freeman quit her temporary election gig. Moss took time off amid the tumult. The 37-year-old election worker, known for her distinctive blonde braids, changed her appearance. Moss often avoided going out in public after her phone number was widely circulated online. Trump supporters threatened Moss’s teenage son by phone in tirades laced with racial slurs, said her supervisor, Fulton County Elections Director Richard Barron.
Freeman and Moss did not grant interviews for this report. This account of the campaign against them – including previously unreported details of their ordeal – is based on interviews with Barron, another colleague and a person with direct knowledge of their ordeal, along with an examination of police reports, state records, 911 call records, internal county emails and social media posts. Reuters also reviewed the video footage that Trump and his allies used to attack Freeman and Moss and hours of testimony by the former president’s surrogates at state hearings.
The threats hurled at Freeman and Moss are part of a broader campaign of fear against election administrators that has been chronicled by Reuters this year. Previous reports detailed how Trump supporters, inspired by his false stolen-election claims, have terrorized election officials and workers in battleground states. In all, Reuters has documented more than 800 intimidating messages to election officials in 14 states, including about 100 that could warrant prosecution, according to legal experts.
The story of Moss and Freeman shows how some of the top members of the Trump camp – including the incumbent president himself – conducted an intensive effort to publicly demonize individual election workers in the pursuit of overturning the election.
Ruby Freeman, a temporary election worker in the 2020 race, faced repeated death threats from Trump supporters after the then-president and his allies targeted her and her daughter with false allegations of fraud. Freeman went into hiding. REUTERS/Brandon BellSome of these targets – including the top election officials in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona – are notable political figures in their states. Others, like Moss and Freeman, have been rank-and-file workers. Moss’s full-time job pays about $36,000 a year. Freeman’s temp gig paid $16 an hour.
Their modest incomes left the two women with little power to defend themselves against the billionaire president and his legions of backers. After Freeman went into hiding, she initially stayed with friends. They soon asked her to leave, fearing for their own security, so she moved from one Airbnb to another, never staying in one place for too long, said a person with direct knowledge of her movements. Freeman went to great lengths to conceal her identity and location, the person said. She stopped using credit cards and started using a system for electronic money transfers that caters to people wanting to keep a low profile, the person said.
The constant threats so terrified the two women that they did not return calls from Fulton County District Attorney’s Office investigators who wanted to talk to them this summer as part of their probe into whether Trump illegally interfered with Georgia’s 2020 election, Barron said. “They wouldn’t even answer the phone,” he said.
Shaye Moss scanning ballots in Atlanta in June 2020 for that month’s primary vote. She and her mother, Ruby Freeman, were falsely accused of election-rigging by Donald Trump and his allies. Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Handout via REUTERSNo arrests have been made in connection with the threats against the women, and almost no one has been held accountable for threatening election workers nationwide, as Reuters reported on Sept. 8. After the news organization reported the continuing harassment of election officials and their families in June, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a task force to investigate threats to election workers. It has said it takes all threats of violence seriously.
The threats against the mother and daughter followed a hearing of Georgia lawmakers on Dec. 3, 2020, where the Trump campaign falsely claimed that a surveillance video from a ballot-processing room at State Farm Arena in Atlanta amounted to “shocking” evidence of “fraud.” A volunteer Trump campaign attorney, Jacki Pick, said two unnamed Fulton County election workers had engaged in maneuvers involving "suitcases" of ballots pulled out from under a table and illegally counted through the night. She identified them as the “lady with the blonde braids” – Moss – and an “older” woman with the “name of Ruby” on her shirt – Freeman.
In a statement, Pick defended her presentation. “There was nothing normal about what the video showed,” she said.
Giuliani, who spearheaded Trump’s effort to overturn the election results, appeared at another hearing with Georgia lawmakers the next week, on Dec. 10. He showed snippets of the video and repeatedly identified Moss and Freeman by name, calling them “crooks” who “obviously” stole votes.
But the full video revealed the women were legally counting ballots, a state investigation found.
“I will go to my grave knowing that Rudy Giuliani looked the state senators in the eye and just flat-out lied,” said Gabriel Sterling, a senior Georgia election official and a Republican, in an interview with Reuters.
Trump and Giuliani did not respond to comment requests.
62-year-old election worker Ruby Freeman got a deluge of threatening messages after Trump’s allies publicly accused her of election-rigging. They included “300 emails, 75 text messages and a large amount of phone calls.” One message warned: ‘We’re coming to get you.’
Cobb County PoliceSome conservative media outlets covered the false story as fact, giving it credibility among millions of Trump supporters. The Gateway Pundit, a far-right website known for promoting conspiracy theories, cast Freeman and Moss as “crooked” operatives who counted “illegal ballots from a suitcase stashed under a table!” Other Republican officials reinforced the Trump team’s message.
“Caught on candid camera,” tweeted Congressman Jody Hice, a Georgia Republican. “Say it with me... F R A U D.”
Hice did not respond to requests for comment. The Gateway Pundit declined to comment.
As the Trump camp spread falsehoods about the two women, Freeman told police her phone wouldn’t stop ringing with menacing messages. By Dec. 4, she had received about “300 emails, 75 text messages, a large amount of phone calls and multiple Facebook posts,” according to a police incident report.
And people kept coming to her house, she told a 911 dispatcher on Dec. 6.
“Somebody was banging on my door, and now somebody is banging on the door again,” she said.
The Fulton County Elections and Administrative Divisions Office in Atlanta. REUTERS/Linda SoFacts and falsehoods
Before the Trump team upended her life, Moss had loved her job, colleagues say. She began working at the Fulton County Elections Office as a temporary worker. After several years, she was offered a full-time job in 2017. She cried when she got the promotion, Barron recalled. Four years later, the official county letter offering her the position remains pinned to her cubicle wall.
As a registration officer, Moss handles voter applications, including those for absentee ballots, and helps process the actual votes on election day, in addition to other clerical duties such as working in the mail room. Her data-entry work, Barron said, may be “the fastest in Georgia.”
Her mother, Freeman, had also worked in local government, as a staff member at a center that coordinated 911 emergency calls for Fulton, a county of one million people that includes Atlanta. After retiring, she started a small boutique business selling fashion accessories.
Heading into the election, Fulton County had been hit hard by COVID-19. Many election staff were sick. One died. The first big test, a June primary election, went off poorly, marred by long lines and malfunctioning voting machines. Moss asked her mother if she could help with November’s election. Freeman signed up as a temp.
Election Day – Nov. 3, 2020 – got off to a difficult start. Moss arrived at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena before dawn. The floors were drenched from a ceiling leak in the space where mail-in ballots were processed. The leak was fixed by about 8:30 a.m., causing a brief delay in the count.
Though minor, the mishap made national headlines. Georgia’s biggest and most heavily Democratic county was a crucial battleground for Democrats hoping to flip the traditionally red state. Before the vote, Trump had been insisting that a winner be declared on Election Day. He aimed to cast doubt on the validity of absentee ballots, which are often tallied late and were widely expected to favor Democrat Joe Biden. News of the leak-related delay added tension to the closely watched Georgia race.
By about 10 p.m. that night, workers had been on the job for nearly 18 hours. Ralph Jones, the voter-registration chief, told some staff they could go home to get rest, he said, halting the scanning of uncounted ballots for the night. Most packed up and left. Some news reporters and election observers, who monitor vote-counting for both political parties, did the same.
Just a few workers remained, including Moss and Freeman. The arena’s surveillance footage showed them sealing and packing the remaining absentee ballots in black plastic boxes for storage overnight, a standard security measure against tampering.
The close election and national spotlight added urgency to the counting. Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, criticized Fulton County on TV for pausing the processing of ballots when many other counties had already finished. Chris Harvey, the state elections director at the time, called Barron, urging him to keep going, Sterling said.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger giving an update on ballot counting on Nov. 6, 2020, days after the election. Raffensperger, a Republican, would also receive death threats. REUTERS/Dustin ChambersAt about 11 p.m., Barron phoned registration chief Jones and told him to resume counting, Barron said. Moss walked over to a table draped with black cloth, leaned down and pulled out the containers of mail-in ballots her team had sealed up about an hour earlier. Workers unpacked them and counted votes into the night under the watch of an independent monitor and a state investigator, according to state and county officials and a Reuters review of the surveillance video.
For the next month, Trump and his supporters attacked the legitimacy of the state’s election, which Biden won by 11,779 votes.
On Dec 3, Georgia’s Republican lawmakers held their first hearings on “election integrity.” That morning, Trump went on Twitter to tout a live broadcast of the hearings by far-right news channel One America News Network. “Georgia hearings now on @OANN. Amazing!” he told his 88 million followers in a tweet at 11:09 a.m.
At a little past 1 p.m., Pick, the volunteer Trump campaign attorney, told the lawmakers she had “evidence” of “fraud” – excerpts of footage from the arena’s surveillance video, which she showed at the hearing. Pick, a Republican donor, said a “lady with the blonde braids,” referring to Moss, had told the media and Republican observers to leave. Once those people were “cleared out,” Pick said, the same woman pulled out “suitcases” of ballots hidden under a black table.
“So what are these ballots doing there separate from all the other ballots?” Pick asked. “And why are they only counting them whenever the place is cleared out with no witnesses?” She said the site’s “multiple” scanning machines could have allowed workers to process enough ballots to account for Biden’s margin of victory.
As Pick spoke, a Trump legal adviser, Jenna Ellis, tweeted about the “SHOCKING...VIDEO EVIDENCE” being presented at the hearing, declaring a “FRAUD!!!” Minutes later, the Trump campaign tweeted a One America News clip of Pick’s presentation.
She is a “professional vote scammer,” a “hustler” and a “known political operative” who “stuffed the ballot boxes.”
Donald Trump castigating Ruby Freeman, in his January call to top Georgia election officials“Wow! Blockbuster testimony,” Trump tweeted. “This alone leads to an easy win of the State!”
By evening, Pick’s excerpts of the State Farm Arena video had gone viral. Sean Hannity, the highest-rated host on conservative cable-news giant Fox News, called it a “bombshell” with “what appears to be extensive law violations.”
Ellis, Fox News and One America News did not respond to comment requests.
The Gateway Pundit identified one of the workers as Ruby Freeman. Other far-right outlets followed suit.
“What’s Up, Ruby? Crooked Operative Filmed Pulling Out Suitcases of Ballots in Georgia IS IDENTIFIED,” read a Gateway Pundit headline. It posted six photos of her, including one captioned, “CROOK GETS CAUGHT.” The story, shared by 38,000 people on Facebook, also identified Freeman’s business, LaRuby’s Unique Treasures. A follow-up Pundit story identified the woman in the blonde braids as Shaye Moss.
At about 10 p.m. that night, the threats began. Strangers rang, emailed and texted her with threats and racist taunts. They tagged her friends on Facebook and said “horrible” things about her, she later told police.
She read the 911 dispatcher the “What’s Up, Ruby?” headline, saying she believed the Gateway Pundit story might have triggered the harassment.
The Gateway Pundit, a far-right website that promoted Trump’s debunked voter-fraud allegations, identified Ruby Freeman in a false story accusing her of election-rigging. Over the next three days, local and state officials dismantled the Trump campaign’s claims. The so-called suitcases were standard ballot containers and the votes were valid and counted properly, they said. A Georgia secretary of state’s investigator concluded that observers and media hadn’t been asked to leave the arena and that “there were no mystery ballots that were brought in from an unknown location and hidden under tables.”
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On Dec. 4, the day after Pick’s presentation, Freeman told police she had received hundreds of threats at her home in neighboring Cobb County, according to a county police report.
The Trump campaign continued to portray Moss and Freeman as criminals. At a Dec. 5 rally in Valdosta, Georgia, Trump played excerpts of the State Farm Arena video on a giant screen, narrated by a host for far-right news channel One America News. The footage revealed a “crime” committed by “Democrat workers,” Trump said.
The next day, Dec. 6, a Gateway Pundit story described Freeman and Moss as “infamous in the annals of voter corruption.” That evening, Freeman called the police again.
She was scared, she said. Strangers had started to show up at her home, ordering pizzas for delivery to her address in an attempt to lure her out, according to a Cobb County Police incident report. She showed the officer 428 emails and text messages on her cell phone, almost all of them threats, the report said.
Cobb County Police said no one was arrested in response to the reported threats and declined further comment.
Freeman’s home address had been posted on Twitter and Parler, a social media platform popular among conservatives. Some Trump supporters publicly called for her and her daughter’s execution or hurled racial and misogynistic slurs at them on Facebook and other online forums.
“The coon c---s should be locked up for voter fraud!!!”
Commenter on Parler, a social media platform preferred by many right-wing users.“The coon c---s should be locked up for voter fraud!!!” wrote a Parler user. “She should be shot,” said a Facebook commenter under a Dec. 7 Gateway Pundit story. “YOU SHOULD BE HUNG OR SHOT FOR YOUR CRIMES,” wrote another Facebook commenter.
As the threats continued, Giuliani told the Dec. 10 hearing of Georgia lawmakers that he would “like to focus on the two people that are involved in this” – Freeman and Moss. In addition to “stealing votes,” he accused them of hacking into Georgia’s voting machines while passing USB thumb drives between them, “as if they’re vials of heroin and cocaine. I mean it’s obvious to anyone who is a criminal investigator or prosecutor, they’re engaged in surreptitious illegal activity.”
The Nov. 3 ceiling leak at State Farm Arena was, according to Giuliani, a “phony excuse” to clear observers and media from the voting area so Freeman and Moss could go “about their dirty, crooked business.” The leak was real – a urinal had overflowed – but state investigators found there was nothing to his claims about the women.
On Jan. 2, Trump placed his call to Secretary of State Raffensperger and other Georgia election officials, urging them to find enough votes to swing the election his way. They refused. Trump later denounced Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, who along with his family was inundated with death threats from the president’s supporters.
A recording of that call was leaked to reporters and published the next day, drawing global attention. Trump is heard claiming Freeman pulled suitcases “stuffed with votes” from under a table and scanned each ballot “three times.” She was “a professional vote scammer and hustler,” he said.
Two days later, on Jan. 4, Freeman again called the police and reported that strangers had come to her home, threatening that it was “just a matter of time” before they come for her and her family, according to a recording of a 911 call obtained by Reuters.
Freeman was so frightened that she refused to give her number to the 911 operator. “I’m just afraid right now of giving my number to anybody, even the police,” she said.
Barron, the supervisor of the two women, had kept in close touch as tormentors hounded them through December. The harassment increased after Trump’s call with Georgia officials went public, he said, especially for Freeman.
“Once President Trump mentioned her in that call to Raffensperger, it got even worse,” Barron said. “And it just kept going.”
Fulton County Elections Director Richard Barron. “Once President Trump mentioned (Freeman) in that call to Raffensperger, it got even worse. And it just kept going.” REUTERS/Linda SoBy the end of January, dozens of stories in far-right and conservative publications had repeated Trump’s allegations against Moss and Freeman. On Parler, Freeman’s name featured in 1,512 comments and 204 posts, according to a Reuters review of archived posts on the social media platform.
“Only a matter of time before some vengeful person slips in through an open window of Ruby Freeman’s home and bludgeons her to death” with a voting machine, read a Parler comment on Jan. 4.
On Jan. 25, Barron emailed Fulton County police chief Wade Yates and other officials. The family needed protection, he said. “Can we do anything to help her and her family with security?” he asked, referring to Moss, in the email, reviewed by Reuters. Yates suggested hiring an armed guard at a cost of $22.50 per hour, according to an email. “We can work out funding details next week,” he said.
The women, however, never received funding for security, Barron said. And the cost was too high to pay for themselves, he said, exceeding Freeman’s $16 hourly wage.
Asked why Freeman and Moss didn’t receive a security detail, Fulton County Police said in a statement that it can’t approve budgeting in such a case and referred questions to the county government. The county government said it did not provide security for the women because the messages they received did not rise to the level of criminal threats that could be prosecuted. The decision was not financial in nature, it added.
“My mom is currently in a safe house.”
Election worker Shaye Moss, telling her supervisor about her mother Ruby Freeman.In February, Moss told NPR about some of the harassment aimed at her and her mother for a report about the Trump camp’s pressure on Fulton County. After that, she kept a low profile.
In the spring and summer, Moss worked remotely a few days at a time to avoid going out in public. She spoke of feeling like she was being followed, Barron said. Moss also took sick days when the stress became overwhelming. Threatening calls came to an old cell phone of hers, which her teenage son used for remote school learning during the pandemic, he added.
Freeman left her home and went into hiding in an undisclosed location after Trump’s Jan. 2 call triggered more threats, Barron said. Moss blamed herself for upending her mom’s life, Barron said, and expressed regret for asking her to help with the elections.
The threats continued through the summer. In a July 1 email, Moss told Fulton County’s senior election officials she was shaken. A few weeks earlier, someone had put photos of her car and license plate online, Barron said, and strangers were contacting her family and friends.
“They are impersonating people like reporters, journalists, etc. to get info on me from them saying they are attempting to make a citizen's arrest,” Moss wrote in the email. “My mom is currently in a safe house,” she added.
On Aug. 14, a fresh Gateway Pundit article repeated Trump’s old allegations against them. “These two election workers took ballots out from under a table on Election night and jammed thousands of ballots into the tabulators numerous times,” it said.
New threats ensued. One reader, posting a comment under the story, evoked the history of lynching Black people in the American South: “Those two should be strung up from the nearest lamppost and set on fire.”
‘Target on our back’
Trump’s conspiracy claims turned Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold containing most of Atlanta, a majority black city, into a hotbed of threats against other election workers.
Nearly 100 messages to election officials documented by Reuters this year targeted officials and workers in the county, whose fast-growing population is making Georgia more competitive for Democrats.
Between 2004 and 2020, the share of white voters in Georgia dropped from 70% to 60%, and Democrats made significant gains, winning last year in the counties around Atlanta and turning the once-reliably Republican state into an electoral battleground, with Fulton on the front line.
“We know we have a target on our back,” said Robb Pitts, 79, chairman of Fulton County’s Board of Commissioners and a two-decade veteran of Atlanta’s city council. Pitts, who is Black, reported receiving threats himself, including a racist email in his inbox calling for his execution. “Who would have thought that this kind of thing would be happening in this country?”
Fulton County Board of Commissioners chairman Robb Pitts. He says he, too, received death threats. “Who would have thought that this kind of thing would be happening in this country?” REUTERS/Linda SoThe threats are happening elsewhere, too. In a Reuters survey of 30 county election offices in six hotly contested states in the 2020 presidential race, 13 said they were aware of threats or harassment directed at local election officials and staff.
Barron, Fulton County’s elections director for eight and a half years, said he was sickened by the racial slurs and threats against his Black staff members. “This is the best group of people I’ve ever worked with,” said Barron, who is white.
The son of a retired state judge, Barron began his career in elections in 1999 recruiting and training poll workers in Travis County, Texas. He served in other election roles before landing the top job in Fulton County’s elections office in 2013. After the intense scrutiny of the 2020 vote and the barrage of threats against him and his staff, Barron says he’s had enough.
He plans to leave his job at the end of the year. He said he’s disgusted by the vilification of election workers like those on his staff.
“It’s not worth it anymore,” he said.
But Moss is staying, Barron said. He says he understands why. As a single mom, she needs the paycheck and the health insurance.
Employees of the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections, processing ballots in Atlanta on November 4, 2020. REUTERS/Brandon Bell