On Sunday night, Deborah González began to sense the gravity of what she was about to do on Monday at noon. She had been asked to stay at a hotel in the state capitol, along with five other of the state’s electors to the Electoral College who live outside Atlanta. Security was provided—“They did not want to take any chances, with all the protests.”
On Monday morning, they traveled from the hotel to the State Capitol Building, accompanied by an armed escort. They entered the building from a side entrance, to avoid being seen. Inside, the cavernous 19th century Neoclassical building was occupied by the 16 electors, members of the media, Democratic Party volunteers, and a group of Republican “electors” who assembled behind closed doors to show their support for Donald Trump—a symbolic move without consequence.
Stacey Abrams, who has seen recognition in recent weeks for her leadership during the last several years in registering and mobilizing tens of thousands of new Georgia voters, presided over the session of Democratic Party electors. When it came time for González to cast her vote for Vice President–elect Kamala Harris, “It was so moving, I had to fight back tears,” she said. “I was so honored to vote for the first woman vice president.”
But Georgia’s backing a Democrat for president for the first time since 1992 wasn’t the only milestone passed that day. González herself was breaking new ground, after being elected in a December 1 runoff as the district attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit. She became the first Latina to hold the office in state history, and the first Puerto Rican woman in US history.
She won the seat—which covers Athens-Clarke County, home of the University of Georgia (UGA), and Oconee County—after prevailing in a federal voting rights lawsuit that went all the way to Georgia’s Supreme Court. It was a noteworthy result in a year when the state, and the nation, witnessed an incessant series of election lawsuits, most of them spurious.
It’s been quite a year for the attorney of more than two decades, who in a 2017 special election became only the second Latina elected to the Georgia state legislature. Her term ended a year later, after losing her bid for reelection. When she got the call in late February from Nikema Williams, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, asking if she would consider serving as one of the state’s electors, she didn’t know if she was going to be able to run for office again.
That’s because when District Attorney Ken Mauldin retired in early February, the clock started ticking. Under the provisions of a 2018 law, a replacement chosen by Governor Brian Kemp could stay in office until the next statewide election—in this case, 2022—as long as that replacement was chosen within six months of the next election, on November 3.
González became interested in running for such a position in part because of her experience serving on the state legislature’s judicial committee; she was also a member of a criminal justice task force of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. So she attempted to qualify for the seat. Secretary of State Raffensperger rejected her bid, citing the 2018 law—and effectively canceling any election to replace Mauldin, who had been in office for 20 years, come November. So González, along with four voters, sued Kemp and Raffensperger, alleging that their constitutional rights had been violated.
“The Georgia Constitution says district attorneys should be elected every four years,” said Bruce Brown, who represented González. “The franchise…wherever it is granted, has to be zealously guarded against encroachment. The right to vote will be taken away unless protected 24/7.
“In this case,” he continued, “the legislature tried to give the governor power to take away the right to vote for district attorney every four years.”
Brown, who has spent years in federal court sparring with the state over voting rights, said it “takes a lot of guts to challenge the governor and the secretary of state. If you’re going to do this, it’s a heavy lift.”
But González prevailed, in the district court, Georgia’s Supreme Court, and the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. One of the final paragraphs in the 11th Circuit decision, citing another case, read, “No right is more precious in a free country’ than the right to vote.” That decision was written by Elizabeth L. Branch, who in 2017 was appointed to the federal court by President Trump.
The path to the November 3 election included other obstacles, however. In early October, Raffensperger’s office sent 16,000 absentee ballots to voters listing the interim district attorney, a prosecutor under Mauldin, as the “incumbent,” giving him a potential advantage. González asked the local board of elections to print new ballots, but her request was denied. “If Ms. Gonzalez has a problem with it, she can take it to court, which will keep us out of the problem,” vice chairperson of the Board of Elections Charles Knapper said during the meeting, according to the UGA newspaper, The Red & Black.
On Election Day, González bested her opponents, but with 48.3 percent of the vote, forcing a December 1 runoff under Georgia law. For several days after, the Athens–Clarke County Board of Elections broadcast the wrong date for the runoff.
Finally, on December 1, she won—by 866 votes. Now, one of her first challenges, she said, involves “building bridges,” particularly since Oconee voters favored her opponent. Oconee, a county of slightly less than 40,000, is nearly 90 percent white, and conservative. “There’s a resistance to change from people who do not recognize that change is necessary,” she said, adding that she means “people who are racist.”
The issues she wants to focus on include “juvenile court, and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.”
The night of her triumph, Luis A. Miranda Jr.—father of Hamilton author Lin Manuel Miranda and board chair of Latino Victory—tweeted, “first Puerto Rican female DA!” Latino Victory is “trying to change the dynamic” where Latinos are 18 percent of the US population but only hold 1 percent of political power at the local and state level, said president Nathalie Rayes. Her group supported González’s campaign with volunteers and, using its PAC, with donations, Rayes said, adding that González “was able to overcome” many barriers.
On Monday at noon, González felt “the weight of the moment” as she and her 15 Electoral College colleagues cast their votes. “We knew we were making history,” she said. “There was such a reverence in that room.”