Attorney Poy Winichakul was about 12 minutes into her testimony before the Georgia legislature’s Special Committee on Election Integrity. She was summing up how 47 states using absentee ballots had never discovered “widespread fraud,” and how the same could be said of Georgia in the 2020 elections. “Voting fraud” using absentee ballots, the voting rights attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center concluded, “is even less of a problem than being struck by lightning.”
Without missing a beat, Representative Barry Fleming, chairman of the committee, asked her, “What are the odds of getting struck by lightning?” Winichakul said she didn’t have the figure. Fleming, who is also an attorney, said, “It sounds like you’re admitting there is fraud in elections.”
So went the deliberations leading up to Georgia’s lawmakers’ passing a 98-page elections law on March 25, after Fleming introduced a bill that went through multiple versions in the House, was passed on to the Senate, and got Governor Brian Kemp’s signature days before the legislative session ended. The legislation has drawn reactions ranging from Major League Baseball’s moving its All-Star Game out of suburban Atlanta (it will be held in Denver) to three lawsuits against the state alleging that the law would disproportionately burden the Black and brown voters that helped turn Georgia blue twice in recent months by voting for Joe Biden and electing two Democratic senators. The law allows the GOP-controlled legislature to take over local election departments, among many other provisions.
Much has been said about the law in recent weeks, but little about Republican lawmaker Fleming, the force behind it. “It was his train; he guided it,” said Representative Rhonda Burnough, one of four Democratic members, all of whom are also Black, of the 14-member committee.
The lawmaker’s policies and strategies are a case study not just of what happened in Georgia but also of how the more than 250 GOP voting bills currently being considered in 43 states may wind up as laws. Fleming has been active in shaping Georgia elections for nearly two decades in office, championing measures that reduce access to the ballot box while outwardly clamoring for virtues such as “uniformity” and “integrity” and against “fraud.” According to colleagues and voting rights advocates, his leadership style includes interrupting, gaslighting, dog-whistling, and browbeating experts who disagree. Fleming did not respond to requests for comment.
His legislative record includes a history of attempts to exert control over election processes. He supported encoding into law the offense of “conspiracy to commit election fraud” in 2005, and a voter ID bill in 2006. He sponsored a bill to reduce early voting periods for municipal elections in 2014, and authored the “exact-match” system in 2017 that put voter registrations on hold if they didn’t exactly match Social Security or DMV records—a system that snagged 53,000 people, 70 percent of whom were Black, according to a USA Today analysis. Most recently, he chaired a commission in 2019 that disregarded the advice of some of the nation’s top computer scientists against the type of election system the state wound up purchasing.
Fleming’s record also includes a 2015 court case where he wore another hat he has used to lucrative benefit during the past two decades: legally representing smaller municipalities across middle Georgia, many with large Black populations. In that case, he defended Hancock County’s effort to strike about 180 voters from the rolls, most of whom were Black, making up nearly 20 percent of the county’s electorate. The county used the sheriff’s department to challenge voters about their addresses and other details. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the state NAACP, and the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda had to go to federal court to protect those voters’ right to remain on the rolls. Fleming told a New York Times reporter at the time that the county was “only trying to restore order to an electoral process tainted earlier by corruption and incompetence.”
Johnny Thornton was a plaintiff in the Hancock County case. After that experience, having seen the role Fleming played in pushing through the new law, he believes the attorney shouldn’t be able to perform both functions at once. “He’s become an adversary to the fundamental voting rights of the people in the county paying him,” Thornton said.
The county commission recently agreed, unanimously voting to sever ties with Fleming last month. About 55 miles northeast, the city of Washington is under pressure to do the same. Nathaniel Cullars, a city councilman for 17 years, called Fleming’s legislation “a slap in the face.” The two municipalities have paid Fleming’s law firm nearly $382,000 in the last three years alone.
Sara Tindall Ghazal has long been involved in elections, working for the Carter Center as an elections monitor and in other capacities abroad for more than a decade, and as the Democratic Party’s first voter protection director in 2018. She has testified to several legislative groups Fleming has chaired on elections and said he is “famous for gaslighting. He will twist your words, and use them to say you support a position you don’t.”
She says she has also noted a pattern of Fleming applauding or congratulating anyone appearing before these groups who has graduated or is wearing gear from the University of Georgia, of which he is an alumnus. These people are “generally white men,” Ghazal said. The idea: “We’re on the same team.” Anyone with a name of multiple syllables or otherwise “foreign” to his ear, he “deliberately butchers them,” Ghazal added. “He doesn’t even try to get it right—even if it’s someone who goes to every meeting.”
Similarly, Fleming responds to certain accents or patterns of speech by saying he doesn’t understand the speaker, said Representative Kimberly Alexander, a Democrat who also served on the election committee. “It’s a dog whistle. It’s a political and a racial thing,” said Alexander, who is Black.
Alexander’s day job is as an internal auditor, and she said that her concerns about the recently passed law extend beyond voter suppression, also including the costs the law will bring to the state’s local election boards and officials. At every meeting during deliberations, she asked for what’s known as a “fiscal note” for the bill’s many provisions. “He said there’s not going to be one, and the counties are going to pay for it.”
Alexander also recalled an instance where one version of a series of drafts of the bill was given to committee members only an hour before they met—“something I’ve never seen.” On another occasion, a meeting was called at the last minute, she said. “No one could keep up with what was going on.” One thing she also noticed: “When it was someone who doesn’t agree with him, he was condescending; he was interrupting. Whenever it was someone with conspiracy theories, he let them talk.”
Meanwhile, dozens of protesters gathered on Monday to demand that the Greensboro City Council also cut off Fleming. Greensboro, a small city where nearly two-thirds of the residents are Black, has spent $73,111 on Fleming since 2018. The council went into a closed session Monday night with the lawmaker and came out to announce that no decision had been reached. Katrina Breeding, a local resident and one of the organizers, said she would continue to march with her neighbors. “We should not be using taxpayer money to pay someone who has no respect for democracy or for us,” she said.