Triana Arnold James, Georgia, special election
Triana Arnold James, president of Georgia National Organization for Women. Photo credit: Triana Arnold James / Twitter

While the candidates in the Georgia Senate runoff campaign work to get votes in their corner, dozens of nonpartisan and community groups are making sure voters have the information they need about when, where, why, and how to vote. 

Typical voter turnout in a runoff election in Georgia is an abysmal 15 percent. Largely due to massive organizing efforts, turnout in this runoff has reached that level in just the first few days of early voting. Even organizations not usually seen as focused on voting rights are playing a key role.

In this episode, Triana Arnold James, president of Georgia National Organization for Women, talks with host Emily Levy about the massive effort to increase participation in the election that will determine the balance of power in the US Senate — and how you can get involved.

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Full Text Transcript:

Emily Levy: Welcome to the Scrutineers Series. I’m Emily Levy, founder and director of Scrutineers.org. I’m delighted to be collaborating with WhoWhatWhy.org to introduce a series of election protection podcasts designed to help you understand the risk to our elections from voter suppression to lack of security. We’ll be talking about what you can do to protect the voters and protect the votes. We’re training a fairness force to help make sure no one stops you from voting, and all votes are counted accurately.

Emily Levy: Early voting is underway in the all-important Georgia Senate runoff. While the candidates are campaigning, telling voters who to vote for and what is at stake, dozens of nonpartisan and community groups are working to make sure voters have the information they need about when, where, why, and how to vote. Groups outside of Georgia are supporting with handwritten postcards to voters, fundraising, and working to ensure that the election is fair and secure. My guest today is Triana Arnold James. She’s the president of the Georgia National Organization for Women, and is a NOW board director for the southern district. She’s a vocal advocate for the equal rights amendment and was a candidate for lieutenant governor of Georgia in 2018. Triana is a veteran and she’s also an accountant and auditor. Welcome, Triana. I’m so glad you’re with us today and thank you so much for taking time out at this really busy time.

Triana Arnold J…: Thank you, Emily, for having me. Thank you so much. I’m glad we were able to connect.

Emily Levy: I’m glad we were too, and thank you for your flexibility about that. I would love to hear what Georgia NOW’s piece of the puzzle is for the runoff. I think election work is not really what people think of when they think of the National Organization for Women. So, tell me how you’re involved.

Triana Arnold J…: Great. Where Georgia NOW comes in, and I bring my expertise in with that, is that I look at, number one, I’m from rural Georgia. Number two, I analyze the issues that we’re facing, that we’ve been facing since the ‘70s here in Georgia, especially when it comes to getting out the vote and voter suppression. With those challenges that I know and that I’m able to analyze, I bring notes to the National Organization for Women and say, ‘Okay, here’s how we could look at this. Here’s how we could do this a little bit better based on my history and experience.’ Came up with a strategy, mostly focusing on the rural areas, because I believe that the rural areas of Georgia is suffering the most and are often neglected.

Triana Arnold J…: I understand that the majority of votes are going to come from the main counties — Fulton, Cobb, DeKalb, Clayton, Henry County — those what we call the Black belt, but rural counties can help candidates basically get over the top, especially Democratic candidates, because that has been the strategy for a long time for Republican candidates. They focused on rural areas. That’s what we’ve done, and helping to get out the vote. We’ve done lit drops and text banking, phone banking. We have a whole strategy and I won’t give it too far away.

Emily Levy: Definitely not, no. Hold it close to the vest where you need to.

Triana Arnold J…: Yes.

Emily Levy: Can-

Triana Arnold J…: But we’re doing the work.

Emily Levy: So, what will January 5 look like for you and for your volunteers? What will be happening on that day that you can share with me?

Triana Arnold J…: We will get out the vote. We will make sure that people are exercising their right to vote. I think that it’s important that people do vote no matter who they vote for. I think it’s important that they exercise that right. There’s a lot of people that have died and worked hard for us to have this right to vote.

Emily Levy: Absolutely.

Triana Arnold J…: I think it’s just an obligation. I think it’s our duty to get out the vote and encourage others, too. I’m a super voter. I vote in every election. I even vote for dog catcher.

Emily Levy: Has dog catcher actually ever been on the ballot? People always use that as an example of the down-ballot race, but I don’t know if anybody actually does vote for dog catcher.

Triana Arnold J…: I think the things like the benefits of the humane society, the budget and things like that, anything that’s dealing with the humane society sometimes are on the ballot.

Emily Levy: Okay, that counts. We’ll go for that. We’ll go for that. So, there is so much activity in Georgia right now, so many groups working on the election because it’s hugely significant for Georgia and for the whole country. I’m wondering what you’ve seen that excites you most in this work for the runoff.

Triana Arnold J…: What has excited me the most is voter turnout. Voter turnout.

Emily Levy: It’s been really amazing.

Triana Arnold J…: That’s number one.

Emily Levy: Typical turnouts for-

Triana Arnold J…: Number two, young people-

Emily Levy: Typical turnout for a runoff, as I’ve heard is something like 15 percent, and the turnout already with just a few days of early voting having happened is, I believe, significantly over that.

Triana Arnold J…: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Because people are like, ‘You got my vote once. I’m not coming out again. That’s it. I’m done. Vote once and that’s it.’

Emily Levy: But not this time.

Triana Arnold J…: I’m glad that turnout is up. I’m glad that people have, I think it’s what? 2 million have requested absentee ballots. One of the other things that I’m excited about is young people. Young people are voting. We had 23,000 people that are turning 18 by January 5. There are different organizations that are helping to get our young people out to vote. If the young people are smart and in tune, they’re ready to change the world, and one of the ways they want to change the world is through their vote.

Emily Levy: Fantastic. With so many groups working on getting out the vote and making sure voters have the information they need, how are you making sure that everything is covered and there’s not a huge amount of duplication of efforts? Is there a good coordination happening between the groups on the ground?

Triana Arnold J…: There are, except when it comes to phone banking. I get about maybe on an average of 25 calls per day.

Emily Levy: Oh my gosh.

Triana Arnold J…: Per day. Of calls-

Emily Levy: This is to you as a voter, not you as the leader of NOW, right?

Triana Arnold J…: Yeah. Yeah. As a voter. Saying, ‘Hey, do you have a plan to vote? Are you going to vote? Who are you going to vote for?’ and all of that. So yeah, I get a good 25 calls per day. I think that that phone banking and text banking need to be streamlined, like once that person has been called they’re off the list, because every organization is pretty much sharing the same list. I could tell because there are some organizations, I may put my office phone number, but with the secretary of state, I have my cell number, which I hate that I did that and that will be changing. So, I get more calls on my cell phone than I do my office phone number, and so that’s why I could tell that. That just means it’s like you were sharing the same list, once that person has been called, check them off the list so they are not called again.

Emily Levy: Do you think there’s any hope for that coordination to happen?

Triana Arnold J…: No, unless we get the right people in the office.

Emily Levy: But for this election, there’s not. It’s just too late for that to happen.

Triana Arnold J…: No, no. I think that until January 5, I’m going to still get that many calls. I tried to even go through, because I have an iPhone, and silence my phone, but it’s silenced other calls that I need to get, and so I was like, ‘Okay, so that’s not working.’ But it needs to be fixed. The whole system needs to be fixed, from making sure that polling locations are open and available, making sure that the right amount of people is working, poll watchers, accountability, all of that needs to be overhauled,  way of doing things.

Emily Levy: I so agree with you. Speaking of that, I know you’ve really spoken about the importance of transparency and accountability. I’m wondering, as an accountant and an auditor, whether you consider the audit of the November election, which only looked at the votes in the presidential race, to have been a thorough audit? As an auditor, does that meet your criteria for what an actual audit is?

Triana Arnold J…: I believe it has. I wish we would have done this in 2016, but they recertified the recertification of the recertification of the certified of the election. So, they’ve done it like five times, especially here in Georgia, and so it could be tweaked a little bit better so that on day one we have accuracy. Well, when I say day one, I mean the day after the election, that is accurate. However, I believe that they’ve done it. They’ve done a pretty good job of auditing. I just wish we would’ve had it in 2016.

Emily Levy: I agree with you about when it comes to the presidential race and I don’t consider auditing one race to be a thorough audit of the election. I’d also really like the audits to include more than the auditing of the counting of the vote, but also the chain of custody, the procedures to make sure they’re in place, the tracking of the ballots that are used and unused, and all sorts of checks on the machines. So, I would really like to see a much more robust audit in Georgia than what you have. But I agree with you that when it comes to the presidential race, we know what the real results were of that race this time.

Triana Arnold J…: Well, we had that issue a couple of years ago in Gwinnett where there was a 443 difference in the 7th Congressional District race. That had to be audited and redone, not so much as people coming out to vote, but to recount after recount, and it turned up a difference in the vote. So, you’re absolutely right. Not only do we need to look at the top of the ticket, but we need to look at down-ballot races as well. You’re absolutely right, in a runoff most of the time, it’s 15 percent. That proved in the last runoff before the November election, during the primary, the primary runoff, in certain counties only 15 percent came out to vote.

Emily Levy: Yeah, we need a lot better turnout than that in every election. I think that the messages right now, at least that I’m hearing in national media, are really confusing because on one hand, I’m hearing from the Republican side, ‘Oh, there’s all this voter fraud.’ We know that those claims are false, that voter fraud is not a real problem in this country. And yet there are vulnerabilities with the system that are real, and those are not the ones that are being talked about, the vulnerabilities of the electronic system. That’s where, the way I see it, a lot more transparency is needed. What we’re doing at Scrutineers is getting a window into that black box of a system, that computerized election system that we can’t really see into it in very many ways, but there are some ways that we can and so we’re dispatching people to do that.

Emily Levy: So, for example, at the end of voting on election night when the machines are all shut down, the tabulators that count the votes in the polling places print out what’s called a poll tape that has the totals for that machine, and those are required by law to be hung on the outside of the door so the public can see the totals for each machine. We are actually dispatching people to as many polling places as we can to take pictures of those, because sometimes the vote counts change when they’re announced later and they absolutely shouldn’t. But if they do, then we have the original evidence of what the count was at the polling place. So, there’s things like that, that we can do to increase the transparency, even of a system that is not really designed to be transparent at all. I know transparency is something that you care about. I’m wondering if Georgia NOW is involved in any of that stuff yet?

Triana Arnold J…: No, not yet, but we do work towards holding people accountable and ask for documentation. We have had people be boots on the ground, and some of them, now I’ll take that back, some people are signing up. Some members are signing up to be poll watchers. In the past, we have gone to the polling location, taken a picture of the tape on the door and make sure, but it’s been more about — rather than transparency — has been more about the count, seeing who got the most votes that was on there. But it helped with transparency, because then if there’s a problem, people would know, ‘Hey, well, this is what it said on this day, and now it’s saying this. What is the problem?’

Emily Levy: Exactly.

Triana Arnold J…: And connecting the dots on that.

Emily Levy: So, one of the things we’re working on that I would love to connect with you more about when we’re not on this interview is if you’ve got poll watchers who are going to be out at the polling places, and we can teach them really quickly what the importance is of taking pictures of those poll tapes, and then we have a streamlined way for them to do it and upload it so that the totals can be compared. It’s only a few minutes more work for somebody who’s already at a polling place, and it could be really important. So, I would love to work with you on that, if that’s a possibility, and I think we can do it in a way that doesn’t make extra work for you.

Triana Arnold J…: Right. Definitely. Well, thank you. But definitely, definitely. I think that’s really important because people need to know. The public needs to know where we are and making sure that their vote has really been counted.

Emily Levy: Absolutely. It’s so, so important, and we need to increase the confidence that voters have in the election system. I know right now in Georgia among some voters it’s really low and the way to increase it, to my mind, isn’t just to tell people to trust it, but to show them that it’s accurate, and that’s what some of the things are that we’re trying to do.

Triana Arnold J…: Exactly. Exactly.

Emily Levy: So-

Triana Arnold J…: But I just want to say real quickly, but I can’t really get upset with one side saying that there’s voter fraud, because the other side in 2016 was saying the same thing, and was passionate about it. If you feel that way, then I think that that needs to be addressed. At the same time, accept it because everybody’s not going to be happy with an outcome of an election. Every four years we go through this, and so that’s why I said the whole system need an overhaul. But I do believe in what the, I can’t remember his name, but he said that this has been the most secure elections the United States have ever had. So, I do believe that he said, I believe that they learned lessons from 2016 and made sure that we had a secure election, but I don’t believe that everybody has total confidence in the election count.

Emily Levy: Yeah. I agree with you that not everybody has confidence. I think Chris Krebs is the person that said that-

Triana Arnold J…: Yes, yes.

Emily Levy: … that you’re referring to. Yeah. I absolutely agree with you that the system needs a total overhaul. I feel like I don’t have enough information to know whether this was the most secure election in US history. I have my doubts about whether it was, but I believe — especially because the margin of victory was so huge for the Biden-Harris campaign — that we know for sure that they won. There are some other races that I feel like really need to be looked into more around the country. So, I hope that that will happen and some of my colleagues are looking into some of those. But, so, is the number of phone calls that you as a voter are getting every day, is that an indication that there are plenty of volunteers or are more volunteers still needed?

Triana Arnold J…: I think there’s an imbalance between all of the campaigns in that one or two campaigns are doing the most and other campaigns are not. So, I think that volunteers are still needed, but I think it needs to be balanced.

Emily Levy: Okay. What about when it comes to the nonpartisan groups? Do they have enough help or are they still looking for more volunteers?

Triana Arnold J…: I think they’re still looking for volunteers.

Emily Levy: How can people volunteer with Georgia NOW? Are there tasks that you need people to do?

Triana Arnold J…: Always. Always.

Emily Levy: All right. Let’s talk about how people can reach you and how they can help.

Triana Arnold J…: Yeah. They can go to Georgia dash Now. Georgia is all spelled out, N-O-W.org and hit the contact button and say, ‘Hey, I would like to volunteer.’ We put them on the volunteer list and we have a volunteer check-in every Wednesday to see where people are, see how they’re doing, self-care, check up on people. That’s one thing that I love that I do. All of the volunteers that we have, we do this volunteer check-in just to check on everybody, to see how everybody’s doing. Not to talk about more tasks or talk about the election and things like that. It’s just to check and see, ‘Hey, how you doing? How you holding up? Are you doing self-care? Are you taking care of your family?’ Things like that. Those are the things that we talk about every Wednesday on the volunteer check-in. But we do-

Emily Levy: Thank you for doing that. That’s so important. Such an important piece.

Triana Arnold J…: Yeah. But we do need boots on the ground and that’s important. We got people phone banking and text banking, and we can always use more of that, but we need boots on the ground. We need people that’s going to do lit drops and put out signs and things like that. And talk to voters face-to-face. Well, of course, with a mask on.

Emily Levy: Mask-to-mask. Talk to voters mask-to-mask. And so that-

Triana Arnold J…: Your mask is for me, and my mask is for you.

Emily Levy: That’s right. That’s right. And so voters who are on the ground in Georgia can do some things, but it sounds like the text banking and phone banking could be done even by people who are out of state who care about the election.

Triana Arnold J…: Oh yeah, definitely. And writing postcards. Yeah.

Emily Levy: Great. I know that there’s still time to do some of that, and I hope that people will volunteer. We also, at Scrutineers, are just starting an idea where people can sponsor a precinct so they can help cover the costs of doing the election protection work at a precinct that needs to happen. If folks want to know how they can sponsor a precinct, they can go to scrutineers.org. Anything else you want to share with our audience before we finish up and let you go back to your meeting?

Triana Arnold J…: I know. I know. No, just thank you so much. Thank you for allowing this opportunity and working with me on my time. It’s just been crazy since early voting started on Monday and little sleep, but that’s okay, because come January 6 I’m going to sleep all day. All day.

Emily Levy: Okay, Triana, I have to ask you, even though it’s not Wednesday, are you taking care of yourself? Because you look after your volunteers in that way. How can we help you be able to take care of yourself while you’re doing this work?

Triana Arnold J…: I can do better. I can do better.

Emily Levy: I know it’s really a challenge, and I hope that you find in yourself permission to give yourself that, because we need you. We need you for a long time and to be healthy, as healthy as you can be, and as well-enough rested as you can be. You do need to sleep sometime between now and January 6. There are lots of people helping. So, it’s not all on your shoulders. I appreciate how much you’re stepping up to take responsibility and take leadership.

Triana Arnold J…: Thank you so much.

Emily Levy: My guest today has been Triana Arnold James, president of the Georgia National Organization for Women. Thank you so very much for joining us and especially for taking the time in this busy, busy season and for all the work you’re doing for Georgia and the country. Thanks so much. For Georgia and the country.

Triana Arnold J…: Thank you.

Emily Levy: You can find rough transcripts of each episode at whowhatwhy.org/podcast. You’re invited to get involved in the election protection movement by joining scrutineers@scrutineers.org. That’s S-C-R-U-T-I-N-E-E-R-S dot O-R-G. Whether you’re a seasoned activist or advocate or have never before worked for social justice, you are welcome. Both WhoWhatWhy and Scrutineers depend on your support to keep our work going. If you appreciate what we do, please donate through our websites. You’ll find WhoWhatWhy at whowhatwhy.org/donate. Remember to check your voter registration and help others do the same, and vote in every election. Thanks for listening.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from New Jersey National Guard / Flickr and Scrutineers.

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