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‘It’s Crazy Town.’ Georgia Election Official Gabriel Sterling on Calling Out Trump, Battling Misinformation, and Smoking His Own Meat

9 minute read

Gabriel Sterling is over it. The Georgia election official spent two hours on Friday watching videos of poll workers counting ballots in order to debunk yet another baseless claim of voter fraud in Georgia by President Donald Trump. He’s been doing this for weeks. By now, it’s “the most annoying game of whack-a-mole you can imagine,” Sterling told TIME on Friday. The same day, the Trump campaign and Georgia Republican Party Chairman David Shafer filed a lawsuit attempting to invalidate election results in Georgia state court.

Sterling is the state’s voting system implementation manager—usually a behind-the-scenes kind of job—in Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office. That low profile has changed since Georgia has fallen squarely in the national spotlight, both for its tight presidential race, which President-elect Joe Biden won by just 12,670 votes, and the two Senate runoff races on Jan. 5 that will determine the control of Congress’ upper chamber.

Sterling’s frequent press conferences over the last month, which typically unpack granular election data, took on a more emotional tone and caught national attention earlier this week as he pleaded for Trump to “stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence” and spoke out about threats faced by election workers, including himself, and democracy at large.

“I’m going to do my best to keep it together. Because it has all gone too far. All of it,” Sterling said during a Dec. 1 press conference in Atlanta. “Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed. It’s not right.”

Trump is arriving in Georgia this weekend to show his support for Republican Senate candidates Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. The President and both candidates have called on Raffensperger—Sterling’s boss—to resign, citing without evidence that he “failed to deliver honest and transparent elections.”

“My best guess is the President said if y’all don’t do this I’m going to send out a Tweet and kill your campaign,” Sterling says, speculating why the candidates may have made those allegations against his boss. He disagrees with them, but says that he is still voting for Perdue and Loeffler “because the alternative is not good for the country.”

Sterling spoke with TIME about the sudden scrutiny on Georgia, the dangerous effect of misinformation spread by the President and what he does to unwind.

The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

TIME: Did you anticipate being thrust into the national spotlight?

My title is “voting system implementation manager.” There was no path in the universe where I should be media anything. This should be the most boring bureaucrat job on the planet. So no, I did not see that coming.

I want to unpack a few things you said at a press conference earlier this week. Why not just stick to the numbers and updates? Why did you feel you had to speak out about threats to election workers and democracy at large?

About an hour-and-a-half before the press conference, I got a call from a project manager at Dominion Voting Systems and she was audibly shaken. One of their young contractors was being harassed—a video of conspiracy theorists recording him going about his job saying that he was manipulating votes made its way on to Twitter. I’m scrolling through and I see comments naming him, saying he has committed treason and “may God have mercy on your soul” with a gif of a slightly slow swinging noose. And I’m like—I was done. I was pissed off. This is just a kid who took a job—just an election worker, like hundreds and thousands of election workers in this country.

At the press conference you said, “If you take a position of leadership, show some,” and asked for the President and Senators to condemn baseless allegations of fraud and threats against election officials. What does demonstrating leadership look like for YOU? and why do you think so few Republicans have spoken out on the matter?

Leadership is supposed to look like grown-ups in the room saying: I know you’re upset, but this is the reality. I’ve had a lot of elected officials come to me and say, “We’re with you. We get it. We don’t recognize the party.” And I’m like well, you know you could do something.

On one hand you have pro-Trump lawyers telling Georgia Republicans not to vote in the Senate runoffs, even as Trump is campaigning for the duo in a rally this weekend. Do you think it may result in lower voter turnout, especially for Republicans, in such a crucial election?

What other outcome could there be? Here’s the real irony: there’s a run-off on Jan. 5, so pro-Trump lawyers Sidney Powell and Lin Wood are down here saying don’t vote, don’t trust the system and they’re supposed to be on Trump’s team and Trump’s supposed to be a Republican and he’s coming down here on Saturday to support the Republican Senate candidates. None of it makes sense. It’s crazy town. (Trump has reportedly told Wood to “knock it off,” a source briefed on the discussion told POLITICO.)

What does debunking claims entail?

It’s the most annoying game of whack-a-mole you can imagine. Every time you knock one down, another one comes up. The first big false claim was that Dominion voting machines were flipping or deleting votes. Our state did a risk-limiting audit on the presidential race and we found the machines did exactly what they were intended to do.

From Lin Wood saying you are selling votes to China to baseless accusations that Dominion voting machines are flipping votes— how do you deal with the abundant misinformation and distortion of reality on the job?

I’m glad that I do not drink dark liquor. You soldier on.

You asked the President to “stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence.” Do you worry you’re putting a target on your back? How have you and your family dealt with safety concerns?

I didn’t at the time because I was operating from my gut level at that point. I already had police protection outside my house. So I think a part of me was like, why not. For most of my family it’s been a point of pride. There are some nut jobs out there. There’s always a possibility, but I’m not going to let it control what I do.

You and Brad Raffensperger are both proud Republicans. How do you balance your personal political preferences with how you carry out the job? Does this last month change your impression of Trump? Did you vote for him?

You have a sworn duty to uphold the laws of Georgia and that’s what we do. People are talking about the legislature stepping in and appointing electors: that is not acceptable. That’s not going to happen.

As far as Trump goes, yes, I voted for him because I didn’t like the alternative. You hope people grow. My best guess is that he is going to continue to deny. I figured he would double down because that’s what Trump does. He retweeted a video spreading baseless allegations of voter fraud. He then went on to do a long speech where he said a series of things that have shown to be debunked. But he’s President, so people listen to him and believe him.

You have frequently referred to the Nov. 3 election as the “most secure election in the history of the state of GA and the history of the U.S.” What makes you so confident?

A paper trail is the biggest single thing we’ve got. We know we didn’t have any hacks. We’ve gone through and done audits on randomly selected machines. We went through training and training and training. We slayed the dragon of long lines. The average wait was three minutes. Seventy-five percent of our voting was done with a ballot-marking device, which means the voter intent was absolutely known—there’s no ambiguity. We have thousands of trained poll workers. Everything we’ve investigated so far has proven to be minor or incorrect. There’s just no proof anywhere of some conspiracy.

What can we expect going into the Senate run-offs? With such a high percentage of absentee ballots expected to come in, when can we expect to see results?

Depending on the margin and turnout, there’s a possibility it may take a few days because remember: we have Friday until after the election for people to cure their absentee ballots and verify provisional ballots, as well as for overseas military ballots to come in. We have had more than one million absentee ballots requested so far and early voting starts in 10 days.

It’s been a stressful month to say the least. How do you unwind?

I make my own bacon from scratch and I smoke meat, which takes a long time. This weekend I did a small brisket. I have 7.5 pound slab of pork belly that I put a dry brine on eight days ago in the fridge I’m going to take it out wash it off air dry it for two to three days in the fridge. Then I will smoke it using maple wood.

You’ve been described in the news as a policy wonk. Is that how you see yourself?

Abso-freaking-lutely. I’m a detail-oriented, wonky, get-in-the-weeds, nuts-and-bolts, how-do-things-actually-work kind of guy. I’ve always felt like if you’re going to be in policy, you have to know what it actually means on the ground.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com