My name is Aunna Dennis. My family’s roots in the state of Georgia go back generations — my grandmother used to come to sock hops in the same Atlanta building, where I now work as Executive Director of Common Cause Georgia: A nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy.
When Georgia voters are disenfranchised, it feels personal for me. And when wealthy special interests use their millions to illegally and secretly coordinate with politicians and drown out the voices of everyday Georgians, that is something I cannot take lying down.
I became a community organizer at the age of 10, becoming known in my Atlanta community as the “Petition Girl.” Even at that age, I was able to clearly see discrepancies and discrimination happening around my state and resolved to do something about it.
In Georgia, as is the case with many other Southern states, much of our existing infrastructure is a relic of systemic racism. Wealthy special interests have an outsized voice in our politics, a fact that has led to a widespread feeling among citizens of this state, particularly Black Georgians, that our voices have little chance of being heard. This feeling rings especially true in light of a recent series of events that spurred me to action.
Early in 2021, it was mentioned at a political event that a nonprofit corporation called True the Vote had formed a “partnership” with the Georgia Republican Party to assist with the ongoing runoff elections for both of our U.S. Senate seats.
This “assistance,” which included challenging voter eligibility, monitoring drop boxes and other election-related activity, was a blatant violation of the federal laws that prevent corporate entities like True the Vote — that do not disclose their funding sources and thus prevent voters from knowing who is behind the work they do — from providing political parties with contributions in the form of services or goods (what are known as “in-kind” contributions).
This activity also came amid a uniquely high-stakes election, when Georgians from across the political spectrum were becoming engaged at a rate rarely seen.
Following the contentious 2020 election, amid races being called by razor thin margins and (false) cries of stolen elections, our Senate runoffs were going to decide which party controlled the chamber for the next two years.
As facts continued to emerge, I became increasingly frustrated and disappointed. This was the type of opaque and illegal activity I have worked most of my life to protect Georgia voters from.
Seeing the state Republican party and this nonprofit so blatantly disregard the law — they even put out press releases detailing their partnership and activities — made it clear to my colleagues and me that machinery designed to keep power in the hands of the few was not a thing of the past.
It was also clear that the state GOP and True the Vote not only did not care that they were in violation of the law’s transparency requirements and restrictions, but they were so open about their coordination that they clearly did not expect to face repercussions.
The ease and openness with which they executed this scheme can be directly tied to the (in)action of yet another structure that allows wealthy special interests to exercise an outsized voice in our democracy, the Federal Election Commission or FEC.
The FEC is responsible for enforcing the laws that govern our federal elections, but the fecklessness of the Commission has caused the system to break down.
Instead of working for the people or investigating potential violations of law, like the undisclosed coordinated spending that took place between the Georgia Republican Party and True the Vote, the FEC regularly deadlocks and dismisses cases in which their own staff attorneys recommend finding reason to believe the law was violated.
Common Cause Georgia filed an administrative complaint with the FEC in March of 2021, joined by Campaign Legal Center Action. Our complaint alleged that, in its work for the state GOP, True the Vote violated the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), making what amounted to prohibited in-kind contributions. We also alleged that the Georgia Republican Party violated FECA by accepting these in-kind contributions and failing to report them.
Despite clear evidence that the law was violated and against the recommendation of the FEC’s Office of General Counsel, the FEC’s commissioners dismissed our complaint in August of 2022.
Two of the commissioners who voted to dismiss our complaint claimed that True the Vote’s activities, including the trainings, hotlines and actions challenging the eligibility of hundreds of thousands of Georgia voters, were not undertaken “for the purpose of influencing an election,” and thus were not covered by FECA.
Knowing the history of my community, I could not let this stand. We have countless stories from throughout our history of folks not being able to make significant contributions to our society or have meaningful access to the democratic process.
Seeing the very institution that is supposed to prevent corruption allow a major political party to accept unlimited help from a nonprofit corporation in the form of valuable election-related services spurred me to further action.
Joining once again with Campaign Legal Center Action as our counsel, we brought a lawsuit against the FEC in October 2022, in order to ensure that the FEC properly enforces the law and does not allow parties to coordinate on election-related expenditures with supposedly “independent” corporate entities without paying for those services or disclosing them as in-kind contributions.
On September 29 of 2023, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in our favor, agreeing that the FEC unlawfully dismissed our allegations against the Georgia GOP and True the Vote.
While this case is still ongoing, a message has been sent loud and clear to organizations that may be thinking of undertaking similar measures — you cannot throw sand in the faces of voters and create your own playground in Georgia.