Exclusive: Georgia lawmaker runs secret election-conspiracy Telegram channel

<span>Bridget Thorne has a vote on appointments to the board of registration and elections, budgeting and some policies.</span><span>Illustration: Javier Palma/Fulton County/The Guardian</span>
Bridget Thorne has a vote on appointments to the board of registration and elections, budgeting and some policies.Illustration: Javier Palma/Fulton County/The Guardian

A Fulton county commissioner in Georgia has been operating a private Telegram channel for years, propagating debunked claims about the 2020 election, and spreading accusations of crimes by county employees, including Ruby Freeman, an election worker defamed by Rudy Giuliani in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2020 loss.

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Bridget Thorne, a Republican representing the relatively conservative cities of Fulton county north of Atlanta, indirectly identifies herself as the creator and administrator of the Fulton County Elections channel on Telegram, a mobile messaging platform, in multiple posts to its page. The channel uses the official logo of the Fulton county board of registration and elections.

The channel, created in May 2021, had 133 subscribers as of Tuesday night. The Guardian learned of its existence from Marisa Pyle, an Atlanta-based political organizer.

In a post from 14 February, the administrator of the page accused Freeman, a former Fulton county elections worker, of misconduct, despite a Georgia elections board finding that all of the conspiracy theories about her were “false and unsubstantiated”.

“We clearly see her double scanning ballots,” the channel administrator wrote about Freeman, a regular target of attention on the Telegram page. “We see her incriminating Facebook posts. Yet, she is made to be a victim and given hero awards.”

Rudy Giuliani repeatedly attacked Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss, suggesting without evidence that they had committed crimes during the 2020 election. Investigators from the Georgia secretary of state’s office quickly debunked the accusations, but Giuliani continued to make them throughout his campaign to overturn the election, leading to a $148m defamation judgment against him in December. Freeman and Moss were the target of rampant harassment and threats because of the misinformation.

Thorne confirmed in an email to the Guardian that she started the Telegram channel in 2021 “initially for a private archive of events”, but said she is “no longer the primary administrator, nor do I regularly contribute to the conversations found within”. She said the channel was “made private for safety reasons (after receiving online death threats and threatening anonymous mail)”.

“I have never stated that Ms Freeman committed any crime or election fraud,” Thorne said. She did not respond directly to a question about whether she posted the lines above. However, Thorne said: “It should be noted that last summer, the state board of elections provided a public reprimand and letter of instruction to Fulton county after the 2020 election specifically noting that ballots were double-scanned. My position has been and will remain that any concerns raised during any election should be thoroughly investigated.”

The post about Freeman under the Telegram channel’s administrator account is dated 14 February 2024. A subsequent post in March is self-referential to Thorne: “Oh look! They must have had an earthquake in Union City. My picture along with Hall’s came crashing down in the election warehouse. Somehow in the crash, the actual picture was destroyed.” The March post accompanies an image of a wall of pictures of county commissioners – Thorne’s is the only photo missing in the picture.

Thorne is one of two Republicans elected to Fulton county’s seven-member board of commissioners. She has a vote on appointments to the Fulton county board of registration and elections, election office budgeting and some county policies regarding elections administration.

Pyle has been pseudonymously subscribed to the channel since its inception and saw Thorne’s posts. “After the 2020 election, I subscribed to as many election-denial channels on Telegram and other platforms as I could, to keep track of things,” she said.

Pyle had until recently been the rapid response director for Fair Fight Action, a progressive voting-rights organization founded by Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia representative. Fair Fight and rightwing groups claiming election fraud were mutually antagonistic in Georgia even before the 2020 election, a point Thorne herself has regularly noted in posts on the channel.

The Fulton County Elections channel went private after Thorne’s election in November 2022, Pyle said. Pyle, now the senior democracy defense manager with the voting rights group All Voting Is Local, exposed posts from the group on X last week after the unexpected resignation of Patrice Perkins-Hooker, the Fulton county elections board chair, who has taken a position as Atlanta’s interim city attorney.

“The way in which she is consistently accusing Fulton county and election staff and the state and voters of malfeasance, she has very directly demeaned her own staff, she has accused people within the county of conspiring against her,” Pyle said.

Though she can only identify a handful of other people who are following Thorne’s Telegram channel, every time Thorne posts something on the page, other election-conspiracy pages Pyle follows repost it, Pyle said. “She may have the first amendment right to do this, but that is not immunity from it causing repercussions and harm to democracy,” Pyle said. “That delegitimizes the position she holds.”

The Guardian initially verified the authenticity of Thorne’s posts by examining Pyle’s device to access the Telegram channel directly.

Thorne’s posts on the page level accusations of mismanagement against elections office staff and others. “Fulton Elections Director Nadine Williams and [elections board] Chair Patrice Perkins Hooker creating a hostile environment for anyone observing the polls. … why?” Thorne wrote. “Do they have something to hide? They should be rolling out the red carpet for observers.”

Thorne has repeatedly called for the firing of previous and current elections office staff workers, including Williams.

After being made aware of the contents of the Telegram page, Williams said she had never heard Thorne call for her firing directly before, and is concerned about the impact Thorne may have had on recruiting and retaining poll workers. “It does make for an environment that people are uncomfortable in our department, knowing that that person is not working with Fulton but is working against Fulton,” Williams said.

Much of Thorne’s ire targets temporary elections workers contracted through Happy Faces, a staffing firm the Fulton county elections board ultimately dropped, and other temporary workers. She pointedly and repeatedly noted the apparent Nigerian citizenship of an IT staffer. The IT staffer Thorne referred to is an American citizen, county officials confirmed Thursday.

“Current Georgia law requires poll workers to be United States citizens,” Thorne said in an email Thursday. “I think this is a perfectly reasonable policy and I wish it would have passed last year. To that end, I think I am well within bounds to question whether Fulton county can comply with that law once it takes effect.”

Thorne, a Republican, has presented in public statements her concerns about the integrity of the 2020 election in Fulton county as a nonpartisan matter, and avoided describing the election as stolen or fraudulent. “It just seems like every year, Fulton county is a mess,” she said in comments before the Fulton county board of elections in March 2022. “I just want to reiterate that I’m not here as a partisan figure. I’m just listening to anyone who will hear my concerns.”

Her comments on the private Telegram channel are not so restrained.

Thorne has regularly posted articles during the last three years from fringe and far-right publications like the Epoch Times claiming election fraud in Fulton county and elsewhere around the country. Between the inception of the page in May 2021 and her election in November 2022, Thorne reposted videos and articles by VoterGa, an activist group founded by Garland Favorito, a far-right conspiracy theorist who continues to press debunked claims about the 2020 election in court and the media.

Thorne also sought to recruit poll workers through her contacts on the page, using claims of fraud as a rallying cry. “We are in a pivotal time in our country, and we need YOU to stand up NOW,” she wrote. “Voting is not ENOUGH. Freedom is not FREE. YOU can help end the corruption, illegal conduct, and incompetence in Fulton County Elections and restore trust and faith in our system again.”

In a 21 March 2022 post, Thorne – as administrator of the channel – wrote a first-person post describing the reasons for her candidacy for the Fulton county commission: “I decided that maybe I could be more effective in fighting for election integrity by running for District 1 Commissioner. Instead of fighting them from the outside, I can fight from the inside. I can ask the tough questions. I can force them to be transparent. I hope that you can help me.” The post is followed by a link to Thorne’s campaign website.

Later in May 2022, Thorne posted a recruiting document from Fight Voter Fraud, a Connecticut-based rightwing election advocacy group seeking to raise a “secret army” in Georgia to conduct research on voters the group has “deemed questionable”.

Thorne rose to political prominence as an employee of the Fulton county elections office during the 2020 election. A software engineer, she was a Fulton county precinct manager and Dominion-trained poll worker who helped test and set up election equipment in 2020. She claimed that ballots had been mishandled, and before the November 2020 election reported her observations first to elections staff in Fulton county, then to the secretary of state’s office.

She then went on social media with rightwing Tea Party organizations and appeared on Fox News to describe a “haphazard” process for handling absentee ballots, and to argue that elections officials were ignoring mistakes. On 3 December 2020, Thorne testified to her observations at a hearing at the Georgia state senate, the same one at which Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani had been pressing a case to overturn the election.

Giuliani’s arguments to overturn the 2020 election at this hearing are one element of the racketeering case for election interference brought against him, Trump and 17 others in Fulton county.

After the testimony, Richard Barron, the Fulton county elections director, ordered that Thorne and Suzi Voyles, another elections office employee who had been publicly critical of the election, not be rehired for the runoff election in January 2021 – effectively firing them. Barron’s office said the women had committed infractions like taking prohibited cellphone photographs and improperly showing ballots to a poll monitor. But Republican political figures across the state – including Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state – exploded at the firing of two whistleblowers, issuing condemnations of Fulton county and demanding they be rehired.

Lawmakers subsequently appointed Carter Jones as an outside observer to review the county’s elections processes. County commissioners eventually fired Barron. Jones declared in June 2021 that Fulton county’s elections operation was rife with sloppiness, mismanagement and disorganization, but wasn’t engaged in malfeasance, dishonesty or fraud.