On Aug. 12, state House District 117 Democratic Candidate Mokah Jasmine-Johnson was having a terrible day. Her father had just died three days earlier.
Then her campaign staff informed her they received word of a pointed survey circulated around the Athens-Clarke County community that included a statement claiming she had been convicted of a felony, spent time in prison and convinced a judge to cover it all up.
“The first thing [I thought] was … they really going to attack me because I’m vulnerable right now because I had a death in my family?” Jonhson said. “The second thing I thought was ‘this is just lies,’ but I expected, as a Black woman running for office, for them to try and do something or say something, or discredit me in some shape or form. But to do it in the way they did it? It was disgusting to me.”
Johnson and her campaign have denied the allegations. They fear the survey might negatively impact her race for the seat against incumbent Republican State Rep. Houston Gaines this November. Now, the campaign said it is considering taking legal action against the group who disseminated the survey, The Voter Survey.
On Aug. 20, Johnson posted her side of the story on her campaign website, saying the question was referring to a now-expunged and inaccurately-recorded misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession from over two decades ago. The Voter Survey has not issued a statement in response.
“I went through hell over $5 worth of weed, and I wasn't even a direct purchaser,” Johnson said. “I'm not ashamed of it.”
Setting the record straight
Johnson explained the charge on her campaign website and answered additional questions from The Red & Black about her story.
In 1995, Johnson was driving home from Dayton Beach Community College to Orlando, Fl. when her boyfriend, unbeknownst to her, made a stop in Stanford, Fl. to buy some marijuana. Johnson said the seller turned out to be an undercover police officer, and the two were arrested. Johnson was 20 years old at the time.
“All I know is that I was in the car, he said he had to make a stop,” Johnson said. “The next thing you know, I see cops coming out of everywhere, and I’m like ‘What is happening?’ It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced.”
Johnson said she completed community service hours through a local pretrial diversion program instead of going to prison. She was charged with a misdemeanor offense.
Three years later, when Johnson was trying to buy a house, she was denied because of her criminal record. After traveling back to Stanford, Johnson said a local judge told her the charge was falsely recorded as a felony.
The judge told Johnson it would be easier to have her record expunged rather than hire an attorney to correct her record. Johnson said she expunged her record about three years after the arrest.
“The fact is Mokah never served time in prison. She never served time for anything,” Johnson’s campaign manager Aditya Krishnaswamy said.
Johnson and her campaign declined to share corroborating documentation to verify her story with The Red & Black because they are considering filing a lawsuit against The Voter Survey.
However, with the election less than two months away and knowing little information about the group, Johnson said the decision rests on whether or not The Voter Survey continues distributing these surveys.
When initially told by her campaign about the survey questions, Johnson said she didn’t feel like going into her private business. Now, she has changed her mind.
“But you know what, I’m going to go into it because, anything that they try to come at me for, there’s nothing in my past, my present that I’m ashamed of. My mistakes have made me a stronger person. Why should I have to tell you my business to prove you wrong? But okay. Now, I want to set the record straight.”
The Johnson campaign said it suspects “hundreds, if not thousands” of people in the Athens community have received the survey. Five survey recipients reached out to the Johnson campaign to alert them to the survey directly.
Based on the wording of several survey questions, Johnson said she believed it was disseminated to support the Gaines campaign.
“I do think it's people that are supporting his campaign. But I want to say I directly think they are aware [of who is behind the survey], and it's directly tied to them,” Johnson said. “Not too many things that happened with my campaign that I do not know about.”
In response to the survey, the Gaines campaign issued a statement on Aug. 17 on Houston Gaines’ Facebook page, saying the campaign hasn’t conducted polling and touted his record on criminal justice reform.
“I’d like to confirm that despite false claims, my campaign has not conducted polling of any kind this election cycle,” Gaines’s statement read.
However, the Mokah for Georgia campaign wasn’t satisfied with the statement.
“The fact is that he still did not denounce the racist dog whistle. He hasn't corrected the record at all,” said Krishnaswamy. “We just want them to say whether they know who was involved in these dirty attacks, and then condemn the smear campaign, which they’ve not done either.”
The Gaines campaign did not respond to The Red & Black’s multiple follow-up emails, asking if the campaign had any involvement or knowledge about The Voter Survey.
Surveying The Voter Survey
The Red & Black has not been able to attach a managing organization or an individual's name, phone number or email address directly to The Voter Survey. The Red & Black has not been able to find any associated business or nonprofit filings or make contact with the organization.
The Voter Survey’s Facebook page markets itself as a market research consultant organization based out of Montgomery, Al. The page is largely empty and doesn’t show any associated phone numbers, email addresses or employee names. All of the page's publicly-visible activity is dated May 20.
“We are a public opinion research company that helps policy makers, campaigns, corporations, and nonprofits better understand what voters are thinking and feeling,” the May 20 Facebook post said.
The Red & Black obtained and reviewed screenshots of the survey taken from two Oconee County residents in mid-August. The residents answered the survey over the phone and were sent links to the survey by what appears to be a textbot.
Standards Committee Chair Timothy Triplett of the American Association for Public Opinion Research said this survey might be a push poll — an unethical telemarketing political campaign disguised as a political survey that seeks to “push” a narrative. The AAPOR is a leading public opinion and survey research professional organization. Triplett said he would need to investigate further but the survey was a worthy candidate for investigation.
Triplett said the high number of potential people surveyed and the personal questions bring some legitimacy to the survey, but The Voter Survey’s lack of transparency and pointed questions could be violations of AAPOR’s code of conduct.
“This one is tricky because it really does sound like it's at least a part of it is a legitimate survey, but they are working into their questionnaire some questions that the intent is not to use them for analysis; their intent is to simply influence the person’s opinions about a candidate,” Triplett said. “But we'd have to investigate and prove that.”
When Oconee Resident Jeralee Mornhinweg took the survey in mid-August, the phone operator gave her the impression this was a generic survey, she said. When they started asking questions about Johnson, she said it became clear that the survey was biased.
Mornhinweg said the phone operator knew her name, and she had received a text message with a link to the survey from The Voter Survey a few days before. Mornhinweg said the experience made her more likely to vote for Johnson in the election.
“Now that I know the whole story, I’m even more frustrated that, A, my time was wasted on that survey and, B, there was a malicious lie attached to it, so I’m much more likely to vote for her now because … it was a lie,” she said. “Voters were being told something untrue.”