Sara Tindall Ghazal: Protecting Voters and Building Bridges to Democracy

11 mins read
Sara Tindall Ghazal and family,, Running for State House

When meeting Sara Tindall Ghazal, candidate for Georgia’s House District 45, you can’t help but notice her intelligence, thoughtfulness and calm presence. She is the leader you want to have in the midst of a crisis. As a former conflict resolution and democracy building specialist for The Carter Center, Sara has survived a rebel invasion in Liberia and attended peace conferences in Africa with former President Jimmy Carter and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who she later described as “one of the most beautiful human spirits I have ever been blessed to interact with.”

In Liberia, on behalf of The Carter Center, she led a massive election observation project in the aftermath of the First Liberian Civil War. It was a six-month assignment that lasted two years. Sara’s role was to support local groups and leaders with their projects and help them cement democratic norms and democratic governance. “You can’t separate conflict resolution and elections, because conflict happens when there is insufficient outlet for democratic participation by a group or a population. An election is generally the best outcome and resolution for a conflict because it allows that outlet and allows that expression and participation.”

With the Economic Community of West African States Peacekeepers assigned to the checkpoint near her apartment in Monrovia, Liberia, 1998.

“What happened at the border?”

Was she ever in danger while in Africa? “Well, I had to leave a couple of times due to conflict.” Then there was that time “I was caught in a cross border rebel incursion with a group of civilians,” Sara said calmly.

Sara explained that she and her team were in a hotel right next to the UN compound. At 2 a.m. the shooting started. When the sun came up, the fighting was still heavy. They lay face down on the hotel floor. “The dust from the rounds hitting the windowsill over my head is a memory that has really crystallized in my head.” Later, the rebels took Sara and her group at gunpoint. They made their way to a hospital and hid there. Then the government came in and took control “but they were far more threatening and more frightening than the rebels.”

About 30 hours later the United Nations arrived with a helicopter to transport the expats. Sara still had her local staff with her, and because she had hidden her keys from the rebels, they had a car. At that moment, Sara had to make one of the most difficult decisions of her life. Should she go in the car with her staff or take the helicopter out? It was a deeply emotional, moral dilemma. Sara discussed the situation with her staff. They told her to take the helicopter — having an American woman in their car could put them all in danger as they made their way through the checkpoints on their way home. Reluctantly, Sara agreed and got into the UN helicopter.

During her two years in Liberia, Sara built lasting partnerships and personal relationships. In fact, on the day she arrived, she met her future husband, Patrick Ghazal, an engineer, and two years later they left together for Sara’s home state of Georgia. That day happened to be Election Day, 2000. Sara had been discussing America’s Electoral College with people from other countries, explaining how a presidential candidate could win the popular vote yet still lose the election. “In America, states have more power than individuals,” she explained. Coincidentally, the winner of the popular vote losing the Electoral College is exactly what happened when she returned to the United States in 2000 (and has now happened five times in US history).

“Our own democracy is not as healthy and robust as I had previously assumed.”

Back in Georgia with her “two dogs, two cats, two kids and one husband,” Sara is now running for office. Over the past four years, Ghazal has come to recognize that “our own democracy is not as healthy and robust as I had previously assumed.” For this eighth-generation Georgian who has always believed in the ideals America represents, this realization was disillusioning and disturbing.

In addition, Donald Trump’s vicious attacks on immigrants personally affected Sara’s family. Her husband is originally from Lebanon. “Attending Patrick’s naturalization ceremony in 2004 was a life-changing event for me. It made me appreciate both how truly exceptional the American experience is — and how hard we need to work to ensure that all Americans enjoy equitable access to opportunity.”

The First Voter Protection Director of the DPG

In 2018, Sara Tindall Ghazal left The Carter Center to become the first Voter Protection Director of the Democratic Party of Georgia (DPG). Sara was the first to hold this full-time role not only in Georgia but in any state political party. With her extensive experience in conflict resolution and democracy building and her law degree from Emory, Ghazal was the ideal choice.

Sara explains that prior to 2018, Democratic state parties began their voter registration and protection efforts just two months before an election: “By the time you’re two months out, the damage is already done.” She also stated, ”There are political parties who know their platforms aren’t strong enough to win and the only way they can win is to make sure their opponents don’t have the opportunity to cast their ballot.” 

What appeared to be voter suppression efforts were already rampant when Sara stepped into the job. Georgia had already lost more than 200 polling places in the last six years. And Republicans had been closing poll locations in Black communities for a long time before that. “Once pre-clearance [part of the Voting Rights Act] was gone, then Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp developed and sent around a manual to counties describing how to close polls and pass legal muster and prevent it from being overturned in the courts.”

Barriers to the Georgia Polls

Free and fair access to the polls begins with voter registration, Sara explains. “In Georgia, that’s where the barriers are put in.” Voter registration starts at the county level, so Ghazal began by reaching out to all of Georgia’s 159 counties and letting them know she was there to make their jobs easier. When the county administrators’ jobs are easier, voters, in turn, have easier access to the ballot box.

But it’s not that simple. “It’s critical to understand that there are many moving parts. Every county election board has its own internal structure, and its own legislation as to how it’s made up,” Sara explains. Some counties have Democratic appointees, some do not. Some are equal, some are primarily one party. Some counties don’t have election boards. Some only have a probate judge that acts as the election’s supervisor. Ghazal literally had to learn 159 different local laws.

Some administrators were open to working with Ghazal, some were not. “By and large, the county supervisors just want to do their job. They want voters to vote. That doesn’t mean we’ll always agree, and we would let them know when we didn’t agree with their decisions but not in a way that would alienate them.” Sara has always believed in building bridges, building partnerships, and building teams. She knows goals are achieved through knowledge, preparation, and access through those relationships.

The primary goal of state parties is to get their candidates elected and thus the limited funds available need to go to campaigns. The DPG has been the minority party for nearly twenty years, and with only four paid staff members (now five), they simply have not had the resources to take the necessary action. “Now the DPG is starting to envisage what it means to be a political party.” Now that there’s a permanent position dedicated to voter protection; it shows the DPG understands voter protection needs to be an integral part of the party’s infrastructure.

The launch of Fair Fight Action in Gwinnett County. With (from left) Scott Hogan, Executive Director of the DPG, and Stephen Day, Gwinnett County Election Board Member.

Sara Is Standing Up for ALL Georgia Voters

She may not have to dodge rebel bullets in the Georgia State House, but just as she did in Liberia, Sara Tindall Ghazal will use her skills and experience to build relationships and create bridges that will lead to policies that will benefit ALL Georgians, not just those of a single party. Find out more about Sara and her platform here.

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Elisa Goldklang is DemCast’s Georgia Captain. She’s a speech-language pathologist and learning specialist with 25 years in the field. Her articles have been published in Atlanta Parent Magazine and DemCastUSA’s online newspaper. She lives in Marietta, GA, with her husband, daughter (virtually in college) and their dog, Misty. Her son graduated UGA in 2020 and is now working in NYC.

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