1 year ago

‘Duty, Honor, Country’: Abbeville Fiber grand opening showcases best of Alabama, America

ABBEVILLE — “American dreams begin with American jobs.” That was the slogan used to tease Tuesday’s grand opening of Abbeville Fiber Sawmill in Henry County, and the event itself did not disappoint.

The celebratory atmosphere made it seem like Labor Day Weekend had started several days early in the small Wiregrass town, but underneath — and throughout — all of the pageantry stood the unshakable, core tenet of the people of southeast Alabama: hard work.

People from in and around Abbeville began trickling in over an hour before the program was set to begin, and even on a stormy summer morning, the massive, airplane hangar-sized industrial facility quickly swelled with the proud faces of locals eager to revel in a monumental milestone.

They were joined by Governor Kay Ivey, Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth, Attorney General Steve Marshall, Congressman Bradley Byrne (AL-01) and Congresswoman Martha Roby (AL-02), among many other elected officials from around the Yellowhammer State.

And of course, even as he tried to give credit to a slew of others at every turn, at the center of it all, indelibly reigned Great Southern Wood Preserving, Inc. and YellaWood’s Jimmy Rane.

Rane, walking into the holding room being used for press interviews on the day as songs such as Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” blasted throughout the facility, spoke to the media before the program began.

Delivering a short opening statement, Rane quickly made it clear he was fighting his emotions on what was a deeply personal day for him. As he did so, the “Yella Fella” also underlined just how very much his community means to him.

Rane explained that his father was significantly involved in bringing the Westpoint Stevens textile plant to the facility now occupied by the new sawmill. WestPoint closed shop in 2008 after billionaire investor Carl Icahn bought the company to sell off its assets, Rane outlined.

“My father had a big role in bringing [WestPoint] to Abbeville,” Rane said, holding back tears. “And it meant a lot to him — really, it broke his heart when they shut it down.”

Later, on stage speaking to a massive, standing room only crowd, Rane outlined more of the story, saying some good, homestyle Alabama cooking helped convince the steel company to locate to Abbeville when a labor strike in Maine left them looking for a new location.

At that time, he noted, the facility drew many people in the Wiregrass off of their family farms for the first time in their life to work an outside job soon after World War II. At its prime, 1,300 people were employed at the WestPoint operation.

The new industry provided not just jobs, but the ability for locals to build better lives for themselves and their families — something Rane said is the goal of Abbeville Fiber opening in the facility he described as being built by the hard work and dedication of WestPoint’s former workers over 50 years.

To Rane, this is about the next generation of Henry County leaders stepping up to keep the American dream alive for so many of their neighbors.

“It’s all about stewardship,” Rane stressed. “It’s all about stewardship. We are charged with doing our duty — and it’s a great feeling to know you’ve done your duty. We restored something that was lost: the dream of my father, my mother, as well as a lot of other people who had gone to war and came home thinking they were going to build a better world — and they did. I’m just excited to be a part of that.”

‘You’ve got to have a purpose’

Rane’s focus on duty is no accident.

He is a graduate of Marion Military Institute, whose color guard and band opened Tuesday’s program. Rane said he was shaped by his experiences at Marion, which showed through in not only the grand opening’s focus on patriotism, but has been pervasive in Rane’s historic career successes.

Speaking to the crowd, Rane highlighted what he is really about. Even as Alabama’s richest man, for him, it is all about the people of the Abbeville area and the values they hold near and dear to their hearts.

Rane told some of the new employees, some of whom he had not met personally yet, that he would soon be getting to visit individually with each of them. At Great Southern Wood, Abbeville Fiber now included, the people are a family.

“Jobs create a community where you can have schools, where you can have homes, where you can have churches,” Rane said. “But just building it doesn’t make it work. You’ve got to have a purpose. It’s not money.”

He then referenced a large banner hanging over his head as what that “purpose” is.

“Duty, Honor, Country,” the banner read, signifying the motto of Great Southern Wood Preserving.

Reciting the three words, emphasizing each one, Rane added, “Those are Abbeville values, they’re American values. And they’re our values.”

“That’s why we get up and come to work every day,” he continued. “That’s why we grew from nothing to the largest in the world — it wasn’t money. We were determined to be the best. We were going to be the best. The best equipped. The best trained. And the best fighting spirit. We are not going to be beat. And Abbeville’s not going to be beat.”

That emphasis on the resilience of Abbeville was another talking point throughout Rane’s address and his prior media remarks.

With locations across 28 states, Washington, D.C., much of the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as portions of the European Union, the Mediterranean and China now, Rane could have chosen just about anywhere in the world for this new sawmill — many of which would have been easier lifts logistically, as Ivey noted in her closing remarks.

However, Rane’s comments explained perfectly how and why he made his decision: This was about duty — and home — not money.

Speaking on Abbeville, he shared, “It’s been home all my life. Great people. Great place to grow up and great values, great values.”

Rane also told Yellowhammer News that he did not ask himself, “Why Abbeville?” when choosing the new sawmill location.

Instead, Rane stressed, “Why not Abbeville? Why not?”

“It’s a great place, and it deserves as much support and development as any community in this state,” he concluded. “As long as I’m living, I intend to see that it’s here.”

The details — ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’

Abbeville Fiber, in the old WestPoint Pepperell building, is located off U.S. Highway 431 and Alabama Highway 27. The project is the largest in Henry County’s history, with a total investment of $40 million being made in the sawmill.

This state-of-the-art sawmill, featuring the latest technology in the industry, will have the capacity to produce 200,000 feet a day of finished wood and will purchase an estimated $14 million to $15 million of yellow pine timber annually from suppliers within a 50-mile radius of the plant, with local timber owners set to benefit as a result. Additionally, the facility will employ over 15 truckers from the surrounding area.

Charles Money Logging delivered the first load of logs on July 8 and sawing began that week. The first finished lumber began shipping this month.

The sawmill has already hired over 65 Alabamians and 15 truckers, with approximately 50 more general employees to come.

It should be noted that this is a two-phase project.

During Phase I, the facility will work its way up to an annual production rate of 50 million board feet per year. In this phase, the sawmill will consume 40-45 truckloads of logs per day.

Then, in the next 12-15 months or so, Abbeville Fiber will ramp up production to 100 million feet, marking Phase II. At that point, the facility will employ 115 people total, plus supporting the 15 local truckers. During this phase, the sawmill will consume 80-90 truckloads of logs per day.

“With the opening of the sawmill, we will be continuing to invest in our most valuable resource — the people in our hometown and throughout the entire Wiregrass,” Rane stated.

While on stage, he pointed to a large poster board displaying the city’s gross sales dollars over the last 15 years, with the closure of WestPoint corresponding to a major drop that lasted through the Great Recession.

Since the lowest point in 2010, these gross sales dollars have increased 95%. In fact, just since construction started on Abbeville Fiber last year, the gross dollar amount is up 26%.

Things should only continue to pick up, as long as the people of the area adhere to their values and work hard, Rane commented.

If they do so, the possibilities are endless.

“Economic development works. It brings prosperity,” Rane outlined. “A rising tide lifts all boats. All boats.”

“If we do our duty, that graph will continue to go up,” he added, referencing the gross sales dollars.

Elected officials react

The dignitaries on hand were consistently glowing in their remarks when speaking about the impact Abbeville Fiber will have throughout the Wiregrass, as well as about Rane’s legacy of giving back.

Ivey released a statement, saying, “What I have seen here today represents the best of Alabama — good people who are proud of their work and doing it to the best of their ability. There is an atmosphere of enthusiasm here, a belief that the future holds great promise. The workers here are a part of building something special for the local community and our state.”

“Companies like Great Southern Wood and now, Abbeville Fiber, are shining examples of good, old-fashioned ingenuity and integrity which ultimately combine for success. As Governor, I am delighted to have them in our state,” she added.

Ivey also spoke to the media ahead of the program, before closing the event out with brief remarks.

“This is a great day for Henry County and all around [the Wiregrass],” she said.

“First and foremost, can you tell that my friend Jimmy loves his hometown?!” the governor later quipped. “Jimmy and Great Southern Wood are all about determination, good people and knowing that being on the cutting edge requires more than just a saw. And I’m proud of Great Southern Wood, as it embodies many of the values that’s made Alabama so dear and so special.”

“Alabama is a place where we build each other up and we celebrate the spirit of entrepreneurship, which has served our country so well,” Ivey continued. “We pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, and then we turn and we extend a hand [to pull up] those around us. Abbeville Fiber is proof that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and working well.”

Ainsworth also spoke to members of the media before the program.

“Obviously today’s a big day, not only for this region but for the state of Alabama,” the lieutenant governor stressed, speaking to the importance of the state’s timber industry and then on the positive impact the jobs will have in the area.

He explained that he got to tour the facility and visit with some of the new employees, sharing what he observed.

“The enthusiasm, the excitement — it’s just tremendous,” Ainsworth commented. “We’re so thankful just for Great Southern Wood, the Rane family and what they’re doing in providing jobs in this region and in Alabama. Certainly appreciate their leadership … this is huge.”

Byrne, in remarks of his own, lauded Rane.

“The big news of today is one of our own, Jimmy Rane, has decided to make a huge investment,” the coastal Alabama congressman outlined. “It’s important to him and his family … It’s another sign that Jimmy continues to give back, and I don’t think any of us totally appreciates what Jimmy Rane does for this part of Alabama and Alabama as a whole.”

Byrne summarized the impact of Abbeville Fiber as being both a “community builder and a “family builder.”

Yellowhammer News also caught up with Roby following the program. Abbeville is in her district.

“Obviously being here today, it’s an exciting atmosphere,” she reflected. “For me, personally, to hear the story and the history of this facility … to hear the passion from Mr. Rane about wanting to be a part of reinvesting back in this community and the number of jobs that it will provide, I was just excited to be a part of it and celebrate with everybody here today. As Governor Ivey always says, ‘Alabama is open for business.’ And today is a real testament to that.”

You can view a live tweet thread from the grand opening here.

Additionally, you can watch a short video clip compilation from the event here.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

4 hours ago

Barry Moore lands Trump endorsement in AL-02 following Oval Office visit

Former State Rep. Barry Moore (R-Enterprise) on Wednesday visited with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the Oval Office.

After the meeting, Trump tweeted his endorsement of Moore’s Republican campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives in Alabama’s Second Congressional District.

Trump wrote that Moore will be “will be a terrific Congressman for Alabama.”

The president noted that Moore was an earlier endorser of his campaign in the 2016 cycle, adding that Moore “is Strong on Jobs, Life, the Wall, Law & Order and the Second Amendment.”

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“I’m truly honored to be endorsed for Congress by President Donald J. Trump. I have never regretted being the first elected official in America to endorse him for President in 2015, and I’m looking forward to working with him in the next Congress during his second term,” Moore said in a statement.

“President Trump has already accomplished so much and kept so many of his Campaign promises despite all that the Establishment and the Democrats have done to obstruct him, but he knows there’s still lots to be done,” he continued. “We must contain and control the COVID pandemic, restore our economy to the pre-pandemic level of growth and prosperity we enjoyed during his first three years in office. We must restore and maintain law and order on our streets and in our cities. We must finish building the wall, and then fix our broken immigration system.”

Moore outlined, “We had great meetings at the White House with the President’s Domestic Policy team. Larry Kudlow, Director of the National Economic Council was also there. We discussed a new Healthcare plan being introduced, economic recovery, trade with China, and expansion of opportunity zones in depressed areas. The President has a bright vision for America.”

“I’m convinced that Donald J. Trump is the President we need to lead us for the next four years, and I hope the people of Alabama’s 2nd District see fit to elect me to work with President Trump as their Congressman on November 3rd,” he concluded.

Moore will face Democrat Phyllis Harvey-Hall on November 3.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

5 hours ago

Jerry Carl visits White House, gets endorsed by President Trump in AL-01

Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl, the Republican nominee in Alabama’s First Congressional District, on Wednesday visited the White House and met in the Oval Office with President Donald J. Trump.

“It was an incredible honor to spend over half an hour in the Oval Office with President Trump and Vice President Pence today,” Carl said in a statement to Yellowhammer News.

After the visit, Trump in a tweet endorsed Carl for the Southwest Alabama congressional seat.

“He Loves our Veterans, Stands for Law & Order, and is Strong on Jobs and the Second Amendment. Jerry has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” Trump wrote.

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“The President is focused not only on his own race, but also on down ballot races nationwide,” Carl told Yellowhammer News. “He cares about the people of Alabama, and we had a good conversation about issues that are affecting Alabama’s 1st District.”

“I’m looking forward to working with President Trump to address some of these critical issues – stopping the spread of socialism, supporting our law enforcement, and getting our economy back on track,” he concluded. “Thank you, President Trump!”

Carl will face Democrat James Averhart on November 3.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

7 hours ago

Sara Evans is a 2020 Woman of Impact

One of country music’s most popular artists of the 21st century, Sara Evans, has adopted Alabama as her own, and she is not slowing down.

Earlier in 2020, Evans released a new album, “Copy That,” where she covers 13 classic songs, and published a new memoir, Born to Fly.

She came to the Yellowhammer State after marrying former University of Alabama quarterback Jay Barker in 2008. They now make their home in the Birmingham area along with their seven children.

The singer performs and releases music under the name Sara Evans, which is how Yellowhammer News is referring to her for the purposes of this article. Evans does not shy away from her married name; just in 2019, she released a six-track EP titled “The Barker Family Band” which featured herself, her son Avery and daughter Olivia.

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Evans was born and raised outside of a small town in Missouri and began her lifelong connection with music at age four. She had recorded her first CD and was attending country music events by the age of 9 or 10, according to a 2011 interview.

Aspiring to a career in music, she moved to Nashville in 1991 and worked as a waitress while trying to find her big break.

“Three Chords and The Truth” and “No Place That Far,” Evans’ first two albums, were released in 1997 and 1998 respectively. They earned the artist solid reviews from critics but did not make a big impact on the charts.

“If I’m going to have the career I came to Nashville to find,” she told a newspaper at the time. “I’ve got to get on the radio and give today’s fans what they want.”

“Born to Fly,” the album that resulted from this change in sound, achieved everything Evans aimed to accomplish. The Recording Industry Association of America has certified it as double platinum; meaning it has sold over 2 million copies. Singles “Born to Fly” and “I Could Not Ask for More” placed first and second on the U.S. Country charts.

After the breakthrough success, Evans never left the country charts for very long over the next decade; buoyed by singles like “Suds in the Bucket” and “A Little Bit Stronger.”

Evans’ albums “Restless,” “Real Fine Place,” and “A Little Bit Stronger” are certified platinum and five more albums by Evans are certified gold.

She won Top Female Vocalist at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 2006.

Her five most popular songs available on the music streaming service Spotify have been played a combined 101,997,937 times.

Jerry Sharpe, a music writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, described Evans as having a “a strong, spring-water clear voice, which she uses well.”

Evans met her now-husband when they were both in their 30s with kids. They were introduced by Joe Beam, a Christian speaker that focuses on love and marriage who knew them both previously.

“One defining moment was, I made the decision to walk into my office and email Jay Barker and say, ‘Hey, so-and-so told me that I should reach out to you. I want you to know that I’m praying for you, and I’m sorry for everything that you’ve been through,” Evans recounted to music website The Boot.

Barker was the starting quarterback on the Crimson Tide’s 1992 championship-winning team, and at the time when he and Evans connected they had both recently gone through painful divorces.

“He emailed me back within five minutes, and that was definitely a defining moment,” she added.

Evans brought three children to the new family, while Barker brought four.

“Our house is full of children and activities and chaos, but Jay is such a great support to me,” Evans told The Boot about her husband, who hosts a sports talk show in Birmingham.

Radio play by country music stations is dominated by male artists and programmed by male deejays, something that has frustrated Evans in recent years.

She has become an outspoken advocate for more women in country music and voices her opinions on the subject with regularity.

Evans has appeared at events and spoken up for the organization Change the Conversation that aims to gain more representation for women in country music.

“The lack of voices heard on country radio affect not only those who are making music, but those listening as well. Music plays a powerful role in shaping our popular culture. Today’s music does not reflect who we are as a country and sends the wrong message to our girls and women. Too often, country songs portray women as a pretty ornament on the passenger side. It is time to reclaim a woman’s place in the driver’s seat,” the organization says on its website.

Evans has remarked that for her most recent original studio work, the album “Words” released in 2017, she placed a greater emphasis on including female producers and songwriters to give their careers a boost.

At a Change the Conversation event in 2017, Evans said, “When I first got my record deal, women were dominating country radio. We had Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack, LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain, Patty Loveless and on and on. I was fortunate enough to join that group of amazing women.”

“[W]e need to change the conversation and figure out why it is not that way anymore. Why are there not enough women on country radio? Women artists are amazing and they have so much great music that we want to hear and we need to hear, so let’s change the conversation,” she urged.

Yellowhammer News is proud to name Sara Evans a 2020 Woman of Impact.

Editor’s note: Yellowhammer Multimedia recently announced the third annual Women of Impact Awards. Honorees are being featured on Yellowhammer News each weekday through October 1. We will tell their stories one-by-one, utilizing written and video formats. Check back daily for more of Alabama’s best and brightest.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

8 hours ago

Baldwin County residents throw parade for linemen amid recovery heroics

Southwest Alabama residents are celebrating the heroic linemen and support personnel who have traveled from across the country to restore utility services following Hurricane Sally last week.

WKRG reported that Fairhope residents on Tuesday night held a short parade downtown to express their appreciation for the power crews.

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The parade reportedly featured bucket trucks honking, with linemen inside waving, to those residents who took their time to line Section Street.

Alabama Power Company has restored power to its service area as of Sunday night, and Energy Institute of Alabama members continue to lead the charge restoring service to Baldwin County electric cooperative members, which was hardest hit by the slow-moving category 2 hurricane.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

9 hours ago

Shadowy web of 20 ‘news’ sites operating in Alabama, tied to national network that invented quotes, bylines

A shadowy group of websites masquerading as local news agencies has been launched ahead of November’s high-stakes general election.

An investigation by Yellowhammer News uncovered the existence of “Yellowhammer Times,” which purports to be a statewide news organization intended “to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias.” The site’s “people” section, where one would expect its employees to be listed, is blank.

“We provide 100% original reporting, including to share as much data as possible from government and other publicly available sources,” the site claims. “We also provide a platform for all citizens whose views on issues are rarely heard. If you want a voice in your community, we want to hear from you.”

The website is admittedly owned and operated by Metric Media LLC and its parent Metric Media Foundation, a Missouri-based entity just granted 501(c)(3) nonprofit status last year. Publicly available data shows that Metric Media has not yet revealed having any assets, income or revenue through mandatory IRS filings. This means that at this point in time, the organization is effectively operating as a dark money group.

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Metric Media has a glitzy website that asserts, “Metric Media is funded by donations and grants from contributors who care about restoring local news in their communities.”

The website does list a three-person board of directors, which is reportedly chaired by San Francisco-based Rakesh Donthineni. The other named directors are Victor Chen of Los Angeles and Brent Southwell of Houston. Chen formerly worked for then-Beijing TV China, an entity of Beijing Media Network — which is owned and operated by the Chinese government, otherwise known as the Chinese Communist Party.

Metric Media’s explicit presence in Alabama does not stop at the statewide Yellowhammer Times. The bottom of this website links to 18 more sites, all appearing to be local or regional news agencies across the state. These publications are identical in format to Yellowhammer Times and are as follows: Auburn Times, Baldwin Times, Decatur Times, East Central Alabama News, Gadsden Today, Huntsville Leader, Jefferson Reporter, Mobile Courant, NE Alabama News, NW Alabama News, North Birmingham Times, River Region Times, Shoals Today, South Alabama Times, South Birmingham Times, Tuscaloosa Leader, West Central Alabama News and Wiregrass Times.

Publicly available domain information shows that these sites were all registered in May of this year.

That same month, Yellowhammer Times published its first “original story,” which was about COVID-19 related liability issues. The author is listed as a “T.H. Lawrence.”

Almost every story posted since then has been a completely automated story, mainly using RSS feeds to populate the stories on the site. This includes republishing press releases from Governor Kay Ivey, Alabama State University and the University of Alabama. The automated stories also include a lot of identical templates that simply display federal government-released data.

In all, Yellowhammer Times as of Wednesday at noon hosted more than 2,300 stories on the site — with only two listing a human author. The automated stories name “Metric Media News Service” or other entities such as “Locality Labs News Service” as the author.

One short story about lost Alabama tax revenue related to the pandemic simply does not list an author.

The second story to actually list an author, Juliette Fairley, advocated in July to fully reopen the economy and return students to school in the fall. This story was based on exclusive quotes from Alabama-based John Chamberlain, board chairman for Citizen Health. Citizen Health advocates for subscription-based medical services and disrupting the healthcare industry.

Yellowhammer News dug into the two authors listed on the site. Fairley is a national freelance author specializing in finance, while T.H. Lawrence’s name popped up across several sites in Metric Media’s network of more than 1,000 sites nationwide.

Yellowhammer News’ investigation also uncovered that T.H. Lawrence is indeed Tom Lawrence, a career journalist from South Dakota who was once executive editor of the state’s Black Hills Pioneer. He is now a freelance writer and blogger, appearing in local publications (under his real name) such as the Dakota Free Press, American News and South Dakota Standard. He also has his own blog, the Prairie Perspective. It should be noted that American News is owned by national conglomerate Gannett.

Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) in December 2019 published an in-depth investigative report that revealed some disturbing findings about Metric Media and its related entities, including Locality Labs. The investigation concluded that the network can be traced back to Illinois-based businessman and conservative activist Brian Timpone.

CJR was able to find at least 450 sites, all linked, operating under the banners of Metric Media, Locality Labs, Franklin Archer, the Record Inc. and Local Government Information Services. The entities at times — while being aimed at different states — shared IP addresses, Google Analytics IDs and other technical identifiers. Since December, the network has more than doubled in size, according to Metric Media’s own website.

CJR further traced Locality Lab’s origin story. The entity was once known as Timpone’s company “Journatic.” Journatic had to rebrand in 2013 following a national scandal over “faking bylines and quotes, and for plagiarism,” per CJR.

The CJR report followed a story published in October 2019 by a Michigan paper about Metric Media’s network that had popped up in that state. More local and national reporting followed, including by the New York Times and Guardian.

Yellowhammer Times republishes stories from other named entities in this Metric Media web, as well. For example, the publication ran a story from Empire State Today of New York.

This also includes another Alabama-focused site not directly linked at the bottom of Yellowhammer Times. Alabama Business Daily stories are republished on the site, and CJR previously reported there is an identical entity curated by Metric Media in each state. Yellowhammer News found that Alabama Business Daily’s domain was registered in February 2018.

With the 2020 election rapidly approaching, the existence of this network of sites in Alabama should raise alarm bells across the state.

Alabama was already besieged in the 2017 special election cycle by “Project Birmingham,” which utilized “Russian tactics” by Democratic operatives to aid the campaign of then-Democratic nominee Doug Jones.

Alabamians will hope that this type of disinformation campaign is not repeated this time around through Metric Media or its sister entities.

Secretary of State John H. Merrill has previously warned residents to arm themselves with the truth and to be wary of unknown sources spread on social media, especially.

“It is of paramount importance that the 4.8 million people who make up our state are informed with up-to-date, complete, and accurate information,” Merill has said in a statement. “All election-related information should come directly from our website or from your local election official. We are your trusted source for information related to the elections process.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn