Days ahead of the Georgia runoff election, leaked audio of a phone call between President Donald Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has renewed praise for the embattled election administrator. Over the course of the hour-long call, Raffensperger along with his general counsel, Ryan Germany, explained to the outgoing president that his data and facts were wrong.
The deference and patience shown during the exchange should not tempt us to overlook how Raffensperger has used his office in a partisan manner this election cycle. Raffensperger has taken stances that undermine values of fundamental fairness in the electoral process, from the formation of a criminal absentee ballot task force composed of primarily conservative, white Republican prosecutors, to siding with an out-of-state conservative group by claiming a federal judge disregarded the rule of law.
As previously reported by Truthout, U.S. District Judge Leslie Abrams Gardner found neither Ben Hill County nor Muscogee County took steps to verify if voters were properly registered or not. Per Gardner’s order, both counties are prohibited from taking action against the voters before the runoff election. In his statement, Raffensperger accused Gardner of not following the rule of law and insinuated that she was biased because she is the sister of voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams.
“In our system, rule of law is determined and enforced by our judiciary,” said Sara Tindall Ghazal, a Georgia-based attorney and voting rights advocate. Ghazal pointed out that Gardner’s decision was consistent with the majority of election boards that rejected similar challenges in the past couple of weeks. Finding no probable cause for a hearing on the challenge, attorneys for the Cobb County Board of Elections & Registration also pointed out the GOP party chair who brought the challenge failed to show whether the address changes were permanent or temporary.
Not All “Election Integrity” Efforts Are the Same
By his statements and actions, Raffensperger ignores state and federal interpretation of existing law and would shift the burden to unsuspecting voters otherwise eligible to participate in the runoff election. “[His] statement belies that overtly political stance the [secretary of state] has taken in this runoff,” Ghazal told Truthout. “The integrity of the election is secondary to the outcome.”
Raffensperger’s response attacking Gardner’s decision flies in the face of not only his duty under state and federal law, but any appearance of commitment to free and fair elections. By law, Raffensperger is the state’s chief election official responsible in part for coordinating the state’s responsibilities under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. This includes not taking or encouraging actions that violate federal law such as removing voters from the voting rolls 90 days or less from an election.
Raffensperger’s statement also drew rebuke from Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP. After learning of Raffensperger’s latest partisan action, Woodall resigned from the secretary of state’s Bipartisan Task Force on Safe, Secure, and Accessible Elections.
“I cannot in good faith continue to work with your office in a nonpartisan fashion if you publicly commit to disenfranchising thousands of eligible voters on a purely partisan basis and continue to use your office as a way to push conspiracy theories that place Georgia residents in harm’s way,” wrote Woodall in an email provided to Truthout. “Your latest actions are troubling to say the least and put the work of the Task Force in jeopardy as the spirit in which we were convened has seemingly disappeared due to political pressure.”
Under the guise of election integrity, the Texas-based conservative group True the Vote launched an effort to challenge thousands of voters across the state of Georgia. Earlier in December, True the Vote announced it was partnering with Georgia’s Republican Party in this effort, raising questions about the validity of the organization’s nonprofit 501(c)3 status. By making a statement siding with the True the Vote purge effort, Raffensperger signals his allegiance with party antics over free voter participation.
Prioritizing People and Process Over Partisanship
Raffensperger has often crossed the line as a partisan actor, raising questions about his legitimacy of investigations and related actions taken by his office. Despite rejecting unfounded accusations about the November general election, Raffensperger has made statements and taken actions that seemingly give credence to baseless concerns raised.
After days of rightfully asserting it is not possible to do a signature audit of absentee ballots, Raffensperger created a process with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to examine signatures in Cobb County. The extraordinary measure was done in response to allegations of excessive issues with signature mismatch in Cobb County despite any actual evidence of a valid issue.
“The secretary of state caved to craven political pressure from Trump and his allies, auditing 15,000 signatures on absentee ballots in Cobb County,” said Sarah Riggs Amico, a 2020 Democratic primary candidate for the U.S. Senate. “The audit showed what voters here already knew: The votes and signatures were valid, with an accuracy exceeding 99 percent.”
Amico pointed to Raffensperger’s failure to thoroughly investigate issues arising from the 2018 statewide election, notably her race for lieutenant governor, as an example of his selectivity in investigating election concerns.
Reports indicate only two errors were found from the signature review. While Raffensperger tried to spin this as a way to build confidence and integrity in the system, there was never any valid reason to doubt the process and use of absentee ballots. Creating investigations to resolve frivolous claims and unfounded allegations should not be something to celebrate.
Ahead of the Christmas holiday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found Raffensperger and his team overstated earlier reports of open election-related investigations. While the secretary of state’s office clarified the scope of investigations, Raffensperger has thrown around the possibility of investigations with limited details and insinuations of fraudulent intent. Raffensperger previously added fuel to the GOP’s unfounded voter fraud allegations by revealing that there were 250 current investigations without clear explanation, while still maintaining there was no evidence of fraud to overturn the election. This claim was used as an attack line by Sen. Kelly Loeffler during an early December debate against Rev. Raphael Warnock.
Such accusations caused increased confusion after a primary election fraught with challenges and a lot of finger pointing between county election administrators and the secretary of state’s office. For Aklima Khondoker, Georgia state director for All Voting is Local, Raffensperger’s actions have been continuously trending toward focusing on his own political survival instead of prioritizing voters and a fair process. “These two versions are at odds,” said Khondoker. “In one version, Raffensperger is committed to rejecting political fodder, while in the other, he signals a call to his base.”
Khondoker challenged the inconsistencies within Raffensperger’s approach to the current election cycle even after he unequivocally condemned the worst of allegations. “We hear that our elections were conducted fairly, honestly and free from fraud,” Khondoker told Truthout. “Raffensperger is fueling suspicions about our elections by opening baseless investigations that serve to weaken the integrity of our elections for political gain.”
Raffensperger’s current partisan dalliance is a part of a clear pattern and practice in using the secretary of state’s investigatory power to intimidate, harass and suppress voting rights groups and the voters they serve. Responding to the pressure from members of his own party, Raffensperger announced an investigation into three voter engagement organizations first claiming the groups were trying to register voters out of state and then alleging they were trying to register people who had passed away. What Raffensperger neglected to address is that sending voter registration applications, like when he sent out absentee ballot applications, is not an invitation for anyone to commit fraud but rather, makes it easier for people to participate in the process.
One of the groups, the New Georgia Project, has been targeted by the secretary of state’s office for investigation at least five times in the past six years. In an interview with Teen Vogue in early December, New Georgia Project’s CEO Nsé Ufot called the investigation sad, desperate and ridiculous. There has never been any finding of wrongdoing by the organization or others that have been similarly targeted by the secretary of state under Raffensperger or his predecessor, Brian Kemp.
“Blatant partisanship from the chief elections officer of a state should be disqualifying to the right to hold the office,” said Amico. “The delicate balance between building voter confidence in the elections system, and a careful, continued calibration of improvements that can be made can only happen when voters trust the person who is secretary of state.”