Trump’s Main Obstacle in Flipping Georgia Vote Is Republican
(Bloomberg) -- By most measures, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, should have been taking a bow this week. Record numbers voted in a pandemic. Lines, after early hiccups, were measured in minutes, not the hours endured in the chaotic primary.
Instead, Raffensperger is fending off attacks from his own party, including calls that he resign, egged on by President Donald Trump’s campaign to discredit election returns. On Wednesday, Raffensperger responded, announcing an unusual hand recount of the more than 5 million votes -- and then told CNN the audit will confirm Democrat Joe Biden’s victory.
Georgia has until Nov. 20 to complete the recount before state law requires the secretary of state to certify the results.
The tight timeline, which Raffensperger called a challenge, has raised questions about what happens if the count isn’t finished in time. A state judge can push back the deadlines, but it’s unclear whether that would strengthen or weaken Trump’s hand in challenging Georgia’s vote.
At a news conference Thursday, the state elections infrastructure manager, Gabriel Sterling, said the decision to audit the presidential race was made to increase public confidence in the integrity of the results. He said election officials decided to do all the ballots because it is easier than identifying an adequate sample.
On Wednesday, Raffensperger, 65, waved off questions about whether he’d caved to the Trump campaign, which had requested a hand count a day earlier, as well as the call for his resignation Monday from the state’s two U.S. senators, fellow Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. He said the tight margin, with Trump trailing by 14,111 votes, justified the extra effort.
“This race has national significance, national importance,” said Raffensperger, who has consistently said he’s seen no credible evidence of widespread fraud. “We get that.”
The secretary of state’s office confirmed Thursday that Raffensperger is being tested for Covid-19 and will work from home following a positive test for his wife. The staff in his Capitol office have all been advised to get tested and work from home. The county-conducted election audit of every ballot will continue on schedule.
Peach State Crucible
The audit -- and Trump’s push to discredit his loss in Georgia -- comes less than two months before runoff elections for Loeffler and Perdue and their Democratic challengers that will decide control of the U.S Senate.
The man at the center of the fray is an engineer, chief executive officer of a Georgia contracting firm and former member of Georgia’s House of Representatives. Raffensperger became the state’s top elections official in 2019, replacing his more controversial predecessor, Brian Kemp, now the governor. Democrats had accused Kemp of throwing voters off the rolls and closing polling places to ensure a favorable electorate for his party.
Although Raffensperger has drawn complaints -- about culling voting lists, his choice of new voting equipment, and the disastrous June primary -- his tenure has been more peaceful and less openly partisan than Kemp’s.
In March, for instance, he negotiated with Democratic leaders on how to approach the primary, enraging other Republican leaders. And he sent absentee ballot applications to all active voters, even as Trump was tarring mail voting as ripe for fraud.
He has also placated critics in his own party: In response to Republicans’ outcry over his mail-ballot initiative, Raffensperger announced a voter fraud task force made up of prosecutors and police.
He delayed the presidential primary twice, and it was a mess when it finally took place. A shortage of poll workers and technical expertise at the precinct level as well as the new voting machinery all contributed to hours-long lines.
Efforts to avoid a repeat began immediately.
The result wasn’t perfect. In the first two days of early voting for the general election, a database of voter registrations was overwhelmed, repeatedly crashing and causing hours-long lines again. But the problem was fixed, and the lines quickly shrank. Average wait time on Election Day: three minutes.
Then Trump lost Georgia and its 16 electoral votes and declared he had actually won there. Illegal voters, he said, were the reason.
Most of the party’s top office holders have now made statements condemning supposed illegal voters. Evidence was anecdotal, fueled by social media rumors and the Trump campaign. Raffensperger held twice-daily news conferences to update and defend the integrity of the tally.
His staff laboriously debunked rumors, including that the voting machines were to blame for Trump’s loss, or that ballots had been thrown in a dumpster in rural Georgia. Then there was the one about a supercomputer named Hammer and a software program named Scorecard changing votes -- a “flat-out hoax,” said a top elections official in Raffensperger’s office, Gabriel Sterling.
Raffensperger became a target. On Monday, Loeffler and Perdue put out a statement harshly rebuking their fellow Republican and calling for him to step down.
”The management of Georgia elections has become an embarrassment to our state,” it began. “We believe when there are failures they need to be called out -- even when it’s in your own party.”
Raffensperger responded by saying he wasn’t resigning and that he felt their pain.
“I know emotions are running high,” he said in a statement. “Politics are involved in everything right now. If I was Senator Perdue, I’d be irritated I was in a runoff. And both Senators and I are all unhappy with the potential outcome for our President.”
The next day, the Trump campaign and the Republican Party sent him a letter detailing what they claimed were examples of voter fraud and demanding -- among other things -- a hand recount. The examples ranged from Republicans who were unable to watch all of the count to a voter who showed up at the polls and said she was told her vote had already been cast.
Count, Count Again
The secretary’s office’s initial response was to reiterate that all credible complaints were being investigated -- and that only a court could order a hand recount.
The process Raffensperger announced Wednesday is essentially a workaround.
It’s a so-called risk-limiting audit, which typically means a by-hand review of samples of ballots and isn’t subject to the law that requires a court order for a hand count. Because the margin is so tight in the presidential race, though, the state is saying its sample size will be all ballots.
A handful of Republicans have stood up for Raffensperger, including Lieutenant Governor Duncan Cox and at least one state legislator, both of whom said they had not seen credible evidence of fraud.
As for politicians who are playing along, “I think this is all just a reflection of people’s relationship with President Trump and what they feel they need to do to keep his support and his supporters’ support,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist. “Attacking Brad Raffensperger is a short-term strategy to do that.”
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