Georgia Today: How Ga. Elections Chief Became Enemy No. 1 In His Own Party
Since Joe Biden turned Georgia blue, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has become enemy number one in his own party. As his critics level malicious attacks against him, Raffensperger is adamant: The election was sound, and the results stand. On Georgia Today, AJC political reporter Patricia Murphy talks about the threats that have put him and his wife under 24-hour protection.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Dec. 4th, 2020.
Brad Raffensperger: This office will continue to take steps to protect the voting rights of the legally registered Georgians of this state, Republican, Democrat, independent and whatever. Upholding the law matters, truth matters and your vote matters.
Steve Fennessy: That's Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaking to reporters on Monday. Since Joe Biden won the state of Georgia by roughly 12,000 votes on Election Day, Raffensperger has been under continuous attack from fellow Republicans, most notably from President Donald Trump.
Donald Trump: The secretary of state, who is really — he's an enemy of the people.
Steve Fennessy: Georgia's two U.S. senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, have even called for Raffensperger’s resignation. Notably, not a single critic can cite any credible evidence for widespread irregularities in the election, the results of which have withstood three different counts. Today, my guest is Patricia Murphy, a political reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who profiled Raffensperger and spoke with him and his wife about the threats that have put them under 24-hour protection. Hey, Patricia, it's Steve.
Patricia Murphy: Hey, Steve, how are you?
Steve Fennessy: I'm good, how are you?
Patricia Murphy: I'm doing great, thanks.
Steve Fennessy: So before we start talking about Brad Raffensperger, I wanted to sort of just establish generally what the Georgia secretary of state does, because it appears that there are some people who might be under some misapprehensions about what the job entails. What does the secretary of state in Georgia do?
Patricia Murphy: So the secretary of state in Georgia has a number of responsibilities. Only a portion of those responsibilities have anything to do with overseeing elections. The secretary of state's office in Georgia licenses professionals, licenses businesses.
Brad Raffensperger: I'm the only businessperson in this race and I'm actually a structural engineer licensed by the state of Georgia and also a licensed general contractor.
Patricia Murphy: Here is Brad Raffensperger during his 2018 debate for secretary of state.
Brad Raffensperger: I'm a business owner, and one of the things I do every day, really as an engineer and as a business owner is solve problems. And that's what I intend to do, is solve the problems, hear what people are. There's over 140, 130 different boards, 40 different licenses. I want to make sure we fix them.
Patricia Murphy: That was the portion of the job that attracted him to it, was licensing businesses and professionals. He also got the elections portion of it. So that's the part that came along with the other. However, in Georgia, the secretary of state's responsibilities are overseeing the 159 counties that conduct the elections, coordinating that, and then certifying those election results when they come in. And obviously, all of the rules and regulations and laws for the secretary of state are set by the state legislature. So there are a number of layers of approval and input that go into the job that Raffensperger has. A lot of the — a lot of the decisions that he's implementing were made before he ever got to office.
Newscast: The new year and toward a big presidential primary election that Georgia will host in March, the state will use new voting machines. Most of them are still unshipped.
Steve Fennessy: When he came into office a couple of years ago, he was inheriting a new system. This is not a new system that he really had a role in, in and sort of deciding on, is that correct?
Patricia Murphy: He played a — he played a part in the choice. He did not make the choice. He came into office and joined what was called the SAFE Commission. And the SAFE Commission was appointed by Gov. Kemp to choose the new election machines and the commission are the group of people who chose those machines. That choice was made just a couple of days after Raffensperger came into office. So he didn't choose these machines, but it certainly has been his job to oversee the implementation of those machines. Now, Georgia had not upgraded its voting system for 18 years. There were concerns from all corners about the security of those machines, the health of those machines, the lack of modernity and efficacy of those machines. So certainly Georgia needed an upgrade badly. Something that Raffensperger was very interested in was having a paper trail to go along with the touch screen voting so that voters could make their choices on a computerized system but then go back and have a paper ballot to confirm their choices, but then also for a recount to go back and look at those choices in the aftermath of that. And that's what the current voting system does. He is, I guess, almost singlemindedly obsessed with rules, numbers, data. It's really interesting to watch him think and talk out loud. You hear that engineering training in just about everything that he approaches.
Steve Fennessy: When Brian Kemp ran against Stacey Abrams for governor, Stacey Abrams famously didn't concede.
Stacey Abrams: Because, I'll tell you this, in a civilized nation, the machinery of democracy should work for everyone everywhere, not just in certain places and not just on the certain day.
Steve Fennessy: I'm curious, what — what was Brad Raffensperger’s sort of take on accusations among some Abrams supporters that the election hadn't been run as transparently or fairly as it should have been?
Patricia Murphy: Well, I think he had a lot of frustrations with Stacey Abrams not conceding. And it's important to understand that Brad Raffensperger is a conservative Republican and he has been critical of Stacey Abrams and of Fair Fight and Verified Action, the two groups that she started to to help with get out the vote efforts, but then also with with voting rights at the state level in Georgia and around the country. He's been very critical of them. And when I interviewed him, he talked about Abrams’ decision not to concede and how he felt like that laid the groundwork for Donald Trump not to concede.
I think Democrats and Republicans would each disagree with that, but that's been his view. I think also he felt like there are ways that elections in Georgia could be improved and also that he did not want to take a leading role in President Trump's reelection because of the conflict and the sensitivities that raised in the state when Brian Kemp did the same when he was running for election and also overseeing the election, Democrats charged Kemp with that being just a terrible conflict of interest. And Raffensperger seems to be more sensitive to Democrats’ and Republicans’ complaints and and their distrust in the process if the secretary of state begins to look very partisan himself.
Newscast: Today, voters in Georgia were met with long lines and confusion at polling places as they tried to cast ballots in the state's primary elections. There are already calls for an investigation, while the mayor of Atlanta is warning that this could be a preview of the general election in November.
Steve Fennessy: Let's go back to June, when we had the primaries and there were national headlines about the four- or five- and six-hour lines that people were standing in to vote. To what degree was that a wake up call for the secretary of state? Or was he surprised? Shocked? What was his reaction to that?
Patricia Murphy: I think that was a wake-up call. I think he knew that there were going to be some problems going into the June primary because of the new voting machines. I think he underestimated how difficult it would be for the counties.
Newscast: Georgia unveiling new voting machines statewide right in the midst of a pandemic.
Newscast: Several of the machines were broken. It seemed like maybe half of the machines were down.
Newscast: It was a disappointment. This is something that should have been checked yesterday.
Newscast: The biggest problems in metro Atlanta, specifically areas with higher Black populations. The city's mayor asking —
Patricia Murphy: The changes that the secretary state's office made for the general election were to have tech support at each precinct so that if something went wrong, it was dealt with very quickly. The staff also created what was sort of a number of dashboards that they were looking at in real time that included the wait times at the precinct level for every precinct. And that was a new fix that they had so that they could see if there was a problem and then get in touch with the precinct and deal with it very, very quickly. I think there were a lot of lessons learned from June and an understanding that there could not be a repeat performance of June going into the November election.
Steve Fennessy: In anticipation of the general election and the great interest there was going to be in there, the state also allowed for absentee ballots. Talk a little bit about sort of — for those who didn't vote absentee ballot, what that process involved.
Patricia Murphy: Going into the June primary, Brad Raffensperger took the step of proactively sending absentee ballot requests to all active voters in the state. Not all registered voters, but all active voters, meaning those are people who have been participating consistently in elections. Typically, you need to request an absentee ballot application. The secretary state's office will send that application back to you and then you will vote absentee. On the outside of that envelope you sign your name and that is your official signature. That signature is matched twice. It's matched first when you make your absentee ballot application and then when you actually vote absentee, that signature needs to match the signature on file that the state has for you, typically through the DMV, but there may be other ways. And so there was an effort statewide and by both parties to get people to vote early absentee if they could. And that was as much to take people out of the polls because of COVID, but then also to take as many people off of Election Day as possible, to reduce wait times and to just go ahead and get those votes banked. A challenge for Republicans is that President Trump was saying that absentee balloting was not legal, that it was suspicious, that it was a way for Democrats to rig the election, to harvest ballots.
Donald Trump: Universal mail-in ballots is going to be a great embarrassment to our country.
Patricia Murphy: Of course, that's not true. But then also the state GOP was in the process of trying to get people to vote absentee and just so that people vote in the election and nothing comes up on Election Day.
Steve Fennessy: But yet, presumably it's in the interest of both parties to get out the vote, you know, to encourage as many avenues as possible.
Patricia Murphy: That was a challenge that the Republicans had to deal with going into November. And then, of course, going into the runoff there. They're having that problem as well. The state GOP is encouraging people to vote early absentee and the president is raising suspicions about that. It's not helpful.
Steve Fennessy: Just ahead, since Joe Biden turned Georgia blue, secretary of state Brad Raffensperger has become enemy No. 1 in his own party. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm speaking with AJC political reporter Patricia Murphy. So, Patricia, let's go to Nov. 3rd, Election Day.
Newscast: Election Day is finally here. This is a live look at the White House as the battle for president looms right now.
Steve Fennessy: Early returns had Donald Trump ahead of Joe Biden. And then as more and more absentee ballots were counted, that gap narrowed until it was — until Joe Biden overtook Donald Trump. So after the initial count, which takes several days, the secretary of state announces almost immediately that he's going to do an audit.
Brad Raffensperger: I will make the official designation of which race will be the subject of the RLA. At that time, I will designate that the RLA will be the presidential race with the margin being so close it will require a full by-hand recount in each county.
Steve Fennessy: But in this case, the audit isn't just an audit. Can you talk a little bit about what that constituted?
Patricia Murphy: Coming out of the election as these votes were being counted and as the result was going toward Joe Biden, a number of Republicans were starting to complain about the process. The two senators from Georgia called for Raffensperger’s resignation because of what they said was an embarrassment of an election.
Steve Fennessy: So let's — let's unpack that briefly, if we could. One, I think can assume correctly, that had Donald Trump shown to be ahead by 13,000 or so votes, they probably wouldn't have been saying that. So what were they pointing at as sort of their evidence?
Patricia Murphy: So Sens. Perdue and Loeffler did not cite evidence in their letter calling for Raffensperger to resign. They didn't say what specifically was embarrassing or what specifically was the failure of the election. They just said that Raffensperger needed to go. We know that at the same time, those senators were getting signals from the Trump campaign that the president was very unhappy with the election result in particular, and that he wanted pressure on Raffensperger. Because there were questions being raised about the presidential election results — and when I say questions I mean accusations that this was rigged, that Donald Trump had really won the election — Raffensperger decided to choose the presidential race from the ballot to be the race that was audited.
Brad Raffensperger: We have all worked hard to bring fair and accurate counts to assure that the will of the voters is reflected in the final count.
Patricia Murphy: And he felt that that would give people more confidence in the results if, in doing the audit of the races, they chose the race that was most under a microscope. So he chose the presidential race. He didn't have to, but he did. Statistically, because it's such a tiny margin, you would need to count every single ballot.
Steve Fennessy: The sampling has to be the entire corpus of votes.
Patricia Murphy: Yeah, that's exactly right. The sample size is the race, is the five million ballots. There's no way to do a percentage of those and to know that you had a reliable result or a reliable match, rather.
Steve Fennessy: The risk limiting audit that was performed, which is, I guess, the first recount, that did turn up some discrepancies in a couple of counties, right? That did alter the margin that Joe Biden was holding over Donald Trump.
Patricia Murphy: It did. It slightly narrowed the margin that Biden had from about 14,000 votes to about 12,700 hundred votes. And that was because in a couple of counties — and it should be said that these were Republican-run counties — and I mentioned that only to say that it was not a partisan cabal hiding votes, you know, this was in Floyd County, which is a heavily pro-Trump county — some kind of number, a group of ballots on a voter card were found and counted. That is something that Raffensperger apparently was super frustrated by and called for the resignation of the top voting official in Floyd County and in Spalding County as well.
Brad Raffensperger: We were able to find additional votes. They actually, most of them so far have gone President Trump's way, but those were actually in Republican counties. But it goes to the point that some of the election officials delegated down to inexperienced people, particularly in Floyd County. And some of those were mistakes that shouldn't have been made. And so we understand that the counties run elections, and we'll hold them accountable for what they do.
Patricia Murphy: The two counties that had the most problems — what was truly a tiny number of votes that had not been counted properly — but then were counted properly by the risk limiting audit. So the process essentially worked as it was designed.
Steve Fennessy: So let's talk a little bit about the criticism, I guess, that the secretary of state was getting in his office and how personal it became.
Patricia Murphy: Raffensperger started to receive threats, messages received at home on an answering machine saying you're — this better turn out the way it needs to turn out: For Trump.
Donald Trump: I understand the secretary of state, who is really — he's an enemy of the people, the secretary of state, whether he's a Republican or not, this man, what he's done….
Patricia Murphy: So these were all seen as signs of disloyalty by President Trump. And so he has just gone on an absolute tirade against Raffensperger. And that has resulted in the state with his supporters going on tirades against Raffensperger and with a small number of the supporters starting to make very specific, violent threats against Raffensperger, his staff, and his family, Raffensperger is now under 24-hour protection. And so that's the backdrop that Gabe Sterling was talking about when he went to the microphone Tuesday night.
Gabriel Sterling: It has to stop. Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language. Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions. This has to stop. We need you to step up and if you’re going to take a position of leadership, show some.
Patricia Murphy: Gabriel Sterling is the voting systems manager for the secretary of state's office, and he's been defending Raffensperger as well.
Gabriel Sterling: My boss, Secretary Raffensperger, his address is out there. They have people doing caravans around their house. They've had people come onto their property. Tricia, his wife of 40 years, is getting sexualized threats through her cellphone. It has to stop. This is elections. This is the backbone of democracy. And all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this.
Patricia Murphy: That's the situation they find themselves in right now.
Steve Fennessy: When you met with Secretary Raffensperger and his wife at their house, what was your read on the emotional toll this was taking on them?
Patricia Murphy: Something that did come up in our interview that — that to me was a big takeaway and it was unusual — I think, unusual and important to know about him, and this is Raffensperger, is that in 2018, he did lose their oldest son, who had struggled with addiction for many years. And so Mrs. Raffensperger said, you know, there is just a level of resilience that that has given her and a level, I think, a perspective that has given both of them that whatever's happening in their world right now will never be as bad as what happened to them two years ago. And so this is his job. He's doing his job, in his opinion. He's doing it the way he feels like the law tells him he should be doing it. And that's what he's doing. His allies, at this point, are his staff. He does not have a lot of other Republicans speaking out for him and defending the process.
Steve Fennessy: In your story, there was a telling quote from someone that you didn't name. You had reached out to Republicans to see what they thought of Brad Raffensperger to ostensibly get some vocal support for him. What was it that one of those GOP operatives said to you?
Patricia Murphy: So one of them is not an operative — is a member of the legislature, has been quite supportive and an ally of Raffensperger in the past. And I said, would you — I’d like to talk to you about Raffensperger in the election? And he said, "I'll take a pass." I think Republicans are very wary of getting out and supporting Raffensperger because they risk themselves getting involved in this. They risk themselves becoming the subject of death threats and of becoming the subject of President Trump's attacks. Not only do these people want to get reelected by their Republican supporters, they want to be safe and happy. They don't want to have what's going on to Raffensperger happening to them.
Steve Fennessy: Our thanks to Patricia Murphy, a political reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This week, Georgia wrapped up its third count of votes cast in the presidential race. This recount was requested by the Trump campaign. On Saturday, President Trump travels to Valdosta to stump for David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, putting him and them in the position of asking voters to go to the polls that they say can't even be trusted. Trump's visit comes on the eve of the debates in the two runoffs. At 5 p.m. Sunday, Democrat Jon Ossoff takes the stage alone to make his case after Republican Sen. David Perdue declined to participate. At 7 p.m., Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler faces Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock. It all starts at 5 p.m. Sunday on GPB and GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple. Have a story idea? Connect with us at GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. Our producer is Sean Powers. Eva Rothenberg is our intern. We'll see you next week.
Transcript by Eva Rothenberg