Battleground: Ballot Box | In Georgia Politics, A Week For The History Books
What a week.
Somewhere between the president's call to Brad Raffensperger on Saturday and the seething and lawless mob in our nation's Capitol on Wednesday, Georgia hosted a momentous election.
In a conversation from GPB's Georgia Today podcast, Battleground Ballot Box host Stephen Fowler talks about coming to terms with a historic week for Georgia, and for America.
Steve Fennessy: Hey, Battleground Ballot Box listeners. I’m Steve Fennessy, host of another GPB podcast called Georgia Today. It’s Friday, January 8, 2021. On Georgia Today, I talk each week with a journalist who takes us on a deep dive of a single story they’ve covered. On this week’s episode, my guest is Battleground: Ballot Box host Stephen Fowler. We caught up to discuss this historic week in Georgia — well, American history that was unlike any other. While the insurrection in our nation’s capital has dominated the news in recent days, it cannot overshadow the historic nature of the Senate runoff elections on Tuesday.
Raphael Warnock: Whether you voted for me or not, know this: I hear you. I see you. And every day I'm in the United States Senate, I will fight for you.
John Ossoff: Everybody who put your faith and confidence in our democracy's capacity to deliver the representation that we deserve. Whether you were for me or against me, I'll be for you in the U.S. Senate.
Steve Fennessy: Victories by Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff have given control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats. Here’s my conversation with Stephen Fowler recorded for an episode of Georgia Today. Hey, Stephen, it's Steve.
Stephen Fowler: Hey, Steve, how's it going?
Steve Fennessy: I don't know about you, but I'm feeling pretty agitated today, given what happened on Wednesday. It's been quite a week in America and specifically in Georgia. And I think the best place to probably start is on Sunday when you, along with a few other reporters around the country, received the tape. Tell us what you got.
Stephen Fowler: Well, most Sunday mornings I wake up, figure out what I'm going to get at the grocery store, what I'm going to cook. And I was about halfway down the canned beans aisle when I just received an email with a 62-minute audio link and, OK, it's 62 minutes of audio. And then I read the message and it says, this is the president's tweet he was referring to.
The president had tweeted about a call with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and said, oh, you know, Brad Raffensperger couldn't or didn't answer anything about election fraud. And so, you know, I figured, oh, it's an interesting call, I'll figure out from people who were maybe there like a nugget or two about what was said and then move on into election day. And then I opened the file and it was the actual call.
Donald Trump: We appreciate the time and the call. So we've spent a lot of time on this. And if we could just go over some of the numbers, I think it's pretty clear that we won. We won very substantially in Georgia.
Stephen Fowler: I was listening through and listening through. And then I heard the president of the United States ask our secretary of state to overturn the election results — not just put a thumb on the scale, but his entire fist — and find him about 12,000 votes.
Donald Trump: So, look, all I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more that we have because we won the state.
Stephen Fowler: And I was like, OK, I need to do something with this.
Steve Fennessy: What did you do?
Stephen Fowler: So I called up my editors here at GPB, called up my editors at NPR and was like: Hey, so has anyone ever actually aired a phone call that a president has had with an official threatening to overturn an election before? And they were like, that's an interesting hypothetical. And then I sent them the audio and they said, when can you file?
And so it set off, you know, a frenzy of several hours of trying to confirm who was on the call and trying to confirm with the people that were there. You know, nobody responded from the White House, nobody responded from the secretary of state's office and then figuring out what to do with an hourlong audio where those extraordinary claims are made, and then also a bunch of false claims and conspiracies about elections straight from the worst fever swamps of the Internet. And how do you ethically and responsibly report on that, especially when the president mentioned people by name and accused them of doing things that they didn't do that’s led to death threats. And then the rest is kind of history.
Newscast: President Trump faces new cries of foul tonight after his most blatant attempt yet to manufacture an election win for himself. His critics today called it everything from disgraceful to outright illegal.
Steve Fennessy: The call that we're talking about occurred on Saturday. You received it on Sunday, Sunday being a day before Donald Trump's visit to Georgia to stump for Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, itself on the eve of the Senate runoff elections. What is the reaction that you are getting from disclosure of what was said in that call?
Stephen Fowler: Well, there were a lot of people that were in disbelief, even though most of the things the president said on that call were things that he and his allies have said publicly in rallies, on Twitter, on Fox News, you name it. But there's just something about the power of radio and audio, of hearing the most powerful politician in the country angrily berating an election official for not giving him a victory.
Donald Trump: The people of Georgia are angry. The people of the country are angry. And there's nothing wrong with saying that, you know, that you've recalculated.
Brad Raffensperger: Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong.
Donald Trump: You should want to have an accurate election. And you're a Republican.
Brad Raffensperger: We believe that we do have an accurate election.
Donald Trump: No you don’t. No, no you don't have — not even close. You're off by hundreds of thousands of votes. So tell me, Brad, what are we going to do? We won the election, and it's not fair to take it away from us like this. And it's going to be very costly in many ways.
Stephen Fowler: Also, the president said fix this before the Senate runoff, or if you don't, it'll be your fault if the Republicans lose.
Steve Fennessy: Right. We were talking a little bit about the reaction to to the disclosure, and one of the things I'm interested in exploring with you is, is social media and specifically the role that you and other journalists have been playing in trying to counter the seemingly endless perpetuation of misinformation.
Stephen Fowler: The good thing about social media is that it's very easy for things to spread far and wide, like when you have a story about the president of the United States actively undermining an election process. The bad news is, is that it's also a really good place for people to share the things that they — confirm their beliefs and that they believe are true, or share things from people that if you were in real life, you wouldn't necessarily trust that person's opinion.
I mean, it's the equivalent of, you know, a street preacher yelling on the corner about the end is near just with a lot more retweets. And so there are a lot of people that claim to be experts that aren't, that have exactly the news that you want to hear about, exactly the outcome that you want about the exact thing that you think you're suspicious and worried about. And there's a lot of people that get sucked into this kind of misinformation.
And when it comes to elections and voting in particular, there's maybe like seven people in the entire state of Georgia that actually know how election systems work. And, you know, there are politicians and politically well-connected and involved people that don't understand basic tenets of our democracy. And so when somebody comes in and fills that vacuum with, you know, allegations that they pulled suitcases of ballots underneath a table and they were scanning ballots five times to stuff the ballot box after sending everyone home so they could do it in secret, it takes a lot more work to try to get around that and to say, no, not only is that not true, but here is what actually happens. And so a lot of times you have to do extra work to debunk things instead of pre-bunking people and kind of inoculating them with correct information.
Steve Fennessy: But it's funny you use that word inoculation because there seems to be no vaccine.
Stephen Fowler: Well, I would disagree to a certain extent because, you know, for every time that you have crazy conspiracy theories put out there that Hugo Chavez's ghost is helping overthrow the election with some secret vote flipping machines, there are plenty of people and outlets out there that do more than just say, no, Hugo Chavez is dead. That say, you know, here is how this voting system works and there's a paper trail. And if somebody scanned things multiple times, it wouldn't match up with how many pieces of paper. And so eventually there's this residual vaccine that — not only you know that something isn't true, but you also come away with it with a little bit more knowledge about what is true. And that's what I try to do.
Steve Fennessy: So to belabor this metaphor a bit more, what you're doing is sort of providing antibodies, informational antibodies that hopefully over time will build up.
Stephen Fowler: Yeah. You know, when you go for a checkup, you talk to your doctor about how things are going and just kind of learn general information and then, hopefully, you know, when the world is not on fire and democracy is not at stake, that people, volunteer as poll workers or they talk to their county elections office about what they can do to help, or just learn more about how the vote counting process works so that, you know, just in general, they become more well-informed about how things work instead of, you know, rushing from fire to fire to say, is this true? Yes or no? OK, I don't care.
Steve Fennessy: Just ahead: Election day finally arrives in Georgia's runoff races. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Victory on Tuesday meant mobilizing voters, but it also meant bringing in new voters. One of those new voters was Dorian Hamilton, a high school senior in Savannah. He turned 18 on Monday and says he was excited to vote for the very first time.
Dorian Hamilton: I definitely wanted to be part of this election. I felt it was very important to make sure that we had the best chance at getting who we want up in those seats. With the people that we've had in office recently and the way that they've handled our racial justice and COVID relief and the treatment of just people in general and things they need has just not been right. And so I feel like putting the right people in office so we can get these things done is the way to go. And I wanted to be part of it.
Steve Fennessy: Dorian Hamilton told us he voted for Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff. I'm speaking with GPB political reporter Stephen Fowler today about this historic week in Georgia politics and what it means. Stephen, going into Tuesday, election day, what were you expecting?
Stephen Fowler: I wasn't sure what I was expecting. Probably lighter turnout, given how many people had early voted; I'd spent a lot of time looking into early voting numbers and who was voting and where they were voting. And so I wasn't expecting there to be much of a turnout because I thought people had already either early voted or were just likely to not vote in a runoff that, while it was probably one of the most important elections, you know, it's over the holidays and people don't necessarily want to venture out or they're just tired of getting 900 mailers a day and 60 texts about, you know, vote for this or don't vote for this. And I knew that there wasn't going to be very many problems because the rollout of the new voting system — because, remember, Georgia got a new voting system this year. The rollout was delayed a little bit because there was no March primary or May primary and it got pushed to June. Well, that was a disaster for some big counties. And, you know, the whole carton of egg was on the face of Georgia. And so they made a lot of improvements and process improvements and more training and more pushing to get people to vote early instead of on Election Day. And November was actually the smoothest election that Georgia has seen in recent memories. So I knew there wasn't going to be very many problems on election day. It's just a matter of who was going to show up and where.
Newscast: All right. Taking you back to Georgia, where voters are heading to the polls today for the state's two crucial runoff Senate elections. Take a look at some of these long, early voting lines. That was last week. Over three million votes have already been cast in the election, which will determine the balance of power in the Senate. Nearly 500 million….
Stephen Fowler: I woke up on Election Day and there weren't really any lines. And that was just stunning to see.
With all the money pouring into this race, you know the drop-off was going to be, you know, less than what you would expect. But looking at it, you saw there was less drop-off in southwest Georgia and Georgia's Black Belt, you know, rural, predominantly African-American, predominantly Democratic counties. And you saw less of a drop-off in metro Atlanta counties, the strong Democratic counties like Fulton and DeKalb and places like that. And then you saw a more noticeable drop-off in northwest Georgia and Georgia's 14th Congressional District, where Marjorie Taylor Greene was sworn in, and on the coast where a big tranche of Republican voters normally live. And so heading into election day, you had a pretty good idea that it would need a gangbusters Republican turnout to make it a really close election and kind of come down to the final votes being counted.
Newscast: It's so close, it's almost a tie right now, 98 percent of the vote is in in Georgia right now. I want to bring in Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger….
Steve Fennessy: As the numbers started to make themselves apparent in the runoff, to what do we ascribe the turnout numbers of Republicans versus Democrats? What were the differing strategies that were being put into play?
Stephen Fowler: Well, really, there were three things. The first and most important one is that the Democratic Party, the campaigns of John Ossoff and Raphael Warnock made an intentional, focused effort on turning out rural Black voters. I saw something this morning that said that John Ossoff had a higher vote share with Black voters in rural Georgia than he did in urban Georgia. And they went down to southwest Georgia. They sent organizers. They did so much work down there, turning out people that reliably vote Democratic but don't vote reliably. And, you know, you saw Randolph County in southwest Georgia almost have the same levels of turnout in January as they did in November. And I mean, that's just remarkable to see.
You know, I was talking with a source down in, you know, almost Florida — that far down in south Georgia. And she said earlier that there was an Ossoff rally down there. And, you know, she saw more people down there at that rally excited than she knew there were Democrats in several counties over. And, you know, you can't — you can't not have that type of turnout if you want to win as a Democrat in Georgia. And so that was one strategy.
The other is going to be the lack of turnout in places I mentioned, like northwest Georgia and the coast. Partially because President Trump wasn't on the ballot, partially because President Trump attacked Georgia's election results and election system, and people just didn't trust it and, you know, stayed home because the president and others were saying it was rigged and your vote didn't matter.
And then the third kind of important constituency is moderate Republicans, especially in the suburbs, that weren't necessarily thrilled about President Trump or his attempts to overturn the election that either, you know, didn't vote for Senate or voted for the Democrats. And, you know, we look at that by looking at the election results in the third race on the ballot, the Public Service Commission race. Bubba McDonald, the Republican incumbent, actually got more votes than Perdue or Loeffler and that Public Service Commission race had a much, much lower turnout. So that signifies that there are a lot of people that voted for a Republican, but not the Trump-aligned Republican senators.
And, you know, when we were out talking to people on election day, we had examples of people that maybe were turned off by Trump, and Loeffler and Perdue being so close to Trump. Beth Leever down in Houston County, which is David Perdue's home county, told us that there were things like insider trading allegations and other things that made her switch her ballot.
Beth Leever: I've never voted Democrat, so it was a big change for me. Yeah, because I might be disowned by my family! Yeah, it was — but I like their message, I don't know. And I didn't like the other candidates, what they stood for and what has happened with the finding out about the COVID and then the trading. I just can't vote for that.
Newscast: Democrats swept the Senate races into the traditionally red state of Georgia. Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff’s victories mean that the Democrats will take control of the Senate and this will have huge implications for the incoming president.
Stephen Fowler: Steve, it's important to note that there's literally a playbook for how Democrats won this election. It was written by Stacey Abrams, the former gubernatorial candidate, and she said this is how you win as Democrats in the South. And her mobilization efforts in the 2018 election didn't pan out for her but, after that, they stuck around and they had more people knocking on doors and reaching out into communities that didn't normally have Democrats or reach out and really energized people over the last two years in a way that laid the groundwork for Joe Biden, Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff to be successful candidates.
Newscast: The events in Washington have taken a violent and tumultuous turn in the past few hours as thousands of supporters of President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol building, venting their anger at the victory of Joe Biden in the presidential election.
Steve Fennessy: Stephen, I want to close on what occurred in D.C. on Wednesday. Thursday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an editorial naming the names of the congressional delegation who were in support of objecting to the Electoral College vote. What is your take on what political cost there may be for those people?
Stephen Fowler: Well, one of them was Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who, the night before the election, said she was going to do it. She sent out a fundraising push with it. She made the appearance at the rally. David Perdue also posted a video at the rally because he was in quarantine saying that he was going to object, but he couldn't because his term had actually ended. And neither one of them are going to be senators anymore. I think that is political capital and loss right there. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Georgia's newest congresswoman up in northwest Georgia, has been a thorn in the side of facts and has already taken an antagonistic tone towards everything. And, you know, that district is not going to get the representation it deserves.
Steve Fennessy: What do you mean by that?
Stephen Fowler: Well, because, you know, if you're a Democratic-led House and a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate and you've got this representative who is, you know, claiming election fraud and, you know, getting into shouting matches over masks at the Capitol, there's no goodwill and relationship there to do anything for the district and any sort of legislation.
Steve Fennessy: As a congressman, as someone who's elected to represent people, you have two choices. You can represent what a faction is believing and sort of carry that water or you can turn around and tell them the truth. And so we have, you know, people like Mitt Romney who are speaking the factual truth. And then we have people like Jody Hice who refuse to.
Stephen Fowler: Yeah, but see, here's where we disagree a little bit, because I don't think they know. I don't think they care to know. There is plenty out there to educate people and to inform them. And some of these elected officials have made it a policy to not learn how things work and to not absorb and listen to actual facts and evidence because they don't have to, because there's no accountability for it.
And I think that's one thing we're going to see moving forward is there's probably going to be some sort of accountability for, you know, Republicans in Congress and Republicans in Georgia that have idly stood by or have pushed these debunked conspiracies. There were — you know, people died in the Capitol. You know, members of Congress had to be evacuated from doing their jobs. And I think it's a wake-up call that words and actions have consequences. And so it wouldn't be surprising to see voters of Georgia turn on the news and see the nation's Capitol under attack, that maybe they want a little bit more security and answers from the people that they voted for.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Stephen Fowler, a political reporter with Georgia Public Broadcasting. Stephen hosts GPB’s voting rights podcast, Battleground: Ballot Box. You can subscribe to it at GPB.org/Battleground or anywhere you get podcasts. Outgoing U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler had joined a number of her colleagues in saying she would object to the certification of the presidential results. But that changed Wednesday after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the nation's Capitol. Speaking in the Senate chamber later that day, Loeffler walked back her objections.
Kelly Loeffler: I cannot now in good conscience object to the certification of these electors. The violence, the lawlessness and siege of the halls of Congress are abhorrent and stand as a direct attack on the very institution. My objected — my objection was intended to protect the sanctity of the American democratic process.
Steve Fennessy: 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. Our producer is Sean Powers. Eva Rothenberg is our intern. Thanks for listening. See you next week.