Credit: Burt Jones / Twitter
Few Consequences So Far For Georgia Senators Who Pushed Election Misinformation
While they may not have stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, a group of Republican state senators in Georgia took extraordinary measures of their own to overturn the November presidential results in recent weeks, despite no evidence of widespread fraud or misconduct. A review by the Georgia News Lab and GPB News finds most have largely avoided consequences for their actions.
Many in the group supported lawsuits challenging the results of Georgia’s presidential election, including a Texas Supreme court case that sought to nullify the results of four states. Others signed onto a report claiming the results of Georgia’s election were “untrustworthy.” Some called for a special session of the General Assembly aimed at picking electors for then-President Donald Trump. And several drafted a letter intended for then-Vice President Mike Pence, urging him to delay certification of the Electoral College votes for then-President-elect Joe Biden.
Yet only three senators — Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta), Burt Jones (R-Jackson), and Matt Brass (R-Newnan) — have publicly faced consequences for their efforts to undermine the election and challenge democracy. Beach was stripped of his chairmanship of the Transportation committee, Jones lost control of the Insurance and Labor committee, and instead of overseeing redistricting this year, Brass has been demoted to chairing the less-influential Banking and Finance committee.
For the rest of the Republican state senators who engaged in various efforts promoting fantastical claims of fraud and misconduct, there has been little accountability.
Many, in fact, have gained power.
Nearly half of the state Senate committees headed by Republicans are now led by lawmakers who supported efforts to overturn the November election or promoted false claims of widespread election fraud, the Georgia News Lab and GPB News review shows.
Of the 13 senators who joined Jones, Beach and Brass in signing on to a brief in support of the failed Texas Supreme Court suit, nine remain or became committee chairs this year. Another is a member of Senate leadership and vice chair of two committees. Another, a first-year senator, is vice chair of one committee, secretary of another and serves on two more. Another ran for Congress and lost. The thirteenth did not seek reelection.
One of the signatories, Sen. Randy Robertson (R-Cataula), said he thought election disputes should be decided by the courts. “If there's any contested election, I think the best place for it to be determined if it was fair … [is] in the judiciary,” said Robertson, who was appointed chair of the Senate Retirement committee this year.
Republican Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office called the failed Texas suit "constitutionally, legally and factually wrong."
Four senators who joined a statement “applauding” the Texas suit were appointed to other committee leadership positions this year.
None of those who cast doubt on the legitimacy of the presidential election expressed any reservations about the integrity of the votes on the same ballots that elected them to office.
Committee chairs have a strong influence over how legislation is written and which bills advance — especially important in a year in which voting rights and redistricting are at the forefront.
Among the signatories to the Texas brief was Sen. Blake Tillery (R-Vidalia), who was reappointed this year as chair of the powerful Appropriations committee that is tasked with crafting the state budget. Tillery also retained his position as vice chair of the State Institutions and Property committee and was appointed vice chair of Government Oversight, one of the committees that held informal hearings into supposed election fraud. Tillery also served on a specially convened Judiciary subcommittee that held a pair of meetings in December, including one that featured Rudy Giuliani ushering in numerous witnesses seeking to have lawmakers circumvent state and federal law to appoint their own slate of electors for Trump.
The subcommittee issued an unofficial “report” approved by Tillery and the other Republican members. It contained numerous debunked allegations and claims about the election, falsely suggesting that Georgia’s voting machine vendor used an algorithm to count votes and was under foreign control. The report declared the results of the November election “untrustworthy” and concluded that, if a majority of lawmakers agreed with the findings, “the certification of the Election should be rescinded and the General Assembly should act to determine the proper Electors to be certified to the Electoral College in the 2020 presidential race.”
Gov. Brian Kemp had by then said that any attempt to award Georgia’s 16 electoral votes to Trump would be unconstitutional.
Another member of the subcommittee who did not attend the meeting that approved the report, Macon Sen. John Kennedy, was promoted this year to replace Brass as chair of the Reapportionment and Redistricting committee. In that capacity, he will play a key role redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional maps this year as Republicans look to hold on to power after Democratic gains.
He was also reappointed as vice chair of the Banking and Financial Institutions committee and secretary of the Regulated Industries and Utilities committee.
Ligon did not seek reelection. As a lame duck in fall 2020, Ligon played a lead role in the so-called “Stop the Steal” efforts. In addition to heading the hearings of the Judiciary subcommittee and voting to adopt its report, he also joined the amicus brief to the Texas Supreme Court suit, helped circulate a petition calling for a special session of the legislature and signed onto the letter asking Vice President Pence to delay certification of the Electoral College votes. He was also a member of the Georgia Republican Party’s “election confidence” task force that made sweeping recommendations to crack down on voting rights in a report released this week.
Ligon joined Beach, Jones, and state Sen. Greg Dolezal (R-Cumming) in circulating the petition calling on lawmakers to convene a special session. The petition, which circulated the weekend that Trump called Kemp and asked the Republican governor to bring lawmakers back to the Capitol and override the election results, cited “a systemic failure to observe the Georgia Election Code” as justification for a special session for the purpose of “selecting electors from Georgia to cast the state's vote for President and Vice President” in the Electoral College.
But state and federal law precluded such a move, as Kemp and Duncan were quick to make clear. And the Georgia Senate Republican Caucus also put out a statement saying that state laws “provide no avenue for us to retroactively alter the results from November.”
Yet the petitioners were seemingly undeterred.
Convening a special session requires three-fifths of the members of each chamber of the General Assembly. In the case of the 56-seat Senate, that would have been 34 of the 35 Republican members at the time. In the 180-member House, it would have been all 103 GOP members, plus five Democrats.
Ligon did not respond to inquiries about the number of lawmakers who endorsed the effort.
Nine senators reportedly signed the petition. The number of state representatives who signed is unknown.
According to the Georgia Star, part of a string of outlets founded in recent years by conservative activists, the nine senators who joined the petition were: Ligon, Beach, Jones, Dolezal, Brass, Marty Harbin (R-Tyrone), who announced his support on social media, Bruce Thompson (R-White), Tyler Harper (R-Ocilla) and Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega).
All nine had also joined the brief to the Texas Supreme Court case.
Ligon would soon be out of office. Beach and Jones would soon be stripped of their chairmanships and Brass would be demoted. The others fared better.
Dolezal, who had raised questions about absentee ballot signature matching and mobile voting units on social media, was promoted from vice chair to chair of the Science and Technology committee. He also services as secretary of the Health and Human Services committee and is a member of the Reapportionment and Redistricting committee.
Harbin, who, in response to a federal court ruling on the election declared that “the people of Georgia are being robbed,” was promoted to chair of the Government Oversight committee that held hearings on the election. He remains secretary of Insurance and Labor and a member of the Reapportionment and Redistricting committee.
Thompson, who, when a voter expressed concern about the senator's support for photo IDs for absentee ballots, replied “[let’s] see how well you liberals fare after we reform and close your loopholes,” was made chair of the Economic Development and Tourism committee this session.
Harper, who expressed extensive doubts about the integrity of the election, remains chair of the Natural Resources and the Environment and vice chair of the Public Safety committee.
Gooch, who said at one of the Rudy Giuliani hearings that he had never seen such a level of “mistrust” among constituents and that it “isn’t going to go away unless we make some changes,” remains Senate Majority Whip, is vice chair of the Transportation committee, was promoted to vice chair of the Appropriations committee, and serves on six other committees, including Reapportionment and Redistricting.
None responded to requests for comment or an interview.
Mr. Jones Goes to Washington
Even after all of the failed lawsuits and rebuffed calls for a special session to choose new electors, one group of state senators pressed ahead with a last-ditch effort to alter the election.
Following adoption of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee report in late December, a contingent of senators drafted a letter to Vice President Pence urging him to “delay and stay the count of votes of the Electoral College for twelve (12) days to allow for further investigation of fraud, irregularities, and misconduct in the November 2020 General Election.”
The senators cited video of election workers in Fulton County presented to two committees by Rudy Giuliani as evidence of “extensive irregularities and fraud” in the count of absentee ballots — claims that have been repeatedly and thoroughly debunked.
The letter is dated Jan. 2 — the same day Trump made his infamous call to Republican Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, pressuring him to “find” just enough votes to reverse the election results, and appeared on the letterhead of Ligon, chair of the Judiciary subcommittee. Trump’s call, along with the series of post-election hearings held by Ligon’s subcommittee and other the state House and Senate panels, is now under criminal investigation.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that at least five senators signed the letter: Ligon, Jones, Beach, Brass and Dolezal — all of whom also signed on to the amicus brief in the Texas suit and the petition for a special session.
In a Jan. 4 post on Facebook, Sen. Carden Summers (R-Cordele) wrote that he had signed the letter and urged all other Georgia lawmakers to do the same. He indicated that the letter would be sent to Pence that day. He added that the letter was “from” the Judiciary subcommittee, although none of the known signatories, other than Ligon, were on the subcommittee. Summers, who also joined the statement applauding the Texas Supreme Court lawsuit, attended the subcommittee hearings, although he was not a member of the panel.
Summers told the Georgia News Lab he did not know how many lawmakers signed the petition.
In a brief email to the Georgia News Lab, Ligon indicated that Harbin, then-vice chair of the Government Oversight committee, “was in charge of collecting signatures and has the final list.”
Harbin did not respond to an interview request.
Whether the letter was actually sent to Pence on Jan. 4 is unknown. What is known is that Jones intended to deliver it to him the following day.
In an interview with Oconee Radio Group, Jones said he went to Washington, D.C., to have dinner with the vice president on Jan. 5, planning to give the letter to Pence in person.
“Once I got to D.C, and, talking with his people and having a direct conversation with him,” Jones said, “I could read the writing on the wall, that it was not going to happen. And so therefore, there was no need for me to even present with him a letter that, you know, quite frankly, … wasn't going to have any kind of impact. So I just kept it to myself.”
That night, Jones tweeted a picture of himself with Pence at the vice presidential residence. The caption read, “Had dinner with our VP Pence tonight at his home in Washington D.C. He has a big day tomorrow, but I do appreciate his hospitality and service to our country.”
Jones later deleted the tweet. He told the AJC he took it down because of a “flood of internet feedback” and told Oconee Radio he left D.C. after the dinner, before the riot at the Capitol the next day.
“I left that night before all that stuff went down,” he said.
Jones did not respond to an interview request.
Unmentioned by Jones was the presence of another guest at dinner, fellow state Sen. Tyler Harper.
At 6:07 p.m. on Jan. 6, as the Capitol insurrection was coming to an end, someone posted a picture on Harper’s Twitter account of the senator, Pence and second lady Karen Pence at the vice presidential residence.
“It was great to join @VP Mike Pence & @SecondLady for dinner at the Vice President’s Residence at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. last night,” the caption read. “I appreciate the invitation to join them, their hospitality, & their service to our country.”
There was no mention of the events that played out that day, in which the vice president was whisked away from the Senate chamber after a violent mob breached the Capitol. It is also not known what was discussed at the dinner or when Harper returned from D.C.
Harper, who also joined the amicus brief in the Texas suit, signed the petition for a special session, and attended committee hearings on the elections in December, did not respond to an interview request.
Requests to Pence’s spokeswoman for information about the dinner also did not receive a response.
Democratic lawmakers have condemned the disinformation that proliferated following the elections and called for Senate Republicans to be held accountable for their role in helping to agitate Trump supporters.
Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta), who was on the receiving end of threats and conspiracies after speaking out in some of the subcommittee hearings, cosponsored a resolution decrying the “sham hearings delegitimizing the Senate” and said despite three senators losing committee chairmanships, there were no real consequences for pushing false claims of election fraud.
“The big problem overall is that those hearings have a direct connection to what happened on Jan. 6,” she said. “Words matter, what you do as an elected official matters... and in the Georgia State Senate, a lot of things are just business as usual.”
Jordan also said a number of bills that would crack down on voting access filed by Republican leadership stem from misinformation about the election brought up in post-election legislative meetings.
“What that says to me is that there may have been some kind of performative political moves with respect to Sen. Jones and Sen. Beach in terms of removing them from their chairmanships,” she said. “But the reality is when we see these bills being filed and signed on to by members of leadership, that really speaks volumes in terms of what's really going on in the messaging that they're pushing even outside of the Capitol.”
Steve Fennessy helped edit this story.