Credit: Stephen Fowler | GPB News
Battleground: Ballot Box | How Georgia's recent elections planted seeds for future conspiracies
LISTEN: On this episode, we’ll turn back the clock to understand how we got here and how Georgia’s election system came to be ground zero for election conspiracy.
For nearly three years, a grand conspiracy has lingered over Georgia politics like the thick humidity of a Southern summer afternoon. Forces from all levels of the government and grassroots took great lengths to keep the lawful winner of the presidential election from taking office using threats, lies and intimidation.
Now, a grand jury in Atlanta is expected to hand down indictments alleging the election conspiracy was created by former President Donald Trump, and that his efforts to pressure, cajole and harass officials into changing the outcome amounted to a mob-like criminal endeavor.
But the former president did not act alone: an army of lawyers and lawmakers, trusted party officials and true believers all played important roles in advancing the effort to subvert the 2020 election results in Georgia. And soon, they’ll likely face legal consequences of their own as the fallout from the failed attempt continues to reshape who we vote for and how those votes are counted.
On this episode, we’ll turn back the clock to understand how we got here and how Georgia’s election system came to be ground zero for election conspiracy.
To understand how Georgia’s battleground status led to a marathon test of its election system that withstood pressure and attacks from the most powerful politician in America, we’ve got to rewind the clock back to 2018 and talk to then-newly elected Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
“The most important thing is that people need to understand that their vote was counted fairly," he said "I think when people understand that their vote was counted there were no glitches that accurately counted that gives them confidence and that's very important.”
The mild-mannered engineer hadn’t taken office yet, but was already at work on a Herculean task: replacing Georgia’s outdated electronic touchscreen voting machines with something more modern, all while getting voters to have more trust in the voting system after an outcome they didn’t fully believe in.
In the aftermath of 2018, where then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp narrowly defeated voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams in their first face-off for governor, Abrams and her allies alleged there were issues with Georgia’s voting machines and rules that prevented people from casting their ballots — but even so, they did not try to overturn the results of the election.
“I acknowledge that former Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor in the 2018 gubernatorial election," she said in her concession speech. "But to watch an elected official — who claims to represent the people of this state, baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote — has been truly appalling. So, to be clear, this is not a speech of concession.”
In 2019, Georgia’s Republican-led legislature approved spending $150 million for a new touchscreen voting system that would include a paper trail over Democrats’ objections and calls for hand-marked paper ballots. They tweaked some of the laws Abrams criticized and added, among other things, a requirement for audits of certain races starting with the 2020 presidential race.
After a lengthy procurement process, Georgia selected Dominion Voting Systems’ ballot marking device, which prints out a piece of paper with a voter’s choices printed on it, plus a QR code that contains those choices that is then fed into and read by a scanner.
Elections officials traveled far and wide to educate voters about how the new machines worked, even showing up to the Georgia National Fair to convince people between amusement rides and fried snacks to practice casting a ballot.
So far, so good.
There was a pilot of the new machines in municipal elections during the fall of 2019, where the usual small issues popped up: Poll workers forgot to plug in machines, had to learn how to use the iPad-like check-in devices and sometimes the ballot printer got jammed.
Fast forward to the early days of 2020, in a nondescript warehouse in Cobb County where the final trucks of Dominion equipment were on their way to counties just weeks away from the presidential preference primary.
“It is next to impossible to explain how many things that had to go out, because it’s not just the big touchscreens: It’s the peripherals, it’s the ADA equipment, it’s every printer, it’s every scanner, it’s checking all the ballot boxes to make sure they’re not cracked or broken," Gabriel Sterling with the Secretary of State's office said at the time. "I did the math as something close to 200,000 pieces and parts and probably even more than that that’s gone out.”
It was the largest-ever rollout of voting equipment in American history, and what state election officials thought would be the trickiest thing on their plate that year, apart from the higher turnout that comes with a presidential election.
That was before the coronavirus pandemic.
A reshaped election landscape
Aside from upending everything about day to day life, COVID-19 also changed how people voted in Georgia and in other states, including an avalanche of new absentee by mail ballots that allowed people to vote from home and avoid other people.
In Georgia, the secretary of state’s office made voting by mail even easier by mailing active registered voters absentee applications for the primary and established secure drop boxes as a way to return those ballots without relying on the mail. In fact, even Gov. Brian Kemp deposited his ballot in a drop box.
Poll workers, most of them elderly, stayed home and counties opened fewer voting locations and dealt with longer lines while also struggling to keep up with processing mail-in ballots.
After the June 9 primary, three important things happened.
First, state and local elections officials took steps to make sure those issues didn’t repeat themselves in the presidential election.
That included creating an online portal for voters to request an absentee ballot, rule changes that allowed counties to start processing mail-in ballots before Election Day, and boosting the number of poll workers and polling places to cut back on waiting — including the Atlanta Hawks partnering with Fulton County, Georgia’s most populous county, to offer State Farm Arena as an early voting site and a place to count ballots.
Secondly, the secretary of state’s office honed in on Fulton, home to Atlanta, as a place with chronic election issues.
“From our data from election day so far, approximately 70% of all the issues in the state were in Fulton County," Raffensperger said at a press conference flanked by posters of the county's prior problems plastered in headlines. "Fulton County’s issues are now conflated with Georgia’s elections overall in spite of the Georgia election officials and workers who have worked their fingers to the bone to bring us a successful election.”
And finally, former President Donald Trump continued to baselessly attack voting by mail — even as he himself cast ballots that way — and suggested he would not accept losing the election.
Heading into November 2020, there were concerns about record turnout, fewer poll workers and voting locations and, in the background, misinformation about how those votes are counted.
On the political side, Georgia was shaping up to be one of the most competitive battleground states that would decide the outcome of the election, and the final days saw visits from former President Barack Obama, then-President Donald Trump and candidate Joe Biden.
Planting the seeds for future attacks
What does that short history lesson have to do with potential indictments in Fulton County, Ga., in August of 2023, you might ask?
Well, understanding the challenges and successes with Georgia’s new voting system sets the stage for how Trump and his allies sowed chaos after he lost the state by less than 12,000 votes, exploiting existing concerns and forcing elections officials to deal with death threats, false claims and three different counts in the span of a few weeks.
Enter election night: 80% of Georgia’s votes were cast before Election Day, with about a third of those coming from mail-in absentee ballots and the rest during a three-week early voting period. Nearly a million more people showed up on Election Day, leading to record-setting turnout and intrigue as those votes were counted.
Gabriel Sterling with the secretary of state’s office held the first of many press conferences informing people of how many ballots were left to be processed and reminding them that taking time to count every vote is normal.
"Fast is great, and we appreciate fast — we more appreciate accuracy," he said. "Accuracy is key and vital to all of our processes."
As Georgia’s 159 counties finalized their processing of outstanding votes that needed to be counted, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told reporters to brace themselves for a tight margin and a likely recount.
“Right now, Georgia remains too close to call," he said. "Of approximately 5 million votes cast, we’ll have a margin of a few thousand. The focus for our office and for the county election officials for now remains on making sure that every legal vote is counted and recorded accurately as we are closing in on a final count. We can begin to look toward our next steps with a margin that small. There will be a recount in Georgia."
He added that interest in Georgia's election results would go beyond its borders and have huge implications and high stakes, vowing not to let that interest be a distraction and noting that election workers would "get it right, and we'll defend the integrity of our elections.’’
Little did they know how much defending they would have to do.
On the next episode of Battleground: Ballot Box:
From false claims made in unofficial legislative hearings to phony electors and stolen election servers, there were many people involved in multiple attempts to derail the election results that seem to be in the crosshairs of prosecutors — not just the former president.
We look at the complicated web of Trump allies that may face charges in the coming weeks.
Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting and is produced by Chase McGee. Our editor is Josephine Bennett and the theme music was created by me, Stephen Fowler. Subscribe to our show at GPB.org/battleground or anywhere you get podcasts.