Credit: Stephen Fowler | GPB News
Battleground: Ballot Box | How false claims fanned post-election flames in Georgia
In the weeks after polls closed in the 2020 presidential race there was an all-out assault on Georgia’s election results as former President Donald Trump and his allies undertook a public — and private — campaign to change the outcome in his favor.
Erroneous claims about voting machines and election workers, endorsements of fringe theories by sitting lawmakers and numerous failed lawsuits were mounting by the day, but prosecutors in Atlanta have honed in on a few key events and a few key people that they could soon argue broke the law.
A slew of people inside Georgia and beyond participated in these efforts pushed by the former president, including: everyday voters who believed the election was stolen; select Republican Party officials; lawyers and lawmakers all the way up to Trump’s closest inner circle. Not all of them tried equally to overturn the election, and not all of them are potential targets in what is expected to be a sweeping racketeering case alleging a vast criminal conspiracy to steal an election.
But for some, like lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, Trump’s recent federal indictment for his efforts to undo his defeat combined with public-facing evidence from the special purpose grand jury that met recently in Georgia suggests their day in a Fulton County courtroom could come soon.
On this episode, we’ll start to untangle a complicated web of some of the Trump allies that may face charges here in Georgia in the coming days.
In the last episode, we left things off with a country on edge as Georgia finished counting its votes and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger hinted at a close margin and a likely recount.
“The final tally in Georgia at this point has huge implications for the entire country," Raffensperger said. "The stakes are high and emotions are high on all sides. We will not let those debates distract us from our work. We'll get it right and we'll defend the integrity of our elections.’’
Georgia elections officials entered defense mode almost immediately, as a firehose of misinformation about voting, ballot counting and the outcome flooded the landscape.
That included everything from Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue calling on Raffensperger to resign, to many GOP lawmakers signing on to a Supreme Court case so riddled with errors that Republican Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr called it “constitutionally, legally and factually wrong,” to claims that because Trump had more votes at one point on election night, the only way he didn’t win was fraud.
There were conservative talking heads calling for a special session of the Legislature to decertify the results, go back and re-examine already-examined absentee ballot envelope signatures to match them to supposed fraudulent ballots for Biden or to redo the election altogether — all things that were neither necessary nor possible.
There were also plenty of people pushing for overturning the election, plenty of lawsuits filed seeking to toss votes or change the rules after the fact and plenty who demanded a different outcome. But nearly three years later, there are a few key moments that appear to be in the crosshairs of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis as part of a sprawling racketeering case, including:
- A series of unofficial legislative hearings where Trump allies made false claims about the election and lawmakers’ ability to change the outcome;
- Efforts to gain unauthorized access to election equipment in rural Coffee County;
- The plan to send documents falsely claiming Republicans were Georgia’s presidential electors, and, of course
- Trump’s infamous calls to several elected officials demanding they reverse his defeat.
In all, there are close to two dozen people who are likely to face charges soon because of their actions — actions that we’ll walk you through as they happened.
A December of hearings to remember
When Georgia Republicans called their first unofficial hearing at the state Capitol on Dec. 3, 2020, they were seeking people with “firsthand knowledge of problems with the election or fraudulent activity relative to the election,” even though there was no official question that Joe Biden won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes.
When all the votes were counted the first time, including provisional, military and overseas and every mail-in ballot received on time, Biden led by less than 13,000 votes.
Then, under a rule change passed by Republicans in 2019, a risk-limiting audit was conducted from Nov. 13 through Nov. 18 that saw all 5 million ballots counted by hand that confirmed the correct winner — aka Joe Biden — won. Following that audit, on Nov. 20, 2020, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger certified the results.
"Working as an engineer throughout my life, I live by the motto that numbers don’t lie," he said. "As secretary of state, I believe that the numbers that we have presented today are correct. The numbers reflect the verdict of the people, not a decision by the secretary of state’s office or of courts or of either campaign."
But that wasn’t the end of it: Because the margin was within half of a percent, the Trump campaign requested a recount that started on Nov. 24 and saw all 5 million ballots run through scanners yet again.
During that time, Trump and others still attacked Georgia officials and the state’s election, leading to harassment and death threats reported during the recount, including caravans of Trump supporters driving past Raffensperger’s private home and a viral thread accusing a Gwinnett County technician of altering votes, culminating in an emotional and fiery press conference from Gabriel Sterling with the Secretary of State’s office.
“Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence," Sterling said to Trump. "Someone's going to get hurt. Someone's going to get shot. Someone's going to get killed. And it's not right."
All of that backstory gets us to the end of the recount, which saw a final, final margin of 11,779 votes for Biden.
“It's been a long 34 days since the election on Nov. 3," Raffensperger said. "We have now counted legally cast ballots three times and the results remain unchanged.”
The 2020 presidential election was finally over and complete in Georgia, and Raffensperger recertified the results on Dec. 7.
“Disinformation regarding election administration should be condemned and rejected," he said. "Integrity matters. Truth matters. Today, the secretary of state's office will be recertifying our state's election results. Then the safe harbor under the United States code to name electors is tomorrow, and then they will meet on Dec. 14 to officially elect the next president.”
But the reality of election procedure was quickly being derailed by an alternate reality pushed by Trump and his supporters.
Even as the third count of ballots was nearly complete and elections officials repeatedly and painstakingly shot down conspiracies left and right, Republican lawmakers and Trump allies met to hold unofficial hearings with the intent of convincing lawmakers in Georgia they could change the results using dubious means.
Not everything was steeped in conspiracy. On the morning of Dec. 3, state senators heard from actual Georgia officials explaining what did — and did not — happen in the presidential race.
"Georgia has some of the strongest laws in the country to ensure secure elections," then-general counsel for the secretary of state’s office Ryan Germany said. "And my job over the past seven years has been to ensure that those legal protections are upheld under what's been an onslaught of legal challenges they have faced."
Germany is a prominent figure in this saga, serving as the legal backstop against many of the efforts from fellow Republicans to subvert results and existing rules. He was on the now-infamous call between Trump and Raffensperger, and laid out in plain language that many of the theories and conspiracies floating about were nonsense, whether it be false claims about a settlement in regards to absentee ballot signature matching or suspicions about who was requesting ballots.
Germany reiterated the state only investigates claims based on facts.
"These are law enforcement investigations, and we want to make sure when we're opening them that we're doing it based off of allegations that are actually investigative and not, you know, feelings like 'I don't like the result of this election,'” he said.
Also speaking that morning was Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts, in what would be a preview of the Republican strategy to go after the state’s most populous county, home to the most Democratic votes.
"I'm aware of the criticism that has been leveled at Fulton County; we're the largest county in the state of Georgia," he said. "But I cannot speak to what the other 158 counties are doing. I cannot. But I can tell you that beyond a shadow of a doubt, there has been no incidence of any unusual activity within Fulton County."
Pitts detailed the work Fulton did to clean up and move on from its disastrous COVID-era June 2020 primary, including opening more polling places, pushing more voters to cast their ballots early, and partnering with the Atlanta Hawks to use State Farm Arena as an early voting site and place to count ballots. They also recruited a slew of poll workers to make up for prior shortages.
That morning’s hearing featured leading questions from Republicans about things they did not understand or felt were fraudulent, but the takeaway from the three-hour meeting was that elections officials were hard at work keeping things secure and trusted, even if some members of the public refused to accept it.
The false claims at the 'tip of the iceberg'
The afternoon of Dec. 3 saw the Senate Judiciary subcommittee go in a different direction. While the first hearing hinged on learning from experts, this second hearing — which came after three counts of Georgia’s ballots — was more wide-ranging and accusatory, led by outgoing Sen. William Ligon of Brunswick.
"Even though the national and local media are pretending that there's nothing to see here, we in the Senate have a constitutional responsibility to get to the bottom of what happened," he said. "And if the evidence demonstrates problems in the election process, we have an obligation to take appropriate action. We don't know where the investigation will lead, but failing to examine the evidence would show utter disrespect and even contempt to the honest citizens who saw what they saw and cannot in good conscience keep quiet about it."
That brings us to the first set of people who could be in the crosshairs of prosecutors, starting with Ray Smith, who represented the Trump campaign in an election contest filed in Fulton County Superior Court that was full of procedural and factual errors and was also part of disgraced attorney Lin Wood’s efforts to stop certification of the election.
Smith also led the portion of the hearing that brought alleged evidence that was the “tip of the iceberg” in proving election fraud.
“It is impossible, impossible to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election," he said, despite the election being certified once already. "Normally, in an election contest under Georgia law, the remedy is a new election. That would certainly be possible remedy in the instance, and we are asking the court to order a new election. However, because the presidential election is actually a delegation of your constitutional duties as a legislator, you as a Georgia legislature are the body that is to choose the presidential electors.”
Smith proceeded to throw out numbers of alleged illegal votes: thousands of underage voters, felons, unregistered voters, dead voters and more. Those numbers were not correct, and there is some evidence to support that at least some people involved knew that.
And despite the election being counted twice — nearly thrice at that point — Smith told lawmakers that the election must be vacated, or that they could meet and pick different electors to represent the state.
"The actual results of legal ballots cast in the Nov. 3, 2020, election in compliance with the Georgia Election Code cannot be known ever, not by the secretary of state, not by the governor downstairs, not by the voting public, and not by this Georgia legislature," he said. "That is why the election must be vacated and cannot be allowed to stand. And that is why the Georgia legislature must exercise and fulfill its duties under the United States Constitution, the Georgia Constitution and Georgia law. The Georgia legislature must appoint the presidential electors to meet on Dec. 14, 2020."
Smith then turned the mic over to Texas-based lawyer Jacki Pick Deason, who narrated an infamous surveillance video from State Farm Arena on election night, alleging among other things that Fulton election workers were stuffing the totals with secret suitcases full of ballots after illegally kicking out observers.
"Is it normal to store suitcases of ballots under a table, under a tablecloth?" she asked. "Is that how they run the place? Maybe this is what they've been doing all day. Maybe this is what they're doing under all the tables."
That video, which elections officials quickly fact-checked, showed official containers of ballots — not suitcases — were tracked, and earlier that day in the other hearing even explained that a monitor was present the whole time and claims otherwise were false, something Democratic State Sen. Elena Parent pointed out.
"We heard from the secretary of state's office earlier, just a couple of hours ago, that they've investigated this repeatedly, that they had a monitor on site the entire time," she said. "And frankly, this has been debunked for weeks by our secretary of state's office."
Then the hearing — where nobody was required to be under oath — was turned over to Rudy Giuliani, who, along with Jenna Ellis, served as counsel to Trump and were part of the former president’s inner circle pushing the false claims of election fraud.
Giuliani turned things over to two "experts," Russell Ramsland and Phil Waldron, who used fuzzy math and shady allegations of connections to the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez to make nonsensical claims about Georgia. Waldron was later subpoenaed by the Fulton County special purpose grand jury investigating the attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
Another figure of interest is John Eastman, a conservative scholar who famously falsely said Vice President Kamala Harris is not a U.S. citizen, and who notably played a role in Georgia and other states by falsely telling lawmakers the Constitution allowed them to disregard their certified election results.
"The failure of state election officials to follow the manner you had set out in statutes in conducting this election, as well as the intermingling of illegal and legal ballots in significant enough numbers that the election can't be validly certified quite simply means that the state has failed to make a choice on Election Day in accordance with the manner that you prescribed," he said.
Eastman and Giuliani are among the unindicted co-conspirators listed in the federal indictment of Trump filed earlier this month, and their involvement in Georgia’s hearings could put them in hot water here.
Fanning the flames of fraudulent claims
In all, there were five hearings in the month of December. But since lawmakers were not in an official session, they could take no official actions. But the hearings did fan the flames of fraud in the face of elections officials.
A week after Giuliani and co. wrongly told senators they had the power to decide who won Georgia’s electoral votes, a House committee met and heard from Giuliani, Ray Smith and other people who repeated claims already examined and found to be false. In some cases their claims were debunked in real time, like when Democratic Rep. Bee Nguyen questioned one presentation of alleged illegal votes from Matt Braynard.
Of the first 10 names that were alleged out-of-state voters, Nguyen said she found public records that confirmed eight of them were longtime Georgia voters and property owners and one was a duplicate entry.
"They claim homestead exemption on these homes as their primary residence and they pay property taxes on their homes here in the state of Georgia," she said. "I was able to reach one voter on the phone. The voter verified that both he and his wife still live at this address in the state of Georgia and he has only voted in the state of Georgia."
Giuliani also made wild claims about two Fulton County election workers that contributed to death threats being made against them, and he recently admitted those claims were false as part of a defamation lawsuit filed against him.
"It's a tape earlier in the day of Ruby Freeman and Shaye Freeman Moss and one of the gentlemen quite obviously surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they are vials of heroin, of cocaine," he said. "It's obvious to anyone who's a criminal investigator or prosecutor. They are engaged in surreptitious, illegal activity again that day."
Documents obtained from the lawsuit also suggest that Giuliani and others knew before making some of these claims that there wasn’t evidence to back them up, which may play into the district attorney’s charging decisions in the next week or so.
Among other things, Georgia has a law dealing with false statements that could be used to cover those speaking at the hearings, and prosecutors are expected to make the argument these hearings were part of a multi-pronged pressure campaign enterprise that’s part of a pattern of racketeering activity — important distinctions for Georgia’s RICO Act.
RICO in Georgia is far more expansive than the federal act, and there are a number of charges that could stem from these legislative hearings and serve as what’s called “predicate acts” that could lead to a RICO indictment, including false statements and writings and influencing witnesses. The special purpose grand jury also indicated the possibility that some of the witnesses who testified under oath to them may have committed perjury, which is also a predicate act.
At a Dec. 23 House hearing, lawmakers heard from Raffensperger and other top state elections officials, who yet again explained why many claims made by Trump and others were false, pointing out segments that Newsmax and Fox News had to run as a mea culpa for spreading false information about the 2020 election, and offering hard numbers to rebut claims made in failed lawsuits.
"They've also alleged that 66,000 underage people voted," Germany said. Investigators found none, and also found nobody who voted without being registered, despite claims that more than 2,000 such ballots were cast.
But on Dec. 30, weeks after the election was finalized, certified and the authentic electoral college votes were sent off, Giuliani and several state Senate Republicans held one final hearing to try and toss out the results.
"This is probably the worst situation of voter fraud we've ever had in this country, Georgia is one example of it," Giuliani said. "You know, there are other examples of it Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, just to name a few. And in your case, you have documentary evidence of it. This is ... whatever the result, this election is going to live in history."
Aside from repeating the claims about suitcases of ballots, about Fulton County election workers and about voters that were already proven false, a new character entered the discussion in Jovan Hutton Pulitzer, a failed treasure hunter and inventor of a QR code reader that helped bankrupt Radio Shack, who claimed to hack Georgia’s voting system in real time (he did not) while making inaccurate claims about finding fake ballots by using imperceptible folds in the paper.
"What I'm going to be talking about is kinematic artifacts," he said. "That's the fold, the fold that's left over. You take a brand new dollar bill and you fold it — that fold will always be there."
This hearing led by Giuliani, just a week before the Electoral College would meet and officially declare Biden the winner, was not the end of efforts to cajole and pressure officials to reverse Trump’s defeat. The December hearings were just a small part of the effort to undo Georgia’s presidential election results but had a wide reach in convincing Trump’s most loyal supporters that a second term was stolen from him.
The hearings also contributed to sweeping election law changes pushed by Republicans in the aftermath of the January 2021 Senate runoffs that saw many conservatives stay home and two Democrats elected, flipping the balance of power in Washington and paving a path towards a more purple Georgia.
On the next episode of Battleground: Ballot Box:
While Rudy Giuliani and his band of so-called experts were publicly pushing for a different election outcome, others were taking matters into their own hands behind the scenes as part of the larger election conspiracy, from illegally accessing voting machines to falsely submitting elector paperwork to calls asking to “find” votes.
We look at the final pieces of the 2020 puzzle and how they fit together in a possible indictment of former President Trump.
Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting and is produced by Chase McGee. Our engineer is Jake Cook, 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.