Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger blames “both sides” for tolerating a climate of violence that has led to death threats against election officials and against himself and his family, he said Monday during a visit to Statesboro.
Reuters, followed by CNN, reported Friday that Raffensperger’s wife received a series of anonymous texts in April threatening the lives of the couple and their family. As guest speaker Monday for a Rotary Club of Statesboro meeting, he was interviewed by the Statesboro Herald before speaking to the club. One question was, who is to blame for the political atmosphere in which such threats occur?
“Both sides, because last year we witnessed an awful lot of rioting and other destructive behavior, violence when cities were overtaken and it came from far-left radical elements that were violent, and no one from the political establishment on the left condemned it,” Raffensperger said. “Likewise when it happens on the right, it requires us to then condemn violence that comes from the far fringes of our side.”
Reported threats toward Georgia election workers in 2020 and early 2021 were not limited to state-level officials. Local election directors were threatened and subjected to verbal abuse in some “red” and some “blue” majority counties, he said.
“We have to condemn violence on both sides, but it’s not going to work if I don’t clean up my own back yard first,” Raffensperger said, “and so if we on the right don’t clean up our back yard, how do we expect to have the moral authority to be challenging what’s happening on the left?”
Threats of violence against Georgia election officials became national news last fall and winter as then-President Donald Trump repeatedly asserted that he had won in the state despite now-President Joe Biden winning here by a margin of less than 12,000 votes .
Earlier in 2020, Georgia rolled out new touchscreen voting equipment that produces paper printouts of each voter’s choices. This enabled a kind of recount that would not have been possible with the previous equipment, and Raffensperger in November ordered a statewide hand “audit” of all the printouts and hand-marked absentee ballots. The results upheld the Biden victory, as did a second recount Trump requested and was entitled to under Georgia law because the margin was less than 0.5%.
Raffensperger publicly affirmed the integrity of Georgia’s elections each step of the way and testified before Congress that there was no evidence of significant fraud or other problems that could change the outcome.
Trump had notoriously called Raffensperger with a request to “find” more votes and ridiculed Gov. Brian Kemp, another fellow Republican, for not overturning the election result.
Then, on Jan. 5, a runoff made two Democrats, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s two U.S. senators, unseating two Republicans and giving Democrats slim control of the Senate. The next day, a mob of Trump supporters left a rally where he spoke and stormed the U.S. Capitol while members of Congress were attempting to certify the state-by-state presidential election outcome.
While still defending Georgia’s election results, Raffensperger also defends the bulk of changes in the state’s election laws enacted this year with Senate Bill 202 as needed to restore “voter confidence.”
Asked why this isn’t a contradiction, he started talking about parts of the new law he likes best.
First, the law now requires an identification card, such as a driver’s license or a free state-issued voter ID or an approved substitute document, for obtaining an absentee ballot. Previously, absentee ballot applications required only a registered voter’s address and a signature, which election officials attempted to match to a signature on record.
When he ran for secretary of state in 2018, Raffensperger was already saying that Georgia needed to move away from signature matching for absentee ballots to driver’s license numbers “as a form of objective identification,” he recalled.
“That’s what the General Assembly has finally done with SB 202,” he said. “My personal feeling is, that’s the best part of the whole bill because it removes the subjective nature of signatures and it goes to an objective nature of photo ID with your driver license number and then your birthdate.”
Noting that absentee ballots were “much maligned” but also used by a record number of voters last year, he said the ID requirement is an attempt to take one concern “off the table” and improve confidence in the absentee ballots, as well as the “safety and security” of the process.
Second among Raffensperger’s favorite parts of the new law is the addition of more days for in-person early voting. Previously, Georgia required that local election officials provide 16 days of early voting, including one Saturday, in most elections. Some counties also added Sunday voting. The new law adds a second required Saturday, increasing the required early voting days to 17, and allows voting on two optional Sundays by county-level decision.
“So we have up to 19 days, and that puts us at the top of the comparison charts to all of the other states in the country,” he said.
But the law shortens the time between an initial election and any runoff election to four weeks, so that a nine-week runoff campaign season, as occurred between Nov. 3 and Jan. 5, will not occur in the future. Raffensperger also expressed support for this change.
The new law also shortens the window of opportunity to request an absentee ballot from 180 days to 78 days before an election.
Election board chair
One provision he wishes had been left out is the new law’s removal of the secretary of state as chair of the State Elections Board. In fact, he has been removed as a voting member, after Georgia’s elected secretaries of state led the board for the past 50-plus years. Now the chair will be someone appointed by the governor and ratified by the Legislature, and who has not made campaign donations to any candidate in recent years.
“Almost like the mythical unicorn, it’s a nonpartisan, bipartisan person …,” Raffensperger said “But do I think it’s an awful lot of power to have in someone who’s unelected.”
He told the Rotary Club that the law in general should improve voter confidence and that voters being made to wonder whether their votes count was not new in 2020.
“The reason I know that is because back in 2016 when President Trump won the election, the other side said there was Russian collusion,” Raffensperger said. “Then you look at 2018 when Governor Kemp won by over 50,000 votes here in Georgia, (Democratic nominee) Stacey Abrams did not concede; she said it is due to voter suppression. Then we look at what happened in 2020.”
Pat Jones honored
Earlier Monday, at a regional meeting of county election directors in Springfield, Raffensperger presented an “Outstanding Georgia Citizen” certificate to outgoing Bulloch County Election Supervisor Patricia Lanier Jones. After 36 years working in elections, including the last 11-plus years as the county’s first appointed election supervisor, Jones has resigned effective June 30 but will continue as a county employee in a new role.
“So we wanted to recognize her effort but also recognize her entire team and also the county election staffs,” Raffensperger said here. “After what everyone had to work through last year, we owe them a debt of gratitude.”
Raffensperger did not speak of his candidacy to the Rotary Club, but he is seeking re-election in 2022 and already has some announced challengers.