SOS for Democracy

Heading into general election, Raffensperger’s voting policies face scrutiny

Democrats and voting rights organizations say Raffensperger's win over a Trump-endorsed candidate doesn’t mean he’s a champion for voting rights.

ATLANTA – It started with a phone call in early 2021. Soon the money flowed in, the media descended and what would typically be a sleepy race for the chief election official in Georgia quickly became one of the most-watched races of the 2022 primary elections. 

When Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger defeated a congressman aligned with former President Donald Trump in the Republican primary in May, many hailed his victory as a vindication over lies that the 2020 presidential election results were fraudulent.

And Raffensperger’s testimony before the House committee probing the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol attack burnished that view for many, as he testified about the threats he and his family have received because he refused Trump’s demands to “find” votes and overturn the state’s 2020 election results.

But Democrats and various voting rights groups say Raffensperger’s no hero — he’s an official with a history of supporting voter suppression policies.

There was “a voter suppressor versus an election denier in the primary,” said Jena Griswold, the chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, ahead of the May 24 election.

Secretary of state elections rarely gain national attention. But the job has taken on new significance as Trump-endorsed candidates espouse rhetoric doubting the validity of the 2020 election.

“They make the races an existential threat to democracy,” Griswold said.

Defying Trump

On Jan. 2, 2021, Trump placed a now-infamous phone call to Raffensperger, demanding the secretary of state find just enough votes to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election results.

“I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state,” Trump said.

Raffensperger declined. Instead, he certified Biden’s win in the state.

Four days later, on Jan. 6, insurrectionists descended on the U.S. Capitol to prevent the certification of President Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 election; just days later, Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., voted not to certify Georgia’s and Pennsylvania’s election results.

Hice announced his candidacy for Georgia secretary of state two months later, receiving Trump’s endorsement almost immediately. The Republican primary quickly became the epitome of the battle between the establishment and Trump wings of the Republican Party.

As fewer states remain competitive in presidential elections, Georgia’s 16 electoral votes have become more crucial for any candidate who would win the White House.

In November, Raffensperger will run against Democratic Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen, who won her primary runoff on Tuesday.

Vanderbilt University student Shane Mumma said he showed up at an Atlanta-area rally the night before the Republican primary election to support incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp and other conservatives on the ballot.

“I think Brad Raffensperger is just a good guy,” Mumma said. “A, he’s a conservative who wants to do the best for Georgia, and B, he stood up [to] Trump who’s just trying to meddle in our great state.”

J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor for the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ nonpartisan newsletter, said Raffensperger’s repudiation of Trump has created a “halo effect” around him in the eyes of some voters.

In most states, an association with Trump helps a Republican candidate. But because of Trump’s efforts to overturn Georgia’s election results, candidates like Raffensperger could seem more appealing to moderate voters in suburban counties in the general election, Coleman said.

Controversial voting policies

But Democrats and others say Raffensperger’s record on elections is less about encouraging voting and more about setting up roadblocks.

At a campaign event for Nguyen, Porsha White, vice president of voting rights and state organizing at End Citizens United/Let America Vote, said Raffensperger was no upholder of democracy. In recent years, Georgia has gained national attention for its purging of voter rolls and long lines during elections.

End Citizens United/Let America Vote contributes to campaigns of secretaries of state and attorneys general, “the stopgap to literally protecting our democracy,” White said. The group endorsed Nguyen. 

As secretary of state, Raffensperger supported Georgia’s controversial Senate Bill 202, which imposed new restrictions on voting, including decreased access to drop boxes and new voter ID requirements for absentee voting.

For people who work long hours or odd shifts, the lack of drop boxes makes it harder to find the time to vote, said Kristin Nabers, Georgia director of the voting rights group All Voting is Local.

Nabers said that even with expanded early voting, the select hours at polling stations still present a barrier for the people whom the drop boxes were initially meant to serve.

Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow emeritus at the center-right think tank American Enterprise Institute, applauded Raffensperger for rejecting Trump’s demands. However, he added, “If I were picking my ideal secretary of state, he wouldn’t be it.”

“It’s not as if Raffensperger is a villain — he deserves all the praise that he got for standing up for a fair election and the correct election result in 2020 — but he’s not somebody I would prefer to have as a secretary of state in the state of which I was living,” Ornstein said.

Ornstein pointed to his support of the “pretty draconian provisions” included in SB 202.

The controversial election law also allows Georgia’s State Election Board to take over election operations from local officials in counties accused of mismanaging elections.

“It’s incredibly important that a secretary of state works to expand access to the ballot box instead of putting blame and responsibility on local election officials trying to do their job,” said Esosa Osa, executive deputy director of Fair Fight.

Fair Fight, a voting rights organization created in 2018 by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, also alleges that Raffensperger engaged in discriminatory election practices. The group sued Raffensperger in 2018 and is currently engaged in active litigation. Fair Fight endorsed Nguyen.

However, in a news release, Raffensperger said the record turnout witnessed in early voting in Georgia’s May primary this year showed that SB 202 “struck a good balance between the guardrails of access and security.”

Mixed messages

Despite upholding the results of the 2020 election, Raffensperger frequently focused his campaign on combating unsubstantiated insecurities in the state’s election apparatus.

The incumbent secretary of states touted his efforts to curb election fraud, conducting an audit of the state’s voter rolls to verify voters’ citizenship status.

Jordan Fuchs, Raffensperger’s campaign manager, said that without citizenship checks, the state’s election would be exposed to foreign actors. During the audit, Raffensperger found that there were thousands of noncitizens who attempted to register to vote, she said.

Although 1,634 non-citizens sought to register to vote, state election officials said none cast a ballot in the 2020 election.

When Hice suggested in a May Republican debate that ballot harvesting — a pejorative name for ballot collection by third parties — occurred in Georgia, Raffensperger countered by saying that he outlawed the practice.

“I’m the only candidate to successfully outlaw ballot harvesting, and I will continue to investigate every charge that we see,” Raffensperger said.

However, there have been no proven cases of widespread illegitimate ballot harvesting in the state. On May 17, the Georgia State Election Board rebutted claims of ballot harvesting in Georgia, dismissing three allegations brought by a conservative activist about the 2020 election.

“What we’re looking at here is a secretary of state who talks out of both sides of his mouth,” Nguyen told USA Today.

Nguyen said although Raffensperger followed the law and did the right thing in the Trump phone call, he has attempted to curry favor with a right-wing base in the aftermath. She added: “He is running on policies that are not only unnecessary, but they are predicated on the Big Lie,” a term used to describe the continued false claims and lies about a stolen election in 2020.

Fuchs, however, denied allegations that the secretary’s work on ballot harvesting bought into similar rhetoric as that of election deniers.

“These claims are silly,” Fuchs said. “The secretary pushed legislation to ban ballot harvesting in 2019 and believes no one should be between you and your ballot, especially political activists.”

Griswold, who also serves as the secretary of state for Colorado, said Raffensperger’s policies suppressed voting in Georgia and targeted communities of color.

“He did his job in 2020. He refused to throw an election for a candidate,” Griswold said. “But that’s the minimum we should be doing as secretaries of state — our job is to uphold the will of the people.”

At the national level, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which focuses on electing Republicans in state-level races across the country, threw its weight behind Raffensperger the day after he won the state GOP primary.

Dee Duncan, the organization’s president, described Raffensperger as “a principled leader in the effort to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat in Georgia” and pointed to Democrats as trying to change election rules.

“National Democrats are ramping up their investments in secretary of state races across the country as they seek to dismantle democracy by handing control of our elections to D.C. instead of the states, and Georgia will be central to their effort,” Duncan said.

Jan. 6 hearing

On Tuesday, Raffensperger spoke before the special House committee investigating the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6, the latest in 

He spoke not only about the election itself, but about the aftermath — including the significant repercussions on his own family. 

Personal information about himself and his wife, Tricia, was released, or doxxed, and he received threatening text messages from across the country.

Trump’s followers even broke into his daughter-in-law’s home.

“My son has passed and she’s a widow and has two kids,” Raffensperger said. “And so we’re very concerned about her safety also.”

Despite the pressure, he said, he didn’t quit his job, “because I knew that we did follow the law, we followed the Constitution. I think sometimes moments require you to stand up and just take the shots. You’re doing your job. That’s all we did.”