ATLANTA—It has not been an easy two months to be a Georgia election official: Everyone from the Secretary of State down to county-level officials and poll workers have received death threats, harassment, and an avalanche of angry emails from legions of Donald Trump supporters who cling to the erroneous belief that they presided over a rigged election on Nov. 3.
All the while, these officials have been preparing for another hugely consequential election, Tuesday’s Senate runoff. If the reaction to Trump’s defeat—namely, the sprouting of dozens of conspiracy theories about Georgia’s elections—is any indication, a close race, or a win by Democratic candidates, could land like a match in a powder keg.
“Obviously, we’re on edge,” said Baoky Vu, a Republican member of the elections board in DeKalb County, a swath of suburban Atlanta with 700,000 residents. “But that’s not because of the runoff today—it’s because of what Trump has done over the last six weeks.”
Vu’s priority, he told The Daily Beast on Tuesday, is ensuring the safety of DeKalb County’s election workers. His second—like that of many Georgia elections workers—is debunking the myriad election-related conspiracy theories in the conservative media ecosystem and preparing for those that will inevitably come if the Senate-deciding runoffs don’t go the way that Republicans want.
“There’s no throwing away Dominion machines, no shredding of ballots—it is sad and pathetic to hear these baseless accusations leveled at poll workers, poll officials, elected officials, from the party,” said Vu. “It’s just sad to hear these baseless lies from the president on down.”
President Trump brought these baseless conspiracy theories right to Georgia during a Monday rally where he repeated many of the same falsehoods he uttered during a now-infamous phone call with the Georgia secretary of state and others on Saturday. During that call, first reported by The Washington Post, Trump tried to persuade officials to help him steal the already-concluded election. And after delivering smear after smear against members of his own party and Georgia officials, even as those insults have inspired a wave of abusive threats, there has been little remorse. But there has been a mounting desire for retribution.
For weeks, the president has talked openly and begun plotting behind closed doors about campaigning against Georgia’s Republican, pro-Trump governor Brian Kemp, should a primary challenge emerge, all because Kemp didn’t overturn democracy in his own state to Trump’s satisfaction.
When Trump has been informed of or privately discussed reports of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and others in the state receiving death threats due to false claims that Trump and his followers have aggressively promoted, the president has reacted dismissively and callously, according to two people familiar with the matter. Trump even suggested that these grim situations are all the fault of officials such as Raffensperger.
One source said Trump brushed off concerns regarding threats of violence, adding that (in this source’s paraphrase), “[Brad] shouldn’t be worried about that, he should be worried about being part of one of the biggest crimes in American history.” The other source recounted the president saying in recent weeks that though “nobody” likes death threats, these threats would “stop” immediately if Raffensberger just “did the right thing.” (In Trump’s assessment, the “right” course of action here would be to help him rig an election that the outgoing president decisively lost to his Democratic opponent in November.)
Last month, the Georgia secretary of state told ABC News that his family had been getting death threats, and his wife sent “sexualized text” messages. Raffensperger added that threats were also being aimed at staffers at his office, as well as at election workers.
Some of those workers, like Gabriel Sterling, the state’s election systems implementation manager, have had to get extra police protection at their homes due to the threats. Matt Mashburn, a Republican member of Georgia’s statewide Board of Elections, told The Daily Beast in December that he got so much hate mail that he needed a special box at the Post Office.
Reached by The Daily Beast on Election Day, Mashburn said the vitriol has subsided—to a degree. “I did get accused of treason this week,” said Mashburn. “And I didn’t know Georgia was at war.”
But what bothers most election officials, more than personal threats, is the alarming rate at which election conspiracy theories have taken root among voters, undermining trust in the state’s election system. On Monday, Sterling illustrated the scale of the challenge in fighting back: During a nationally-televised press conference, he coolly dispatched various lies step-by-step, from explaining that Trump ballots didn’t disappear to noting that Raffensperger does not have a brother named Ron. It took him the better part of an hour.
Officials like Mashburn frequently do the same sort of work privately, one-on-one with angry callers or emailers. He said that he has “regulars” who send him new theories or rumors almost daily—and when he takes them apart, that person will come back the next day with something new from another fringe media outlet.
“The people who can actually prevent the fraud, the real fraud—all of our time is being used up responding to silliness and foolishness and debunked conspiracy theories, rather than real offenses we know are going on,” said Mashburn, who also noted that the scope of “real offenses” is not nearly large enough to swing an election.
“We have the tools in Georgia to run the cleanest, most transparent, most auditable election in the history of the state,” he said, “and nobody believes it.”
David Worley, a Democratic member of the state board of elections who recently found a homemade sign near his home telling him he was bound for jail because of treason, has mostly shrugged at the steady stream of conspiracy theories directed toward Georgia officials. Not that it hasn’t been utterly wacky: He forwarded to The Daily Beast an email from a Florida woman, sent to every statewide elected official in Georgia, every lawmaker, every county chair, and every election official.
“Are you going to continue to expose yourself to possible prison time because of the lawlessness of your secretary of state?” the woman asked. “What are you going to do? Some of you need to come out from among them and come clean… I'm going to give you a few numbers you can call and if you get a hold of me I can get you in touch with someone from the Trump family directly.” Linked at the bottom was an article from the far-right Gateway Pundit blog.
Such views are widely-held among Georgia Republican voters. At rallies to support Sens. David Perdue (R-GA) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) in the final stretch of the campaign, various speakers have been met with applause for declaring that Joe Biden couldn’t have possibly won the state in November. (He won it.)
Subsequently, many GOP voters do not believe that Ossoff and Warnock can win Tuesday’s race fair and square.
“There is no way I can believe that Biden was as far ahead as Trump was,” said Linda Stabler, a retired resident of Carroll County who went to cast her vote early last Wednesday. “If they’re going to cheat, they should make it look realistic. Because there’s no way.”
Still, Worley believes that Georgia will move forward no matter what happens in the runoff that might inflame the conspiracies sphere.
“So the same kind of stuff happens again—what does it mean?” he asked. “Unless they’re willing to engage in armed insurrection, who cares? President Trump lost, he’s not gonna be president... if Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock win, they're gonna be the senators. That’s just what it is.”
As for Republicans, party leaders and Trump-aligned operatives have feared that the president and his lieutenants’ constant stream of messaging against the integrity of Georgia’s election system and the GOP officials overseeing it risked dampening the enthusiasm or turnout of their much-needed voters in the critical Senate races. This week, the party is set to find out if their own leader, consumed by his own anti-democratic grievances and determination for revenge, can be blamed for blowing those very races.
“I don’t like the situation we’ve been in for the past couple of months, [and] I think there are ways to solve this stuff without whipping the crowd into a frenzy,” said former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), who for years has served as one of Trump’s most loyal media surrogates. “But unfortunately, this seems to be the way things have gone. It is regrettable that what started out as a family argument [between the president and top Georgia Republicans] was not resolved at the kitchen table and instead spilled out in the streets and has continued all along. And we cannot fool ourselves, as Republicans, into thinking that does not hurt.”