Georgia’s top election official said he believes the COVID-19 pandemic is “gone,” making the efforts enacted last year to expand voting access no longer necessary—and it’s one reason he’s opposing a Justice Department lawsuit against his state’s new voting law.
“It was a once-in-a-century event. We are now back to a situation where more Georgians will want to return to vote in person,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told The Daily Beast on Friday.
In a document filed in court on Wednesday, Raffensperger and the state officials asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, making the case that the new law is not as draconian as critics make it seem.
In a phone interview, Raffensperger defended the controversial SB 202 law that passed earlier this year and quickly attracted numerous legal challenges for limiting voting access and reducing the number of ballot dropboxes. It also makes it easier to subvert future elections by allowing Georgia’s Republican senate to appoint members of the state election board, then granting that board new powers to take control of county election operations.
Raffensperger lambasted a Justice Department lawsuit filed in June that, for example, seeks to maintain the level of access provided by temporary measures taken to address the spread of the coronavirus, such as the additional absentee ballot dropboxes that were placed on government property under video surveillance.
“The DOJ using COVID-19 really rings hollow,” he said. “Things come and go. This pandemic came, and by and large is gone. Sure, there's still concerns out there. But where we are now, SB 202 fits well.”
The health statistics paint a different picture. Georgia is a sea of red, where 90 percent of Georgia’s counties are currently experiencing a “high level of community transmission,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is headquartered in Atlanta. In the past week, 18,000 people have gotten sick with the coronavirus and 61 have died. And while the unvaccinated population is largely propelling the growing rate of infections, Georgia has one of the worst rates in the country. Only 38 percent of the state is fully vaccinated.
The nation as a whole is facing a growing wave of infections due to the more severe Delta variant of the virus, which is transmitted as easily as chickenpox even by those who are vaccinated, according to a leaked report obtained by The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Raffensperger countered that the state’s officials could still reimplement expanded access if health conditions worsen.
“If the state election board needs to make emergency rules, I'm sure they'll make those decisions like they did last year,” he said.
The Justice Department’s June 25 lawsuit names Raffensperger as a defendant alongside the state of Georgia itself and its election board. The suit claims that the state’s legislators “intended to deny or abridge the right of Black Georgians to vote on account of race or color” when it outlawed distribution of food and water to people who wait in line to vote and began to require an ID to request an absentee ballot.
“The Georgia legislature enacted SB 202 with knowledge of the disproportionate effect that these provisions… would have on Black voters’ ability to participate in the political process on an equal basis with white voters,” it said.
In the state’s legal filing opposing the DOJ lawsuit, officials noted that some other states already have similar restrictions in place that limit what people can gift voters waiting in line. They pointed out how it’s a misdemeanor in New York to provide “any meat, drink, tobacco, refreshment, or provision” worth more than a dollar, and it’s illegal in Montana for anyone associated with a campaign to hand out drinks or snacks.
“It really points out the hypocrisy of the Department of Justice not attacking what Democratic states are doing,” Raffensperger said.
A similar lawsuit filed by a Colorado-based election integrity nonprofit, Coalition for Good Governance, recently met resistance by the very same federal judge overseeing the DOJ’s case. On July 7, U.S. District Judge Jean-Paul "J. P." Boulee refused to step in and pause enforcement of the law, citing “the risk of disrupting the administration of an ongoing election” taking place the next week. Georgia held special election runoffs for vacant seats in its legislature on July 13, but weeks later there is still no updated ruling from the judge, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump.
The dominant view that the law is a power grab for conservatives seems supported by the way battle lines are being drawn on these legal challenges, pitting the GOP against a range of nonprofits that want to increase voter access. In the DOJ’s case, the Republican National Committee, Georgian Republican Party, and National Republican Senatorial Committee have lined up in support of the new law and are asking the federal judge to kill the lawsuit before a trial. Also joining the effort is Greater Georgia, a group started by former Sen. Kelly Loeffler to mobilize the state’s conservative base.
In the interview, Raffensperger also revealed that his office has yet to receive a subpoena from Fulton County’s district attorney, which is investigating Trump’s attempts to manipulate election results in Georgia. That revelation shows that the much-anticipated investigation is proceeding slower than initially expected.
Raffensperger, a Republican, drew national attention at the start of the year when the public heard an audio recording of a Jan. 2 phone call in which Trump pressured him to “find 11,780 votes” in order to reverse Trump's election loss. The Atlanta-area district attorney, Fani Willis, kicked off an investigation and ordered Raffensperger’s government agency to retain relevant records.
In March, Willis told The Daily Beast that Atlanta jurors would be asked to issue subpoenas demanding documents and recordings related to the Trump investigation “in the very near future.” But according to Insider, the Trump investigation has taken a backseat, because the office is inundated with local cases due to the spike in crime.