MARIETTA, Georgia—Brad Raffensperger took on a task that few elected Republicans in the last four years have chosen: fact-checking the president of the United States.
“We can’t play nice in the sandbox, because they just keep on misrepresenting the truth,” Raffensperger said in an interview with The Daily Beast on Monday night. “You misrepresent the truth enough and you might as well call it for what it is: lies.”
The day before, Georgia’s top elections official took to Facebook to issue a string of pointed rebuttals to claims from President Trump and his GOP allies that the election they’d lost in Georgia was somehow corrupt and that it was the fault of officials like Raffensperger.
Raffensperger’s posts were so archly pointed that some Georgia Republicans thought the usually soft-spoken secretary of state had been hacked. But after a week of handling toxic criticism—and threats to his family—he’d just simply had enough.
“I’m also a realist. I understand that he has 50 million Twitter followers and I have 50,” said Raffensperger. “But you can holler and bellow all you want. At the end of the day, we’re gonna run an election with integrity, and we stand on our integrity.”
And the secretary of state gently suggested that if anyone is to blame for Trump’s 14,000-vote defeat in Georgia to President-elect Joe Biden after all the ballots were counted the first time, it’s hardly state elections officials.
“We can talk about the numbers, what he did wrong in his campaign, go down that road,” Raffensperger said, “but Sen. [David] Perdue picked up 14,500 more votes in the metro region than President Trump did. That’s the winning margin right there. All he had to do is do as good as Sen. Perdue.”
Raffensperger is currently presiding over an effort to count all 5 million votes in the presidential election a second time. Then, over the next 50 days, he will preside over one of the most closely watched Senate elections in memory, with Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) headed to runoff elections that will determine control of the upper chamber.
Last week, both Perdue and Loeffler signed a letter urging Raffensperger to resign, citing problems with Georgia’s elections without any evidence. In the days since, Raffensperger said that he and his wife have received death threats; his wife forwarded screenshots of the messages to Perdue and Loeffler but didn’t get any response. Representatives for Loeffler and Perdue did not respond to requests for comment.
Their letter was seen as an overture to Trump’s supporters—whom both Republican senators will need to show up in the runoff, set for Jan. 5—and Raffensperger was the most convenient person to shove under the bus to explain away Trump’s loss. Trump himself reportedly urged them to pressure Raffensperger to resign.
Still, the secretary says he plans to vote for the two, though he said, “If you’re a U.S. senator, I think you need to learn how to stand up to pressure and realize that you have a race to run.”
But the scapegoating of Raffensperger by Trump and his allies has proven effective among the rank and file in the Republican Party. In a drafty, cavernous hall at Cobb County’s fairgrounds on Monday, volunteers from both the GOP and the Democratic Party observed election workers counting votes by hand. The process was ordered by Raffensperger, in a bid to restore some faith in the process, and perhaps his stewardship of it.
That had not worked, apparently, on the Republicans tasked with safeguarding the process as representatives of their party. Cheryl, a GOP volunteer who declined to give her last name, told The Daily Beast she’s “really unhappy” with Raffensperger. She said she voted for Raffensperger, and GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, in 2018. “Would I vote for them again? No.”
Another volunteer, a software engineer from nearby Gwinnett County who requested he be identified as N.S., called the process “lip service… it’s really atrocious.”
Defenders of the president have produced no evidence that Georgia’s voting process is systematically flawed. They have thrown out conspiracy theories, following Trump’s lead, that vast tracts of votes for Trump were simply deleted or switched to Biden’s column. They have focused on Georgia’s laws on matching voters’ signatures on mail-in ballots to those in an electronic database, suggesting that the ballots were fraudulent. Raffensperger said he took steps to strengthen this process, insisting signatures are checked twice.
These were key elements of the secretary’s attempt at Facebook fact-checking. On Sunday, he shared a Trump tweet alleging the baseless conspiracy theory that a voting systems company called Dominion, used in Georgia, was responsible for the removal of 2.7 million votes for Trump nationwide. “Dominion voting system,” Raffensperger wrote. “American owned. America. ’Merica. Not Venezuela.”
And then the secretary shared another Trump tweet—a claim that mail-in voting was inherently corrupt—and responded by saying his team “secured and strengthened absentee ballots for the first time since 2005” and outlawed the “ballot harvesting” that Trump and Republicans decry. In the last sentence of that post, he called Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the leader of Trump’s recount effort in Georgia, a “liar—but what’s new?”
The hundreds of replies to Raffensperger’s posts revealed a mix of admiration for his stand—one wrote in from the U.K. to applaud him—along with unmistakable signs of deep trouble for him closer to home. “Quit lying to Georgians and secure the recount,” said one, who then asked, “Did you take money from China, Sir?”
“You decided to inflict the Dominion voting system on us Georgia voters, despite the KNOWN corrupt software and its ties to [George] Soros,” said another user, surfacing the conspiracy theory that Raffensperger gently mocked. “I can’t wait to vote you out of office!”
“A lot of Republicans will be mad at him for simply doing his job,” said a source close to GOP leadership in the state who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the intraparty dynamics. He predicted that if Biden is certified as the winner in Georgia, many Republicans will accuse Raffensperger of being a Biden campaign plant, a RINO, or worse.
Raffensperger said he has not heard directly from the president, the Trump campaign, or other top GOP officials. But he did hear from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), an ally of the president’s, who called Raffensperger on Friday to ask him about Georgia’s signature-matching rules—and, in Raffensperger’s telling, suggested that a number of ballots might be thrown out on that basis.
After the conversation was reported by The Washington Post, Graham told Capitol Hill reporters on Monday night that he wanted to learn about Georgia’s election rules directly from the secretary of state because the outcome “affects the whole nation.”
“Rather than hearing all these internet things I just call the guy and say how does it work, how can you make it better,” Graham said. He also denied that he asked Raffensperger if he could toss ballots. “I had a very pleasant conversation with him,” he said.
Graham also denied that Trump asked him to call Raffensperger—a fair question, given the president’s intense focus on the Georgia recount and his amplification of false claims about the process.
To Raffensperger’s allies, the torrent of anger and frustration that’s been laid at his feet is unfair—and ironic, given his reputation. Ron Stephens, a GOP state representative from Savannah, got to know Raffensperger during his four years in the legislature. “He was, I like to say, one of the more conservative members of the caucus,” Stephens told The Daily Beast. “Lots more conservative than me.”
“He’s doing it right,” Stephens said of his friend’s performance. “I can tell you, he’s doing it right, making sure that every legitimate vote that was cast is counted.”
Democrats, meanwhile, don’t all see Raffensperger as a hero. Sara Tindall Ghazal, a Democratic attorney who was at the Cobb County recount site as an observer, said Raffensperger is “working hard to reassure voters that our process works the way it’s supposed to work.”
“I don’t know that this is necessarily the best way of doing it,” Ghazal continued, noting that Raffensperger fused two ballot review options—an audit and a recount—to initiate a hand review of every vote, which typically isn’t done in this way. “I think he was under political pressure to take an audit process and really turn it into a recount,” she said. “It’s not the best use of taxpayer dollars, in my opinion… This process will reaffirm what we’ve already seen. Hand recounts rarely change an outcome.”
Under Georgia law, when the hand-conducted recount is finished by Nov. 20, a traditional recount—done by machine—could still take place. Raffensperger has to certify the state’s election results before the Electoral College meets to formally elect Biden on Dec. 14. Few major changes are expected to the state’s results, but the process did unearth several thousand new ballots on Monday in Floyd County, a Trump-leaning area, which could chip into Biden’s lead.
But for the GOP faithful helping to watch over the process at Cobb County, it was hard to see any additional measures, much less anything from the secretary of state, mitigating their distrust of the system, which is cementing quickly.
Sandra Hausmann, a volunteer and Cobb County native, didn’t have anything negative to say about the state’s election officials. But she called the process “sloppy, sloppy, sloppy” based on what she has seen so far. “It makes me worried about the Senate races—is that going to be legitimate? I don’t trust it at all.”
Asked about eroding public trust in the upcoming elections in which Georgians will decide the balance of the Senate, Raffensperger simply said, “Everyone should think for themselves.”
“There are people in elected office who play with people’s emotions and spin them up and demagogue… Shame on them,” he said. “I understand how important elections are. I want everyone to have confidence that your secretary of state is not putting his thumb on the scale, so that every race, no matter from City Council to U.S. senator, that whoever is declared the victor, you know that they won it, honestly.”