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Tight Georgia election sent Republicans after Republican

ATLANTA – Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s top election official, considers himself the most loyal of Republicans. There was no question of which candidates he would support in last week’s elections.

“I’ve never voted for Republicans,” Raffensperger said Tuesday in an interview in his office at the State Capitol. “I’ve been a Republican or a Conservative, you know, since I was a teenager.

Indeed, since taking office in January 2019, Mr. Raffensperger, the Secretary of State, has been the target of Democrats in Georgia’s high-stakes, passionate and bitterly partisan election wars.

In his nearly two years on the job, he has championed policies designed to guard against a threat of voter fraud that Democrats say virtually non-existent. He has been the subject of multiple lawsuits and TV commercials blaming him for presiding over a botched June primary that left voters waiting for hours in long lines. Democrats also have accused him “State sponsored voter intimidation”.

Now Mr Raffensperger, a civil engineer and figures specialist who received high marks from national experts on how well the Georgia elections were conducted on November 3, finds himself defending an electoral process which he says has no reason to be wary.

Critics have come from Mr Trump and state senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, both of whom face a competitive January run-off that could determine control of the Senate. Senators on Monday said in a joint statement that Raffensperger had “let down the Georgian people” and failed to hold “fair and transparent elections”.

“I fully expected this to come from one side,” Raffensperger said of the review. But, he added, “not from your own ranks”.

It was a twist that few saw coming.

Mr Raffensperger said he had no intention of resigning and stressed that the statewide vote count was legitimate. There may have been “isolated incidents” of irregularities, he said in this week’s interview, and his office was investigating these.

“But we haven’t heard of any widespread electoral fraud,” he said.

The Trump campaign, however, continued to claim that many things went wrong in the Georgia election, part of a larger narrative of national voter fraud that was almost uniformly rejected by election officials from both parties.

On Tuesday, the campaign and the Republican Party of Georgia sent Raffensperger a letter claiming “hundreds of reports of vote discrepancies”, including “tens of thousands of ballots being illegally counted.”

The letter demanded, among other things, a manual recount of the nearly five million votes cast. He also asked Mr. Raffensperger to “trace the chain of possession of ballots from printing to sending, from receipt to counting” in an election which, due to the coronavirus pandemic, has involved hundreds of thousands of postal ballots in the mail – much like the situation in dozens of other states.

On Wednesday morning, Raffensperger announced a manual recount of ballots in all 159 counties, an order that only applies to the presidential ticket. Even if Mr. Trump were to win Georgia, Mr. Biden has already won the national election.

This week, other Republicans also raised questions about the electoral process Mr Raffensperger oversaw. Gov. Brian Kemp, Republican and former Secretary of State, said Raffensperger must “seriously examine” the allegations of improprieties. All members of Georgia’s 2021 House Republican delegation made a similar request.

In his office Tuesday, Mr. Raffensperger, a tall, silvery-haired, austere-looking man, seemed both calm and cautious as he described Georgia’s predicament – as well as his own. Sometimes he would turn to Jordan Fuchs, the Assistant Secretary of State, who reminded him of the first words of answers they had apparently repeated.

When asked if he thought he was being thrown under the bus by fellow Republicans, he took what appeared to be subtle digs at Mr. Trump, who was following Mr. Biden by about 14,000 votes in Georgia on Wednesday, and Mrs. Loeffler and Mr. Perdue. .

“Well in Georgia you have to win over 50 percent and then you’re not in a second round,” he said of the Senators. “And if you win big, that wouldn’t be a problem.”

The attacks on Mr. Raffensperger shattered the facade of Republican unity ahead of some of the biggest polls in recent American history. They also appear to be a way for Ms Loeffler and Mr Perdue to curry favor with Georgians who, like Senators, are staunch fans of the President and outraged by the vote count.

But the strategy also comes with risks. Telling Trump supporters that the electoral process is rigged in Georgia could deter them from voting in the second round. And anger over Mr Raffensperger’s treatment is simmering among some longtime Republicans.

Leo Smith, consultant to Mr. Raffensperger’s office and former director of diversity recruiting for the state’s Republican Party, called criticism of Georgia’s vote “an insult to those hardworking and devoted Republicans who oversaw the ‘election”. In an interview, Mr. Smith described Mr. Raffensperger’s criticisms as “people who have been caught in this bad leadership of a petulant president who has lost and who uses his loss to intimidate other Republicans into complying with conspiracy theories on vote”.

Mr. Raffensperger, 65, began his political career on the city council of the affluent Atlanta suburb of Johns Creek. In public, he exhibits a sort of picky madness, with a voice that rarely exceeds the impartial tone of an official behind the desk of a Department of Motor Vehicles office.

Even so, it is seen as very ambitious, and observers note that Mr Kemp has shown how the secretary of state’s office can be used as a springboard.

After his stint on city council, Mr Raffensperger, married with two living adult sons and a third who died in 2018, spent a few years in the state legislature. In his 2018 candidacy for secretary of state, he loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign, telling voters he would focus on “protecting our elections,” especially against immigrants who are entered the country illegally.

He did not garner more than 50% of the vote and ended up in a run-off with a Democrat, former US Representative John Barrow, at a time when much of the country had started to question whether the system Georgian election was really fair.

Weeks earlier, Stacey Abrams, a rising star in the Democratic Party, had narrowly lost to Mr Kemp in his bid to become the state’s first black governor. Along the way, she and her supporters had argued that Mr Kemp was aided by election crackdown tactics he had engaged in as Secretary of State.

Shortly after the loss of Ms Abrams, an organization she founded, Fair Fight Action, filed a complaint that the state had removed more than 100,000 inactive voters from its lists. As a result of the trial, 22,000 people were reinstated.

Last year, state lawmakers passed a law that extended the length of time registered voters could remain inactive before their names were purged. The legislature also virtually eliminated a rule that signatures on voter registration cards had to match other documents.

Fair Fight Action continued to play a central role in criticizing Mr. Raffensperger’s electoral policies in a state where Republican dominance was challenged by a resurgent Democratic Party, fueled in part by changing demographics.

In April, Lauren Groh-Wargo, managing director of Fair Fight Action, criticized Mr. Raffensperger after announcing the creation of a task force on postal voting fraud, anticipating the widespread use of these ballots during the pandemic.

When Mr Raffensperger took office last year, he inherited a lawsuit involving the security of the state’s voting machines, claiming they were vulnerable to hacking, and was charged with introduce a new system. Its complexity – combined with no-shows from hundreds of polling officers fearful of catching the virus – led to a meltdown during the Georgia primary in June, with machinery malfunctions and long lines.

Hoping to avert a similar disaster in the general election, county officials, aided by state and nonprofit groups, launched a massive campaign to recruit election officials and Mr Raffensperger’s is committed to sending technicians to each polling station on polling day. Voters across Georgia have been inundated with the message that they should vote by absentee ballot or early voting sites.

The result was a record turnout in Georgia and a smooth in-person vote on November 3.

Andrea Young, the executive director of the ACLU Georgia, praised the way Raffensperger handled this year’s general election and called this week’s criticism “voter suppression 2.0”.

“As a kid from the South,” she said, “it seems like too many blacks voted and we don’t like it.

But now those numbers are being called into question. Mr Raffensperger said he only wanted to instill confidence in the system, even as it appeared to be moving away.

“At the end of the day, half the people will be happy. Half the people will be sad, ”he said. “But our goal is for 100% of the population to have confidence in the outcome of the elections.”

Richard Fausset reported from Atlanta, and Stephanie Saul from New York. Danny hakim contributed reporting from New York.

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Maine voting system threatens Collins in closing days of tight Senate race

CUMBERLAND, Maine – Sara Gideon, her voice hoarse on a cold Friday night, stood in the center of a fairground scene like the headline of a rally behind the wheel, making a closing speech to a choir of horns from car and headlights appreciating a Democrat-dominated government that would act aggressively to tackle climate change, economic and racial inequalities and runaway health care costs.

A day earlier, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, had crossed the state in her signature campaign bus with a very different message, highlighting the billions of dollars she had directed to Maine businesses during the pandemic and her life of connections made across state, barely mentioning President Trump or his party leaders as she played her mark of moderate pragmatist.

The appearances reflected the contrast between the two women leading the most expensive Senate race in Maine history. That has hardly changed since Ms Gideon entered the fray more than 16 months ago, hoping to capitalize on Liberal anger against Mr Trump and outrage over Ms Collins’ vote for confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court to deny the Republican senator a fifth term.

But thanks to a presidential impeachment trial, a deadly pandemic, and yet another historically partisan Supreme Court confirmation battle, neither candidate has been able to maintain a consistent advantage in the race. Instead, due to a relatively new voting system in Maine, the outcome of the contest – and potentially the balance of power in the Senate – may not revert to who voters in Maine nominate first, but to who they appoint second.

Tuesday’s contest will likely be the first time Maine has counted second choices in a Senate race using a ranked choice voting system that has been in place since 2018. It allows voters to list a second candidate and counts those preferences as votes if no one reaches 50% when the first choice votes are tallied. The system could prove particularly dangerous for Ms Collins – who, like Ms Gideon, has consistently fallen below 50% in public polls in recent months – because Lisa Savage, a progressive who presents herself as independent in the race , urged her supporters to list Ms. Gideon second.

“It’s obviously a very close race, but I feel the momentum is breaking me,” Ms. Collins said Thursday, after munching on an ice cream cone as she completed a series of rainy business tours. local in two counties. “My goal is to get 50% on election day, and ranked choice voting wouldn’t come into play. So that’s what I’m hoping for.

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But there is little evidence Ms Collins has been able to take the lead in recent weeks. Even after she became the only Republican to break with her party and Mr. Trump last week to vote against Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, citing the proximity of the election, voters appeared unmoved. In statewide interviews, his supporters and opponents both felt it was a necessary political move to woo moderate voters, with Democrats noting that it did nothing to affect the result.

“It’s hard to ruin your party, and I give it credit for it,” said Lara Rosen, 39, who was packed in her car with a cup of haddock chowder and her 5-year-old son Isaac Rosen. -Murray. to support Mrs. Gideon. “It’s not enough. It’s not the only thing I care about.

Maine first rolled out its statewide ranked choice voting system two years ago, allowing voters to rank their preferences instead of choosing a single candidate. If the election ends without any candidate reaching at least 50%, the one with the fewest votes is eliminated and these ballots are redistributed to the remaining candidates according to the voters’ second choice. The elimination process continues until a candidate has passed the threshold of majority.

The system, which is also used in Australia, Ireland and in the race for the best Oscar picture, proved to be prominent in Maine’s second congressional district in 2018. After garnering more votes as a second or third choice, Jared Golden, a Democrat, Unelected Representative Bruce Poliquin, a Republican who had been the first choice of more voters. (Independent Senator Angus King who is Caucasian with Democrats easily crossed the bar with over 54% of the vote that year.)

“It’s not as simple as you might think – there is no clear political flow from candidates from small parties to candidates from the majority,” said Daniel M. Shea, professor of government at Colby College. and senior researcher on college polls. of the Senate race. In the college’s final poll, which called the race a “statistical overheating,” a brash businessman Max Linn won 1.7% of the vote while Ms Savage, a teacher linked to the Maine Green Independent Party, got 4.7%, behind Ms Gideon at 46.6% and Ms Collins at 43.4%. The poll had a 3.3% margin of error.

Mr Linn, an often belligerent presence in the debate who cut off surgical masks in the middle of an exchange to illustrate opposition to a mask warrant, said in an interview that he is not working to influence his supporters who ranked second on their ballot. But Ms Savage, who supports several progressive causes like Medicare for all and a Green New Deal, has built her campaign in part around explaining choice voting – and urging her supporters to “vote blue # 2” and direct their secondary votes to Mrs. Gideon.

“Our platform and our issues are what most young voters resonate with, but they say, ‘I don’t believe in electoral politics; I don’t think it changes anything; I’m not very inclined to vote, ”Ms. Savage said on Saturday. She was sitting at a table at the Portland Farmers’ Market that offered condoms branded “Medicare for all”, rainbow “Lisa for Maine” pins and several explanations of the voting system. “So now our pitch to them is, ‘But we have a choice vote. It amplifies the power of your vote, ”she said.

Ms Savage stressed that she was not seeking to undermine Ms Gideon in her attempt to overthrow Ms Collins, but rather to help attract otherwise reluctant, young and rookie voters who were bewildered by the bitter and suspicious campaign that Ms Gideon did was not liberal enough. Many experts say Ms Savage’s supporters could tip the scales and give Ms Gideon a victory.

“We want to send a signal to Democrats that we are part of the ‘Susan Collins’ retirement team with them,” Ms. Savage said. Her campaign, she added, approached Ms Gideon’s team with suggesting that women campaign for the other second, but have not received a response. (During an appearance at Bates College on Friday, Ms Gideon told reporters she would encourage her constituents to consider ranking Ms Savage second.)

But in search of a clear path to victory, Ms Collins and Ms Gideon plunged into a wave of last-minute campaigns, distributing bumps and platitudes in a bid to galvanize their supporters and persuade the remaining undecided voters. of State. The Colby College poll found that 3.6% of the 879 probable voters polled had not made a decision.

“There are a lot of people who have made up their minds, some of whom may have made up their minds 10 months ago, and some of whom have been to this place in the past two months,” Ms. Gideon said during a stopover at a logging site in Oxford County, as machines felled trees behind her. “I think there are people who still don’t know what to do. They think about the balance between the presidential election and the Senate, and they have a hard time figuring out exactly who is going to do what or who did what.

During a four-day tour of the state, Ms. Gideon frequently summoned the specter of Mr. Trump and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader, to present the race in national terms and to argue that it was vital for Democrats to control the White House and Congress set the agenda in Washington.

For her part, Ms Collins spent the final days of the campaign highlighting the financial support she had given to small businesses across the state by championing the Paycheck Protection Program, a popular federal lending program which her campaign said channeled more than $ 2.3 billion to nearly 30,000. companies.

Ultimately, his final presentation for a fifth term depends on voters who still appreciate the power of a Maine vote in first place on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which allocates federal spending; the few remaining split-ticket voters in the state like Bill Green, a retired reporter and longtime Maine TV member.

Mr Green, a registered Democrat who voted for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential candidate, endorsed Ms Collins in a series of campaign announcements.

“She went to work every day, and whoever elected president, Susan Collins worked with him,” he said. “It’s her job to go out there and do the best job she can for Maine, to hold his nose and work with the guy.”