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.