‘Integrity matters’: Meet the lone Republican election official standing up to his party and Trump

Few senior Republicans have spoken out against the president’s baseless election fraud claims, writes Richard Hall

Wednesday 18 November 2020 21:47 GMT
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during a news conference on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, in Atlanta. Georgia election officials have announced an audit of presidential election results that will trigger a full hand recount.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during a news conference on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, in Atlanta. Georgia election officials have announced an audit of presidential election results that will trigger a full hand recount. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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It is a measure of the control Donald Trump now wields over the Republican Party that when he began to make unsubstantiated claims about the presidential election being rigged, few top party members dared to contradict him.

Despite there being no evidence of widespread fraud, the party has largely fallen in line behind the president and his attacks on the integrity of the election.

But there are exceptions. In Georgia, a formerly reliably red state which Mr Trump lost by a margin of 13,000 votes, one Republican election official has repeatedly challenged the president’s falsehoods, and received death threats for the trouble.  

Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, has become a lightning rod for attacks from his own party. Faced with a barrage of misinformation over the election results from the White House and pressure from his fellow Republicans, the 65-year-old has held his ground and repeatedly assured the public that the vote in Georgia was free and fair and that no systemic fraud has been uncovered.

The attacks against him began soon after it became clear that president-elect Joe Biden was going to win the state of Georgia, flipping it from red to blue for the first time since 1992. They intensified as Raffensperger — whose job it is to administer elections in the state — oversaw the process of a hand recount of Georgia’s ballots, which is automatically triggered when a candidate’s margin of victory is less than 0.5 per cent.

The effort saw nearly 5 million ballots recounted by hand to ensure the integrity of the result. The recount was expected to be finished by Wednesday evening, with no major shift in the original count. But the president has repeatedly undermined the process.

“Georgia Secretary of State, a so-called Republican (RINO), won’t let the people checking the ballots see the signatures for fraud. Why? Without this the whole process is very unfair and close to meaningless. Everyone knows that we won the state,” Mr Trump wrote on Twitter over the weekend.

The president was joined in his attacks by Republican senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who are both facing runoffs in Georgia after neither received the required majority, and who both called for Raffensperger to resign.

“There have been too many failures in Georgia elections this year and the most recent election has shined a national light on the problems,” Loeffler and Perdue said in a joint statement, without providing any evidence to support their claims. “The Secretary of State has failed to deliver honest and transparent elections. He has failed the people of Georgia, and he should step down immediately."

Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican House representative who failed to make the runoffs and is now leading the president’s recount efforts in the state, also laid the blame for Mr Trump’s loss on Raffensperger.

“Frankly, the secretary of state’s office has caused this problem to develop. They’ve been continually problematic in this. And I will continue to call them out and force them to do this,” Collins told Newsmax, a pro-Trump news outlet.

Raffensperger, a civil engineer who founded and ran his own firm before running for his current post in 2018, has responded in kind.

“I’m an engineer. We look at numbers. We look at hard data,” Raffensperger told the Washington Post. “I can’t help it that a failed candidate like Collins is running around lying to everyone. He’s a liar.”

The Republican, who received Mr Trump’s backing when he ran for the office of secretary of state, also rejected the calls from senators Loeffler and Perdue, insisting that the election was a “resounding success.”

"If I was Senator Perdue, I’d be irritated I was in a runoff. And both Senators and I are all unhappy with the potential outcome for our President,” he said in response to their statement. “But I am the duly elected Secretary of State. One of my duties involves helping to run elections for all Georgia voters. I have taken that oath, and I will execute that duty and follow Georgia law.”

For doing the job that he swore to do, Raffensperger and his wife have both received death threats. The first ones he said “were subtle, then they got more graphic.” 

"My wife has gotten most of the threats ... but it's very upsetting and it’s pretty disgusting when it's your own party doing that,” he said. One read: “You better not botch this recount. Your life depends on it.”

He has accused his fellow Republicans of creating a dangerous environment by using “emotional abuse” to rile up the party’s base against election officials in an effort to increase turnout in the upcoming runoff races.  

“It’s really the spinners that should be ashamed for playing with people’s emotions,” he told The Hill. “Politicians of both sides should never play with people’s emotions. It’s one thing to motivate people, I get that. But to spin people up and play with their emotions, it’s emotional abuse and they ought to grow up and start acting with integrity.”

He told CNN this week that he would continue on the path to certifying Georgia’s election results even though he had wanted Mr Trump to win the election.

“I’m probably gonna be disappointed because I was rooting for the Republicans to win,” he said. “But I have a process, I have a law that I follow. Integrity in this office matters.”

Raffensperger’s public opposition to baseless attacks on the integrity of the election would perhaps not be news in normal times. But his lone status as a bulwark against a stream of misinformation led by the president says much about where the Republican Party stands today.

Far from being the repudiation of Trumpism that Democrats had hoped for, the November presidential election was unexpectedly close.  Trump actually increased the number of votes he received compared to four years ago to more than 70 million, the second highest number of votes received by a presidential candidate ever — behind only Biden.

While he lost the vote, the president nonetheless cemented his status as the GOP’s leader, a reality that has made Republicans reluctant to speak out against him for fear of damaging their own political prospects.  Among those who have remained mute in the face of his falsehoods are senior party figures who were once fierce critics such as Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.  

Mitt Romney is one of the few top Republicans to criticise Trump’s attacks on the electoral process, writing on Twitter in the days after the election that the president “is wrong to say the election was rigged, corrupt and stolen," and that such claims “damage the cause of freedom here and around the world ... and recklessly inflames destructive and dangerous passions."

But the attacks and pressure on Raffensperger have at times exceeded political grandstanding and verged on election interference. One such instance was detailed by the secretary of state this week, when he claimed that Lindsey Graham — a former Trump critic and now a vociferous supporter — called him to suggest that he throw out thousands of legally cast ballots.

Graham reportedly asked Raffensperger whether he could toss all mail ballots in counties found where signature mismatches were highest — which he didn’t.

“It sure looked like he was wanting to go down that road,” Raffensperger told the Washington Post.

The South Carolina senator vehemently denied that he asked for legal ballots to be tossed out, telling the newspaper that the issue for him was how to “protect the integrity of mail-in voting, and how does signature verification work?”

“If he feels threatened by that conversation, he’s got a problem,” Graham added.

The wider context for the attacks against Raffensperger is that these efforts to overturn results unfavourable to Trump are taking place across the country, led by Republicans in both Democrat and Republican run states.  

In Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign has launched a barrage of lawsuits to seek to overturn Biden’s victory there, citing spurious claims that poll watchers were not allowed close enough to monitor the counting of ballots. The Trump campaign is also seeking a recount in Wisconsin and an audit in Arizona.  

In Arizona, another previously red state turned blue, election officials have also been on the receiving end of Trump supporters’ ire.  Secretary of state Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, said in a statement that the threats of violence and vitriol she had received were a direct result of the president, members of Congress and other elected officials “perpetuating misinformation and are encouraging others to distrust the election results in a manner that violates the oath of office they took.”

The attacks on the integrity of Arizona’s results prompted Clint Hickman, a Trump supporter and Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, to issue a statement defending the integrity of the election.

“More than 2 million ballots were cast in Maricopa County and there is no evidence of fraud or misconduct or malfunction," he wrote in a letter to county residents.

In Michigan, Trump cheered two Republican canvassers who briefly refused to certify election results in Wayne County — the state’s largest and overwhelmingly Democratic county —  before they eventually reversed course.

“Wow! Michigan just refused to certify the election results! Having courage is a beautiful thing. The USA stands proud!” the president wrote on Twitter. Minutes later, the canvassers joined Democrats in certifying the results.

Trump’s legal team has so far filed 28 lawsuits since election day, and lost all but one. While it is unlikely that they will be able to succeed in overturning the result of the election, the impact on Americans’ faith in democracy could be long lasting.

Some 52 per cent of Republicans believe Mr Trump “rightfully won” the US election but that it was stolen from him by widespread voter fraud that favoured Mr Biden, a new Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll found.

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