Opinion: Creating a vote-by-mail election in the age of Donald Trump

Imagine that you're a Republican tasked with overseeing one of the greater logistical feats in Georgia political history, even as the president of the United States condemns what you're doing as illegal and riddled with fraud — a danger to your political party and his re-election.

Welcome to the world of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the quiet civil engineer in charge of setting up this state’s impromptu vote-by-mail system amid a global pandemic.

Next month’s primaries could see record voter turnout. By June 9, more than 2 million ballots could be cast – many by sheltering-in-place Georgians who aren’t hardcore activists and usually shy away from intra-party contests.

"We have cut through the political rhetoric, ignored the talking heads and put you, the voter, first," Raffensperger said Thursday during a press conference at the state Capitol. "If you want to vote from the safety of your home, you can. If you prefer in person, you may."

Given the headwinds from the White House, Raffensperger's remarks count as bold talk. Over the long Memorial Day weekend, President Donald Trump leveled a Twitter barrage at states shifting to vote-by-mail. On Tuesday, he continued.

“There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed,” he tapped out, specifically naming California, but not the many GOP states doing the same.

That was the Tweet that earned Trump a “fact check” link from the Lords of Twitter, who labeled the above statement as “unsubstantiated.”

Still, Trump’s press secretary backed him up. “President Trump is against the Democrat plan to politicize the coronavirus and expand mass mail-in voting without a reason, which has a high propensity for voter fraud. This is a simple distinction that the media fails to grasp,” the newish White House spokeswoman said.

Raffensperger was on GPB's "Political Rewind" the next day. Given that the U.S. president had damned precisely what Georgia's secretary of state has been up to, it was worth asking Raffensperger if Trump might be undermining his effort.

At least through the current electoral season, the No. 1 rule for survival among Republicans is this: Never miss an opportunity to avoid criticizing Donald Trump.

“I want to make sure that what we do in Georgia — that everyone knows that their vote is accurately counted. We want a fair, honest vote,” Raffensperger said very carefully. “We will stand our model up against any state in the union.”

Yet Raffensperger did his best to assuage anxious Republicans. The secretary of state emphasized that he had created a “ballot fraud task force” that he insisted was bipartisan (and critics have dubbed a tool for suppression.)

In the 2018 race for governor, Republican Brian Kemp beat Democrat Stacey Abrams by fewer than 55,000 votes out nearly 4 million cast. The contest also saw several instances in which federal judges weighed in on Georgia voting practices.

Raffensperger was asked if that contest had given voting rights groups like Fair Fight Action, established by Abrams after her defeat, a reason to be skeptical. “I really believe that many are using it as a way of making money for their organizations,” he said. “It really plays with people’s emotions.”

In Georgia, and perhaps in the White House, one wonders if “voter fraud” is a phrase intended to mask worry over the unpredictability that comes with the injection of so many new voters into the balloting process. Donald Trump has said as much. So has Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge — though the state House leader quickly walked his comments back.

In the 2016 primaries, Republican ballots accounted for 65% of the total votes cast. As of late last week, whether by absentee ballot or in person, 54% of voters had chosen a GOP ballot.

But consternation over this shift threatens to obscure what Raffensperger and his people are on the verge of pulling off – even factoring in the mistakes that might surface between now and June 9.

Only last January, the secretary of state’s chief worry was the replacement of Georgia’s 17-year-old voting machines with a new $107 million system — working out bugs and training personnel in 159 counties in advance of a March 24 presidential primary.

The vote was supposed to be a test drive. But two weeks into early voting, the pandemic shut down the state. Those new touch-screen voting machines — and the mass of people who would put their fingers to them — were suddenly a public health menace.

The presidential primary was shifted to May 19, combining it with the state’s general primaries. And as the coronavirus took firmer hold, Election Day was shifted again to June 9.

“We were losing polling locations, with retirement centers, churches, private schools, VFW halls — partly out of genuine concern and partly out of confusion. Then we were looking at older poll workers, and they were pulling out,” said Gabriel Sterling, the statewide voting system implementation manager for Raffensperger’s office.

His title also explains his lack of sleep.

The new goal was to take the pressure off of thousands of polling locations across the state. It quickly became apparent that the only solution was the state’s no-excuse absentee voting law – which in Georgia was a GOP invention. Until Stacey Abrams figured out how to make it work for her, it was thought to benefit primarily Republicans.

“But the counties have always been the central actors in executing these things. So we said, ‘How do we make this work?” Sterling said.

If uniform voting machines spread across the state were a first step toward centralization of Georgia’s electoral process, the pandemic may be forcing another. Raffensperger’s office mailed out ballot applications to 6.9 million active voters.

“From the time we announced we were doing this, to the time the ballots got out the door – I think it was seven days,” Sterling said.

Normally, county election offices would receive the applications and manually select the proper ballot for each voter – something that can change from precinct to precinct. Sterling estimated that something close to 15,000 different ballot combinations will be used for the June 9 vote.

“Even in small counties, you’re talking 30 or so. In a big county, like Fulton, there are something like 2,000 different ballot combinations,” Sterling said. “So we knew if [the counties] get loaded with that, we were going to have people getting wrong ballots everywhere in the state.”

Raffensperger’s office took on the production and distribution of those ballots: 14 inches long for smaller counties, 18 inches long for others, and 19 inches for DeKalb, Fulton and Cobb counties, where races are more numerous. That matters, because quality controls mandated that each ballot be weighed before being sent out. Yes, really.

The secretary of state’s office has also become an informal arm of the state’s public health system. Some 12,000 social-distancing posters have been distributed.

“Last week, we got stuff from GEMA, and we also got stuff that we directly procured. Masks — they’re FDA approved and they’re washable. We got about 35,000 of those. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of gloves in different sizes,” Sterling said. Plus 27,500 bottles of hand-sanitizer from a craft brewery in Albany.

Some 1.5 million ballot requests have been registered. And some 1,478,000 ballots have been mailed to voters. But some 20% of those showing up for early in-person voting have also requested absentee ballots. Their presence in line increases the risks for poll workers, election officials and voters.

“If you have started the process and asked for an absentee ballot, please, please, vote that absentee ballot all the way through,” Sterling said. His boss said much the same at that Thursday press conference — which was something like a celebration of what has been accomplished.

“Many states take six years to put these things up. We did it in six weeks,” Sterling said.

Have there been gaffes? Sure. And let us leave room for the unexpected and overlooked, and for the errors – unforced and otherwise — that have yet to surface. They do happen. They will happen.

But let us give Raffensperger and his crew the moment they’ve earned. By acknowledging the tumultuous ride they’ve been on, and by ignoring what’s coming out of the White House.