A Georgia GOP clash over Trump’s defeat deepens with attacks on the vote

Georgia’s top elections official debunked conspiracy theories furthered by President Donald Trump and said he faced pressure from high-powered officials to try to reverse the president’s defeat in the state.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger called on Georgians to ignore the false narrative of systemic irregularities in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, following a string of Facebook posts over the weekend that picked apart misinformation that discredited the state’s ongoing manual recount.

He also claimed in a separate interview with The Washington Post that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina questioned whether he had the power to reject more legally cast absentee ballots to help Trump narrow his deficit in Georgia, a claim Graham has denied.

And Raffensperger took aim at the head of Trump’s recount effort in Georgia, calling him a “liar” and “failed candidate,” as he urged other Republicans to accept the president’s defeat rather than undermine the integrity of the election system.

“Results so far have been lining up very, very closely. So it really makes the point that the machine counts are accurate,” said Raffensperger. “Those will be the result, and both sides need to accept it and we’ll move on.”

The recount isn’t over yet, but many of Georgia’s counties have finished the process ahead of the Wednesday evening deadline. Raffensperger said most preliminary results are validating unofficial vote counts that show Joe Biden leading Trump by more than 14,000 votes.

One exception: Poll works found about 2,600 votes in Floyd County Monday that hadn’t been previously loaded from a ballot scanner’s memory card, likely resulting in a gain of about 800 votes for Trump. State elections official Gabriel Sterling called it an “amazing blunder” by county elections officials that wouldn’t change the outcome of the race.

The conflict underscored the simmering tension within the state Republican Party over Trump’s refusal to yield to Biden and shift the focus to Georgia’s pair of runoffs that will determine control of the U.S. Senate.

The infighting has divided state Republicans and complicated the re-election bids of U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who have both refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory but are still raising the specter of his incoming administration to rally conservatives.

‘What’s new?'

Raffensperger ordered the recount amid increasingly harsh criticism about the validity of election results showing Biden ahead in Georgia. Both Loeffler and Perdue called on him to resign, Trump criticized his oversight of the elections process and the state’s entire 2021 Republican congressional delegation said it was “deeply concerned” about the tally.

The recount has only intensified criticism from some Republicans who continued to cast doubt on the manual recount process that they requested. Chief among them is U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Trump ally who was defeated by Loeffler this month but is angling for a potential 2022 run for higher office.

11/05/2020 —  Atlanta, Georgia —  U.S. Congressman Doug Collins speaks during a Republican rally in the parking lot at the Georgia Republican Party Headquarters in Atlanta’s Buckhead community, Thursday, November 5, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Now the head of Trump’s recount effort, he has made unsubstantiated allegations that voter signatures on absentee ballot envelopes weren’t adequately checked and that the state’s new voting system was unreliable.

In the interview, Raffensperger accused Collins of spreading misinformation to try to discredit the results. Biden’s edge was large enough that national outlets projected his victory in Georgia on Friday, making him the first Democratic presidential hopeful to capture the state since 1992.

Voter signatures are checked by comparing them to the signatures that voters used when they registered. But that validation occurs when absentee ballots are first returned to county election offices, not during recounts, when ballots have already been separated from absentee envelopes.

Election workers in Georgia have rejected nearly 2,000 absentee ballots because of invalid or missing signatures this election, according to state data.

There have been no technical issues with Georgia’s voting equipment made by Dominion Voting Systems that could have altered vote counts, Raffensperger said.

“This is misinformation, and honestly, Doug Collins is a liar, and he knows that,” Raffensperger said. “The numbers will be the numbers. We’re going to follow the process, and we’ll report the numbers and let the chips fall where they may.”

No collusion

Though he’s suddenly become a favorite punching bag for Trump, Raffensperger was targeted for criticism long before November’s elections. Some Republicans were angered by his decision to send absentee ballot request forms to all active Georgia voters, while Democrats accused him of furthering laws that limit ballot access.

“In a year of political division in Georgia, few things have unified Republicans and Democrats,” said Collins. “One of them is Raffensperger’s incompetence as secretary of state.”

The fallout extends beyond Raffensperger. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan is under attack by some Republicans for going on CNN to repeat the facts that there is no evidence of systemic ballot fraud.

And Trump falsely accused Gov. Brian Kemp of colluding with his archrival, Democrat Stacey Abrams, over a court settlement backed by leaders of both parties involving absentee ballots.

Meanwhile, transparency advocates rushed to defend Raffensperger, who not long ago was a frequent target.

Georgia’s manual recount should give voters confidence in the accuracy of computer tallies of printed-out paper ballots and absentee ballots, said Tammy Patrick with the Democracy Fund, a Washington-based bipartisan organization that supports organizations working on election security and administration.

“There will be some people, who, contrary to all the facts, will never believe the truth, and there will be those who believe falsehoods without any supporting evidence,” Patrick said. “You’re not necessarily reviewing the election for those individuals. You’re doing it to make sure the system works well.”

How the recount works

The recount must be finished before 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, and then Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger will release the results and certify the election. The results of the recount will become the state’s official election results, he said.

“There could be slight changes, but nothing is going to rise to the level of 14,000 (votes),” Raffensperger said.

Georgia law requires Raffensperger to certify the election by Friday, but there could be yet another recount.

Because the race was within half a percentage point, the losing candidate has a right to request a machine recount of ballots within two days of Raffensperger’s certification of the election.

Recount facts

Signature verification

Election officials check voter signatures on absentee ballot envelopes when they’re received at county election offices.

Voter signatures are compared to signatures on file from absentee ballot applications or voter registrations. So far, county election officials have reported rejecting nearly 2,000 absentee ballots because of invalid or missing signatures.

Signature matching isn’t part of the recount process. Once absentee ballots are removed from signed ballot envelopes, they can’t be traced back to the voter to protect ballot secrecy. No information can connect a voter to a ballot once it’s separated from the envelope.

Voting system

Georgia’s new voting equipment, manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems, creates a printed-out paper ballot that includes both a barcode and human-readable text of voters' choices.

The initial vote count was based on barcodes scanned by computers; the recount relies entirely on a manual review of the text.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Monday there’s no indication that Dominion’s computers counted votes incorrectly.

Dominion is a Denver-based company owned by a New York-based private equity firm called Staple Street Capital Management.

Poll watchers

Political parties can appoint monitors to watch the recount process up-close. The general public can also observe the recount from observation areas set up in each county.

The Georgia Republican Party objected to the secretary of state’s rules that allowed one partisan monitor for every 10 tables set up to recount ballots. But Raffensperger’s office has said political parties didn’t raise concerns about the number of monitors when those rules were being crafted.

Ballot harvesting

A Georgia law passed last year bans the practice of gathering ballots from multiple people and returning them together, known as ballot collection or ballot harvesting.

Absentee ballots can only be handled by a voter, a close family member or the caregiver of a disabled voter.