Georgia elections officials project calm amid Trump uproar over fraud

Gwinnett County workers scan and tabulate ballots Friday at the county's election headquarters in Lawrenceville. Despite accusations by President Donald Trump, state election officials defended the processes that have been put in place to ensure a fair and transparent election. “Our office and the counties have many, many safeguards and many, many guardrails built up over many years to ensure the integrity of the vote," said Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting system manager. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Gwinnett County workers scan and tabulate ballots Friday at the county's election headquarters in Lawrenceville. Despite accusations by President Donald Trump, state election officials defended the processes that have been put in place to ensure a fair and transparent election. “Our office and the counties have many, many safeguards and many, many guardrails built up over many years to ensure the integrity of the vote," said Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting system manager. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Facing the glare of the national spotlight, state and local officials on Friday sought to highlight Georgia’s election integrity safeguards while steering clear of the voter fraud claims leveled by President Donald Trump and some of his GOP allies.

In a press conference at the Capitol, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the Republican who oversees Georgia’s elections system, acknowledged that emotions are high but insisted “we will not let those debates distract us from our work."

“We will get it right, and we’ll defend the integrity of our elections,” he said.

Raffensperger’s comments came less than a day after Trump made a litany of unsubstantiated claims about Georgia’s and Fulton County’s voting systems. In a White House address late Thursday, the president suggested GOP election observers were being denied access to the process “in critical places" without offering any specifics.

Trump’s allies have zeroed in on ballot counting operations in key battleground states to raise questions about former Vice President Joe Biden’s lead and delegitimize the election results, although experts have repeatedly indicated instances of voter fraud are low.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s campaign emailed supporters on Friday soliciting attorneys who could help ensure the vote counting process is “fair and transparent” in eight Georgia counties, including Clayton, Henry and Fayette. And Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, in a Buckhead news conference Friday, said the party was looking into “six or seven” allegations of election irregularities in Georgia but gave no details.

Raffensperger addressed reports of poll monitors being banned from watching vote counts in other states during his speech Friday, insisting that “in Georgia, this process is and will remain open and transparent to monitors.”

In recent days, the secretary of state’s office has highlighted new election security measures designed to increase public confidence in the vote tallying process. That includes locking absentee ballot drop boxes after polls closed on election night so that no late ballots could be delivered; having a state monitor present while Fulton County processes its results; and conducting an audit of election results prior to the election being certified by Nov. 20.

“Our office and the counties have many, many safeguards and many, many guardrails built up over many years to ensure the integrity of the vote," Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting system manager, said Friday, adding that the public “can watch everything that’s happening.”

“We’re not seeing widespread irregularities," Sterling said. "We are investigating any credible accusation with any real evidence behind it.”

Poll watchers are a mainstay of the modern political system. Appointed by parties or campaigns, they can monitor vote counting operations from a short distance and report any concerns to their bosses, though rules vary by state and watchers are not allowed to interfere with vote counts.

On the local level, elections supervisors said they’ve sought to balance voter privacy with transparency.

“I feel strongly that what we do should be publicly observable, but there’s a limit to that observation," said Joseph Kirk, election supervisor for Bartow County.

Poll watchers "can’t stand right over my shoulder and look at secure, personal information under any circumstance ... So there’s a fine line between what’s too close and what’s too far away, and (the size of the vote counting) facility really determines what’s allowed.”

Kirk and Nancy Boren, director of elections and registration for Muscogee County, said they have not seen anything resembling widespread fraud in either of their counties and underscored their work to build relationships with their local Republican and Democratic parties.

“We teach our poll managers to let the poll watchers in, make them comfortable, give them an opportunity and a place to watch," Boren said. "There’s nothing closed, that’s what we tell them.”

And Kirk said the new paper ballots printed out by Georgia’s new electronic voting machines are a major safeguard against fraud because voters have the chance to look them over before they’re submitted.

“If there’s ever a question about the results, we can go back to the paper," he said.

Some veteran elections workers fear that Trump’s comments could undermine public faith in the election system.

“Unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud or rigged elections essentially have the same effect as if there was fraud because they cause people to not have trust in the electoral system,” said Michael Bailey, a Berry College associate government professor who volunteered as a poll watcher for the Democratic Party in Rome on Tuesday.

Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor, said if election observers see any irregularities, they should be able to raise them.

But, she added, “if you’re going to raise a legal issue, you have to have real evidence."

“What is troubling about these challenges is not that the Trump campaign is raising concerns," Gillespie said. "It’s that they’re peddling in rumor, speculation and conspiracy theories.”

Staff writer Eric Stirgus and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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