Georgia’s extraordinarily thin partisan divide set the stage for rampant misinformation, lawsuits and fights over election integrity after the presidential election.
With control of the Senate on the line Jan. 5, elections officials are bracing for a new round of drama — especially if the races are as close as polls, analysts and the campaigns suggest they will be.
President Donald Trump has warred with state leaders and elections officials for weeks following his narrow defeat here, even though flipping Georgia wouldn’t be enough to reverse Joe Biden’s White House victory.
Imagine, though, an equally tight margin in the twin runoffs, which have attracted unprecedented spending and attention with the fate of Biden’s legislative agenda at stake. Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting system manager, is preparing for such a drawn-out scenario.
“Even if there’s a blowout election, I think we’ll have people saying: ‘Well, obviously it was stolen. We have close elections in this state,’ ” Sterling said. “So no matter what direction you go, that’s going to happen.”
He’s not alone. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed more than a dozen state officials, voting rights experts and party leaders who are quietly gearing up for a tortured election aftermath even while the U.S. Senate runoff campaigns are in full swing.
Their message: Brace yourselves, Georgia voters. These races might not be settled for weeks.
Once again, there could be tedious recounts. No matter who wins, the losing party could follow the example of the Trump campaign and his allies, who demanded and received statewide recounts both by hand and by machine. All three counts showed Trump lost by roughly 12,000 votes.
Once again, there could be drawn-out legal battles that seek to challenge the election results, restrict counting of certain ballots and allow others to be tallied.
Once again, there could be an unwavering stream of misinformation infecting the social discourse, requiring elections officials, voting rights groups and the news media to work overtime to play Whac-A-Mole with falsehoods that spread virally on social media.
And once again, officials are preparing for the threat of violence after the election — no idle concern after this chaotic campaign season. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger required a security detail after he and his wife received death threats; some low-level county elections workers targeted by conspiracy theorists had to go into hiding.
It’s one reason why Gov. Brian Kemp, who has been targeted by malicious pro-Trump conspiracy theorists, delivered an impassioned call against the hate-filled falsehoods spread about Georgia’s election.
“This needs to stop,” Kemp said. “People need to deal with facts. And we’ll give them to them.”
A breakdown in trust
Years of false claims about the vote have undermined the public’s faith in the electoral system.
That distrust only increased in the wake of the November election, particularly among Republicans who can’t believe Trump lost. Just 24% of Republicans nationally trusted that the results of the election were accurate, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll this month.
Though state and federal elections officials have repeatedly said there’s no indication of widespread fraud, that hasn’t stopped suspicions about Georgia’s voting machines and absentee ballot system. Trump has stoked the claims and sent conflicting messages to Republicans ahead of the runoffs by urging them to vote in a “rigged” election.
“Given what happened after the presidential election, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see attempts to challenge the results, especially if Democrats win,” Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz said. “We’re already seeing questions about signature verification, challenges of new voter registration. This could all just be a glimpse of the future.”
A spate of legal action in the weeks following the November election also increased the likelihood that ballots will be challenged after election day. A federal judge rejected a lawsuit filed by U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue seeking to segregate ballots cast by newly registered voters in the runoff, but it could hint at more legal action to come.
As in the presidential election, when a series of lawsuits tried to stop the certification of election results and disqualify ballots, losing political candidates and parties could ask judges to intervene.
Outside the courts, challenges to ballots in the runoff have already begun. The Texas-based group True the Vote is contesting the residency of voters across the state, which could result in their ballots being rejected.
In Forsyth and Muscogee counties, local election boards have agreed to consider whether to count those ballots. Some of those decisions could come after election day. Most other county election boards have found there isn’t probable cause to move forward with the challenges.
“We’re seeing how badly the system can break down,” said state Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Democrat from Sandy Springs. “There’s a real concern that a large portion of Georgia voters fundamentally won’t accept that either Joe Biden is president or if Democrats win the runoffs, that Democrats control the Senate.”
There’s also the risk of armed protests, disruptions to people waiting in line to vote and misinformation about voting. Peter Koutoujian, sheriff of Middlesex County in Massachusetts and the president of the Major County Sheriffs of America, said law enforcement officials must be particularly vigilant these next two weeks.
“These threats and intimidation have no place in our democracy, whether they are to election workers or to voters,” he said. “They’re especially pernicious when there’s an active election underway.”
Experts said Georgians should also keep in mind the mechanics of the election system, which drew extraordinary scrutiny after Biden’s narrow victory came under repeated attack from Trump.
Absentee ballots might not be counted until late at night or after election day, especially in large counties that tend to lean Democratic.
The prolonged process fueled suspicions about the accuracy of the tally in the presidential race, in part because the initial results favored Republicans but shifted sharply as mail-in ballots were counted, and the same concerns could arise again in the runoffs.
If the outcome is within one-half a percentage point, the losing candidate has a right under Georgia law to a full statewide recount upon request. That kind of recount, conducted by reinserting ballots through scanning machines, would occur after the election is certified by Jan. 22.
There’s also the possibility of another recount, this one by hand, as was done in the presidential race to confirm the outcome. State election officials have said they don’t know yet whether they’ll conduct that kind of manual audit after the runoffs.
And there will be an intense effort to cure absentee and provisional ballots when election workers couldn’t verify the identity or registration of voters. State law requires election officials to quickly notify voters about problems and give them until three days after election day to provide photo ID or other documentation.
“We are anticipating that if there’s a similarly contested period after the election, it’s going to be incredibly important to make sure voters know how their ballots are counted and to ensure they know how to advocate for themselves,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, chief executive of the Fair Fight voting rights group.
It will all unfold in a precarious time: The runoff is the day before Congress counts Electoral College votes, a contentious event where Republicans have said they will formally challenge Biden’s victory. The Senate races could remain unsettled during Trump’s final days in office.
Even as officials prepare for the election, state GOP leaders are also bracing for a legislative fight over the future of absentee voting. Raffensperger has said he wants to end no-excuse absentee voting, and he has also raised the possibility of more intense investigations of newly registered voters.
“This is a Georgia election run by Georgia election officials for Georgia voters to elect Georgia senators,” Raffensperger said. “We continue to investigate potential out-of-state voters and are taking steps to assure nonresidents’ votes are not cast.”
DeAnna Harris, the president of the Cobb Young Republicans, has watched anxiously as Raffensperger and other GOP officials have come under attack for refusing Trump’s demand to overturn election results.
“It’s very possible,” she said, referring to the potential of another brutal battle over election results.
“This year has not let me down in the drama department — all this mudslinging,” she said. “I’ve seen things I’ve never see before, but I’m hoping 2021 we can move forward so we can end this Republican back-and-forth. It’s ridiculous.”