OPINION: The story behind Brad Raffensperger’s demotion in Georgia’s new election law

The no-snacks-or-drinks provision in Senate Bill 202 may have gotten a lion’s share of the attention in Georgia’s newly passed overhaul of elections. But less-noticed, and potentially far more consequential, are multiple provisions in the law reducing the role that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger will play in future elections.

Republican lawmakers frame the changes as a right-sizing of responsibilities, giving legislators an equal hand to the executive branch in the state’s all-important elections process.

But Raffensperger’s chief operating officer, Gabriel Sterling, calls the haircut his office got in the process pure politics.

“It was political payback, no question,” Sterling said during an interview in the Capitol earlier this week, when I asked what Raffensperger had done in 2020 to have gotten so sideways with the GOP leaders behind the bill.

“It wasn’t so much what we did,” Sterling said. “I think what happened was their constituents were told that the President lost because of what (Raffensperger) did, when all he did was follow the law. That’s the biggest thing, so they had to get a pound of flesh in there somewhere.”

House Speaker David Ralston agrees that Trump-driven misinformation created the suspicions of the Republican base voters, who overwhelmingly believed that the Georgia election was rigged against Donald Trump.

But in an interview in his Capitol office, Ralston said Raffensperger had his role in elections reduced in SB 202, not because of politics, but because he deserved it.

“This was not a Trump-driven position,” Ralston said of the new power over elections the General Assembly gained in SB 202. “They can say a lot of stuff about me but they can’t say that I don’t protect the independence of our Legislature and the equality of our Legislature with the other two branches of government.”

Primarily, the law demotes Raffensperger from his previous position as the chair of the State Elections Board, which has broad authority over Georgia elections, to a nonvoting ex-officio member. A new, “nonpartisan” head of the board will be appointed by the General Assembly.

The law also prevents any election official from mass mailing absentee ballot applications before they’re requested, which Raffensperger did for all Georgia voters last Spring as the COVID-19 pandemic ripped through the state. And the law now says the Legislature must be notified before the Secretary of State joins a legal consent order related to elections.

Raffensperger was part of a settlement in federal court with Democrats last March, which required election workers to confirm a signature mismatch with their peers and then quickly contact voters whose ballots are rejected and allow those voters to correct their forms.

Republicans, especially Ralston, fumed over both of Raffensperger’s decisions, particularly because he did not tell lawmakers before he did either.

After Raffensperger mailed out the absentee ballots in the Spring, the Speaker said in an interview that heavy absentee turnout “will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives.”

He later said that he meant that mail-in voting would be more vulnerable to fraud.

“It’s just that the election needs to be secure and it must have integrity. If it doesn’t, I think our chances obviously are problematic,” he clarified.

Above and beyond Raffensperger’s lack of communication with lawmakers over the spring and summer, it was his refusal in December to testify before a House elections hearing, even after his office testified in the bizarre Senate elections hearing featuring a sweaty, COVID-positive Rudy Giuliani, that Ralston now calls “the last straw.”

“That was the ultimate disrespect to the Legislature,” he said.

He briefly considered trying to change the state constitution to allow the General Assembly to appoint the Secretary of State, but the Speaker said he ultimately “shared his thoughts” about the need to give the Legislature more power with the House leaders writing what became SB 202.

The new law very clearly reins in the Secretary of State and moves his authority to the five-member Elections Board, which includes one designated Democrat. And it gives the General Assembly the power to shape the Board in the future.

But what will happen if there’s another 2020 in the future, with an irate president calling on Georgia to “find” him enough votes to overturn the election? Who is ultimately in charge?

That’s not entirely clear.

“I’m not sure there is a chief elections officer in the law,” Ralston said. “Raffensperger has some degree of responsibility, and he will share that with the State Election Board.”

Gabriel Sterling doesn’t know either.

“You’d have to ask our lawyer on that,” he said. “There is a bizarre bifurcation of who’s in charge of what.”

Raffensperger himself said in an interview this week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Niesse that he likes a lot of the details in SB 202, but his only concern is “how this works.”

“I’ve never been a real believer and supporter of unelected boards and commissions, because, at the end of the day, you end up with a lot of finger pointing and no accountability of who’s actually making the decision, particularly if the decision doesn’t work out too well,” he said.

One thing that is clear in SB 202 is that the changes it makes will far outlast Raffensperger, whether the secretary of state after 2022 is Raffensperger, another Republican, or a Democrat.

But as Ralston said, it wasn’t about Raffensperger anyway.

“My ultimate purpose was not to retaliate against him. My purpose was to find a better way of doing things than he was doing.”

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