Opinion: The Georgia secretary of state who insists that two plus two still equals four

11/06/2020 —  Atlanta, Georgia — Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger smiles as he makes his way to the podium to hold a briefing and give an update on Georgia ballot counting at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Friday, November 6, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

11/06/2020 — Atlanta, Georgia — Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger smiles as he makes his way to the podium to hold a briefing and give an update on Georgia ballot counting at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Friday, November 6, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

We tell ourselves that people of character are capable of wonderous things. In fact, more often than not, they simply do ordinary things under extraordinary circumstances.

On Monday, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger stared into a howling tempest — which probably had its origins in the White House — and declared that two plus two equals four.

Those who claim the correct answer to be five or three, the Republican said, should be prepared to show their work.

“In these times that we live in, I think it’s best to be very mindful of our speech,” Raffensperger said. “What people really want at the end of the day — I think both sides should desire honest, fair elections. That’s what we’ve been working for.”

It was after 6 p.m. Monday, already dark outside and mostly empty inside the state Capitol. I was at one end of a long table, and Georgia’s quiet, lanky secretary of state — the man in charge of the Nov. 3 election — was at the other.

Two security officers in business suits had pointed me to Raffensperger’s interior office. There had already been death threats, you see.

Raffensperger’s day had taken a sharp turn at 3:04 p.m., when U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both fellow Republicans, had — without warning — issued a joint statement calling for Raffensperger’s resignation. The pair vaguely cited “mismanagement and lack of transparency.”

Seventeen minutes later, President Donald Trump said this via Twitter: “Georgia will be a big presidential win, as it was the night of the Election!”

In other words, before metro Atlanta votes were counted.

The timing strongly hints at coordination between the senators and the White House. And the pairing of the message from Perdue and Loeffler suggests that they will be operating as a single ticket in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 5 runoff against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively.

No one will say so in public, but the object of the senators' demand appears to be the dismissal — or at least the legal muddying — of a Georgia election that Raffensperger must certify by Nov. 20. The one in which the state’s 16 electoral college votes are at stake, and now appear headed for President-elect Joe Biden. As of this writing, he’s ahead of Trump by more than 12,000 votes.

If that’s the case, we’re talking outright larceny.

The kindest interpretation of Perdue and Loeffler’s demand for Raffensperger’s head is that they are victims of blackmail, hostages to the Twitter account of a president who, although defeated, still has the power to torpedo their campaigns in 140 characters or less.

Last week, during a rally at Georgia GOP headquarters in Buckhead, Donald Trump Jr. had promised a post-electoral fight “to the death” — and retribution against any Republican who does anything less.

Perdue and Loeffler have apparently taken his threat to heart, perhaps recognizing that the elder Trump will remain the dominant force in his Republican party long after he leaves the White House.

In private, beyond maligning a fellow Republican and sending a few Trumpish pitchforks his way, Perdue and Loeffler might admit that their demand carries no weight.

First of all, Raffensperger can’t be forced to resign and has no intention of doing so. Secondly, blocking or delaying the certification of the Nov. 3 vote wouldn’t just obstruct the presidential vote. It would negate some very good results that Republicans enjoyed down-ballot.

But if senators' Monday press release was a mere charade intended to appease a wounded Trump, a little warning would have been nice.

Raffensperger, 65, is a data man — a north Fulton resident and CEO of an engineering design firm. “In the business world that I live in, if we have an issue with people, we call them directly and we have our conversation,” he said. “We don’t just send it out to the world.”

There were no calls or previous complaints from Perdue and Loeffler, he said. Both have his cell phone number, and he has theirs. “If that’s how they want to do business, that’s how they do business. I just don’t do business that way,” Raffensperger said.

Let us get something out of the way: By Georgia standards, the Nov. 3 election was custard-smooth, a vast improvement over the chaos of the June 9 primary that saw voters wait eight hours and more to cast a ballot.

“We had two-minute wait times during Election Day, so we defeated the issue of long lines. We’re really grateful for that. We had record turnout, early turnout,” Raffensperger said.

The secretary of state readily admits that he would prefer to see Trump ahead in Georgia. “But not enough folks turned out, and that’s where we are right now,” Raffensperger said. “But we’re going to make sure that we follow through the process, that we’re going to count every legal ballot, and the results will be the results. I’m a constitutional conservative. I follow the law.”

Raffensperger’s staff has opened investigations into the election operations in Fulton, DeKalb and Chatham counties. But the probes are concerned with procedural issues that are unlikely to have an impact on the presidential contest, the secretary of state said.

“Fulton County has really improved a lot. They still have a ways to go, but the State Farm Arena was a plus,” Raffensperger said.

He is not blind to the fact that nearly 5 million ballots were cast in the general election, and that voters and election workers alike are human. Yes, accusations have been made, but evidence has been lacking.

“If they bring any credible information, actual intelligence, we will work on it,” Raffensperger promised. You think drop boxes were tampered with? All had surveillance cameras aimed at them.

At that post-election rally last week, Donald Trump Jr. was preceded by U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the former candidate for U.S. Senate who has been placed in charge of the Trump recount effort.

“There was a little incident last night at State Farm Arena. They had a water break. So they told everybody to go home,” Collins alleged. “They told our folks to go home. They told everybody else to go home,” Collins said. “Except for one little problem. When everybody went home at 10 o’clock, they started counting again.”

The leak was originally reported as a broken pipe, but was in fact an overflowing toilet. The incident occurred at 5:30 a.m. on Election Day, Raffensperger’s staff now says. Fulton County officials reported the problem to the secretary of state in real time. No absentee ballots were damaged, but counting was delayed for a few hours.

Later that night, a crew assigned the task of slicing open absentee ballot envelopes for processing finished their job and packed up to go home. Witnesses went with them.

Whether staff told them to leave, or witnesses simply assumed their day was done is still being investigated. In any case, “our monitor was there the entire time,” Raffensperger said. As was an investigator from the secretary of state’s office.

At this moment, Raffensperger is a man who has been placed in political quarantine while his fellow partisans engage in choruses of “Stop the Steal!”

Many consider him radioactive. Others have called to offer support, but Raffensperger is not inclined to out them.

Gov. Brian Kemp, who is backing Senator Loeffler, has been cautious. “Georgia’s election result will include legally cast ballots — and ONLY legally cast ballots. Period,” the governor said via Twitter. One assumes that he also only serves edible food at his dinner table.

Raffensperger’s most outspoken ally thus far has been Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who like the secretary of state is demanding hard facts. “At this point we’ve not seen any sort of credible examples,” Duncan said.

Before I left the Capitol, I asked Raffensperger about that Tweet from the president — the one in which Trump predicted he would ultimately win Georgia.

As a Republican, the secretary of state said he hopes that’s the case. “And if he does, he’ll win it honestly. Because I’m going to stand on my integrity," Raffensperger said.

Two plus two equals four. Not five, and not three.