Race for Georgia election chief focused on fallout of 2020

Voters lined up to cast ballots on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021 at the Park Tavern in Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Voters lined up to cast ballots on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021 at the Park Tavern in Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Four Republicans and five Democrats running for secretary of state

In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, authority over voting in Georgia is on the line in this year’s race for secretary of state.

The Republican contest is defined by a clear contrast between Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who defied Donald Trump’s pleas to change the results, and U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, a Trump disciple who objected to counting Georgia’s electoral votes in Congress.

Raffensperger and Hice are statistically tied, according to a poll of likely Republican voters by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. About 28% of respondents supported Raffensperger, and 26% backed Hice, within the poll’s margin of error. About 37% are undecided, and 8% supported other candidates.

ExploreComplete poll results

Meanwhile, Democrats in the race are more similar to each other in their messages of voting access and resistance to election subversion. The Democratic candidates include former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, state Rep. Bee Nguyen and former Cobb County Democratic Party Chairman Michael Owens.

The down-ballot Georgia race is drawing national attention because the winner will gain authority to certify elections in one of the most competitive states in the country. The May 24 primary between four Republicans and five Democrats could lead to runoffs four weeks later, setting up a November showdown.

Combined ShapeCaption
The Republican Party primary for Georgia's top elections official includes, from left, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice and former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

The Republican Party primary for Georgia's top elections official includes, from left, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice and former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Combined ShapeCaption
The Republican Party primary for Georgia's top elections official includes, from left, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice and former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Hice is basing his campaign on election denial, refusing to accept that Democrat Joe Biden won Georgia by 12,000 votes despite three recounts, multiple court challenges and repeated investigations.

Hice is one of 23 secretary of state candidates in 19 states who dispute the outcome of the presidential election, according to States United Action, an advocacy organization for fair elections.

“It’s like putting arsonists in charge of the fire department,” said States United Action CEO Joanna Lydgate, “Few people pay attention to these down-ballot races, but they turn out to be among the most critical when it comes to the functioning of our democracy and the oversight of our elections.”

Raffensperger will try to appeal to Republican voters who might still support Trump but want to move past the controversies of the 2020 election, said Amy Steigerwalt, a political science professor at Georgia State University. Raffensperger has focused his campaign on opposition to noncitizen voting, which is already illegal in Georgia.

“We are going to be seeing this real question of not only how much the kind of 2020 electoral fraud claims still resonate with voters, but also the impact of former President Trump and whether or not his endorsement hurts or harms the candidates in the primary,” Steigerwalt said.

ExploreNew details show Georgia Republicans’ actions on and before Jan. 6 attack

Republican voters are divided between Raffensperger and Hice. Some said they would support Hice because of his loyalty to Trump; others said Raffensperger oversaw a fair election.

“I do believe there was some funny business going on across the country, but I’m not one to think there was a widespread conspiracy. Trump lost that election,” said Tom Walters, who lives near Suwanee and is a telecommunications retiree. “Them going after Raffensperger for the election, I don’t think that holds a lot of water.”

Others such as Dawn Funk of Alpharetta said she’s worried about fraud and isn’t convinced that much has changed since 2020. Funk said she trusts Hice because Trump endorsed him.

“He has a good reputation, he’s super conservative in his voting, and he’s America first,” Funk said. “He’s proven that in his voting and what he’s stood up for.”

ExploreAJC poll: In a shift, GOP voters more confident in November elections

Hice often targets his appeals to Trump supporters and pins the blame on Raffensperger for allowing ballot drop boxes, buying Dominion Voting Systems machines and mailing absentee ballot applications to all active voters at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We had a disaster in this past election,” Hice said during a debate in Ellijay. “I would take a hanging chad any day over what we currently have and the lack of confidence in the voters of Georgia.”

Raffensperger said candidates such as Hice are responsible for undermining faith in elections rather than introducing election security bills during his seven years in Congress.

“If there’s a lack of confidence in the voting system, it’s because people like Jody Hice have been lying,” Raffensperger said during the debate. “I have the facts, and all he has is a lot of bloviating nonsense.”

Nguyen, who currently holds the Atlanta seat formerly represented by Democrat Stacey Abrams, said she would use the secretary of state’s office to fight legislation such as Georgia’s voting law that limited drop boxes, created more steps for absentee voting and allowed state takeovers of county election offices.

“Our state is ground zero in this fight against voter suppression bills we have seen here in our state and across the country,” Nguyen said outside the Capitol when she filed to run last month. “We are going to elect a secretary of state who will certify the results of the election whether or not she likes them.”


The race for secretary of state

With authority over elections in Georgia, the secretary of state’s job is one of the most important on the ballot.

The role has gained national prominence since the 2020 presidential election, when Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s refused to give into then-President Donald Trump’s demands to “find” more votes.

With so many candidates in the race, both parties’ primaries might require runoffs. Four Republicans and five Democrats are competing, and candidates can only win outright if they receive more than 50% of the votes. A runoff would be held four weeks after the May 24 primary.

The secretary of state has oversight over elections, corporations, charities and professional licensing.

Learn more about the candidates:

DEMOCRATS

Dee Dawkins-Haigler: deeforgeorgia.com

John Eaves: johneavesforgeorgia.com

Floyd Griffin: floydforgeorgia.com

Bee Nguyen: beeforgeorgia.com

Michael Owens: owensforgeorgia.com

REPUBLICANS

David Belle Isle: davidbelleisle.com

Jody Hice: jodyhice.com

T.J. Hudson: tjforgeorgia.com

Brad Raffensperger: bradforgeorgia.com

AJC Republican primary poll

The poll was conducted April 10-22 for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. It questioned 886 likely Republican primary voters and has a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points.

If the election to choose a Republican candidate for secretary of state were being held today, for whom would you vote?

Brad Raffensperger — 28%

Jody Hice — 26%

David Belle Isle — 5%

T.J. Hudson — 4%

Undecided — 37%

Overall, do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Brad Raffensperger?

Favorable — 34%

Unfavorable — 36%

Don’t know; refused to answer — 30%

Overall, do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Jody Hice?

Favorable — 37%

Unfavorable — 9%

Don’t know; refused to answer — 54%

Poll information: The survey was administered by the School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center at the University of Georgia. The AJC-SPIA Poll was conducted April 10-22 and included a total of 886 likely Republican primary voters in Georgia. The calculated margin of error for the total sample is +/-3.3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Some totals may not equal 100% because of rounding.