What counts for Brad Raffensperger

Faith, family and the loss of a child prepared him for the Trump storm

President Donald Trump lashed out at Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Thanksgiving night as “an enemy of the people,” furious that he had certified the 2020 election in Georgia for President-elect Joe Biden.

Now overseeing the third statewide count of presidential ballots in as many weeks, Raffensperger has found himself in the crosshairs of a president who refuses to give up, a party unwilling to make him, and the death threats and media crush that have followed the chaos.

The New York Times recently described Raffensperger, now embroiled in the state GOP’s civil war, as “punctilious,” “austere” and “beleaguered.”

But on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Raffensperger was relaxed and smiling at his home in the Atlanta suburbs.

The night before, Trump had tweeted about him, accusing him of hiding tens of thousands of illegal votes and asking, “Why is he afraid of Stacey Abrams?”

Raffensperger hadn’t seen the tweet yet. “Did he at least spell my name right?” he laughed. “It’s ‘Raffensperger’ with a ‘p,’ not a ‘b.’ ”

In a lengthy interview, Raffensperger — his wife of 44 years, Tricia, by his side — discussed how he has approached his crucial role overseeing the election, his message for Trump, and what it’s been like to have nearly the entire GOP, goaded by the president, abandon him.

And he and his wife both described the faith and family that keep them going in the middle of accusations and lawsuits against him — and death threats against them both.

11/11/2020 —  Atlanta, Georgia — Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announces the start of a hand recount of the November 3 presidential election during a briefing outside of the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta, Wednesday, November 11, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

‘Quiet people in an unquiet role’

“We’re straightforward people, simple people,” Raffensperger said about himself and his wife, who met in their 11th-grade homeroom in Pennsylvania. “I love Tricia and she loves me. We love our kids. We love our grandkids. We’re quiet people in an unquiet role.”

The “unquiet” role Raffensperger occupies at the state Capitol was quiet enough when it began in 2019.

After a successful career as a civil engineer and businessman, he won the open seat for secretary of state, following the high-profile and often combative run of now-Gov. Brian Kemp.

It was Raffensperger’s first run for statewide office after two years on the Johns Creek City Council and four years in the state House of Representatives.

Mike Bodker, the Republican mayor of Johns Creek who worked with Raffensperger on the City Council, described him as “conservative on every issue.”

“I like to see myself as playing between the 50 and the 40 yard lines on the right side of the field,” Bodker said. “Brad would be in the end zone. That doesn’t make him a bad person. He just has convictions.”

People who knew Raffensperger in the state House describe him as a low-volume “straight shooter” who passed a bill to reduce regulations on small businesses and voted against a gas tax.

Unlike many Republicans in the state, he also endorsed Trump for president early in 2016, before he was the clear GOP front-runner. In 2018, Trump endorsed him as well.

“Brad Raffensperger will be a fantastic Secretary of State for Georgia — will work closely with @BrianKempGA. It is really important that you get out and vote for Brad,” Trump said in a tweet before the election that year.

Along with the race for secretary of state, 2018 also brought tragedy for the family, when the Raffenspergers’ oldest son died after years of struggling with addiction.

“I’ve been through the very worst thing that can possibly happen to anyone,” Tricia Raffensperger said. “When you lose a child, it doesn’t matter how that happened, how old they were, it’s indescribable.

“And they can throw all they want, they can call me all the names they want, they can do whatever they want. But they can never hurt me like that.”

Raffensperger said nothing as his wife spoke, only removing his glasses to wipe away his tears.

The experience has made them stronger, she said, to realize that the only things that matter in their life are the people in it.

He added, “God’s really been gracious to us.”

Raffensperger credits moving to Georgia from Virginia more than 30 years ago for renewing his Christian faith. They belong to a nondenominational Christian church.

“I’m a Christian. I don’t wear that on my sleeve because in the South we do that,” he said. “But I think in the political arena, we have to have positive social discourse and we need to be respectful. I think we’re called to be civil people.”

Tricia Raffensperger said she sees both of their decisions grounded in faith.

“Our faith forms who we are,” she said. “Brad’s integrity and honesty come from his faith.”

New voting machines, same controversy

Although Raffensperger began his job as secretary of state in 2019 focused as much on the office’s role in licensing businesses as he was overseeing elections, he was quickly engulfed in the controversy that came with deploying the state’s first new voting system in nearly 20 years.

The computerized voting machines, chosen by a Kemp-appointed commission days after Raffensperger took office, would give voters paper printouts after casting their ballots on touchscreens.

Along with deploying the machines to all 159 counties, Raffensperger also dealt with lawsuits filed by Abrams’ Fair Fight group accusing him of voter suppression for a slew of technical regulations he was charged with implementing, including a requirement that a voter’s signature match one on file with the state in order to have his or her vote count as valid.

“Throughout this process of elections, we have strived to be very transparent,” he said. “There’s an incredible level of distrust, so we have to go above and beyond.”

11/11/2020 —  Atlanta, Georgia — Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks with Georgia county elections directors without a face mask following a press briefing outside of the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta, Wednesday, November 11, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Although Democrats have cheered him in the face of Trump’s attacks, Raffensperger routinely calls Abrams “a failed gubernatorial candidate” and points to her refusal to concede the governor’s race to Kemp in 2018 as laying the groundwork for what the president is doing now.

He also accused Abrams and her nonprofit voting rights group Fair Fight of “deliberately spreading misinformation to Georgia voters” in the weeks after the state’s June 9 primary. Marred by technology malfunctions, and lines as long as eight hours, the day was by all measures a disaster.

Fair Fight ran TV ads after the primary that said: “The chief officer running our elections is passing the buck on his responsibilities, trying to force underfunded Georgia counties to run our state’s elections. Tell him to do his job.”

A crucial decision in the spring to send absentee ballot applications to 6.9 million active voters ahead of the June primary election because of the COVID-19 pandemic enraged his fellow Republicans, who feared it would help Democrats.

His statement when he made the decision didn’t help matters. “Times of turbulence and upheaval like the one we Georgians face require decisive action if the liberties we hold so dear are to be preserved,” Raffensperger said. “I am acting today because the people of Georgia, from the earliest settlers to heroes like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis, have fought too long and too hard for their right to vote to have it curtailed.”

By all accounts, Election Day in November was a success story. With 40,000 new poll workers in place and about 4 million votes already cast in early and absentee voting, wait times dwindled from hours to minutes.

Votes came in from most counties reasonably smoothly, but the razor-thin outcomes meant several races, including the race for president, were too close to call by the end of the night.

Although Trump ended the evening ahead of Biden by thousands of votes, the tally of early and absentee ballots — which wasn’t completed for days — narrowed the race and then reversed it in Biden’s favor.

Then the trouble for Raffensperger began.

“In Georgia, I won by a lot,” Trump said the day after the election while the votes were still being counted. “Getting close to 300,000 votes on election night in Georgia. Now it’s getting to be to a point where I’ll go from winning by a lot to perhaps even being down a little bit. ... The election apparatus in Georgia is run by Democrats.”

Soon, the president’s son Donald Jr. was at a rally in Buckhead with U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, GOP Chair David Shafer and others chanting “Stop the Steal!”

Three days after the election, with Biden leading by 1,000 votes, Kemp, House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan issued a joint statement that said “allegations of intentional fraud or violations of election law must be taken seriously and investigated,” even though Duncan told CNN no specific allegations of fraud had been raised.

“We trust that our Secretary of State will ensure that the law is followed as written and that Georgia’s election result includes all legally-cast ballots — and only legally-cast ballots,” Kemp, Duncan and Ralston said in the statement.

By Monday, Georgia’s two Republican U.S. senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue — looking at Jan. 5 runoffs and not wanting to face the wrath of Trump — called for Raffensperger’s resignation for election “failures” that they did not detail.

And that’s when the death threats started.

“The very first one that we got was really a warning,” Tricia Raffensperger said. “Now it’s every sexual connotation. It’s horrific. Who am I for you to do that to? I’m just a regular person just like they are, and their wives and their daughters and their mothers. Would you say that to your mother?”

The latest round were sent from a dummy account meant to look like Raffensperger directly threatening his wife.

“It’s vulgar,” he said. “It’s disgusting.”

Even as he has had to have around-the-clock security and news of the attacks against him have been publicized, the response from the Republicans who aren’t attacking him has been silence.

Multiple requests for comment to Republican lawmakers who have supported him in the past were declined or not returned. “I’ll take a pass,” said one.

Betsy Armentrout founded GaVotingWorks to get Georgia businesses to help the state execute the elections. The group worked with Raffensperger to do anything he said he needed, from providing plexiglass shields to protect election workers to ensuring tech support for every precinct on Election Day.

“I’m disappointed in how Brad Raffensperger and his team have been treated and portrayed since the election,” she said. “I felt like from the very beginning they just wanted a well-run election, for it to be smooth. It needed to be secure, it needed to be safe, it needed to be accessible. And they just pointed toward that direction.”

Looking ahead, Raffensperger and his team still have a Trump-requested statewide recount to complete by Wednesday and the Senate runoff to prepare for and execute.

“My job as secretary of state is to make sure we have fair and honest elections, follow the law, follow the process,” Raffensperger said. “The Georgia Republican Party’s job is to raise money and turn out people to vote.”

He had a message for Trump, too.

“When you lose an election, you should leave quietly. It’s the will of the people that has been expressed,” Raffensperger said.

“I wish the election had been a resounding trumping of the left,” he said. “But It didn’t work out that way.”