Politics

The Plight of Brad Raffensperger

Georgia’s Republican secretary of state has had a hard couple of months.

Brad Raffensperger, in a suit jacket, lapel pin, and red tie, looks slightly to the left while speaking.
Poor guy? Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

If you thought your 2020 election season was stressful, spare a thought for Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state who is essentially now a household name. A devoted Republican, Raffensperger has spent the past two months being mercilessly pestered, insulted, and threatened by members of his own party—including Donald Trump, the most powerful and possibly most vindictive man on earth.

Raffensperger has found himself in the crosshairs of Trump loyalists due to his refusal to overturn Georgia’s presidential election results. Joe Biden won the state by about 12,000 votes, and though a different outcome in Georgia alone wouldn’t give Trump the electoral votes necessary to win the presidency, he and his followers have repeatedly pressured Raffensperger to deliver the state to Trump anyway. In a phone call on Saturday, in a last-ditch effort to get Raffensperger to doctor the vote count before Tuesday’s runoff elections, which will determine control of the U.S. Senate, Trump called the secretary of state a “child” and threatened him with legal action. “That’s a criminal offense,” Trump said of Raffensperger’s refusal to declare massive voter fraud. In an audio recording of the call obtained by the Washington Post, the president raises his voice: “Under the law, you’re not allowed to give faulty election results, OK? You’re not allowed to do that. And that’s what you’ve done.” Trump tells Raffensperger that failing to issue a new election result would “be very costly in many ways.”

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Republicans have been questioning Raffensperger’s loyalty and competence ever since Georgia voters rejected Trump and prompted a runoff election to determine the fate of the state’s two Republican senators. In a November tweet, the president called Raffensperger “a so-called Republican (RINO).” Shortly after Election Day, Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who are up for reelection in Tuesday’s runoffs after failing to get a majority share of the vote in November, came together to demand Raffensperger’s resignation. “The Secretary of State has failed to deliver honest and transparent elections. He has failed the people of Georgia,” they said in a joint statement. Whatever confidence Raffensperger maintained about his upstanding stewardship of the Georgia election—and it should be high—it’s never fun to have to issue a statement explaining why you will not heed demands from once-friendly lawmakers to quit your job.

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Raffensperger probably went into this election season thinking it could be his career-making moment in the spotlight. Gov. Brian Kemp used to be secretary of state, and the voter suppression efforts he enacted while in office undoubtedly helped him win the state’s governorship. They also made Georgia’s voting system the embarrassment of the nation in 2018, and they galvanized Democrats against voter suppression. So Raffensperger came into the job ready to aim for just the right amount of suppression in 2020: not so much that the GOP’s anti-democratic maneuvering would raise national alarm bells, but enough to make a dent in Democratic votes tallied. He fought to prevent polling places from being required to keep backup paper copies of lists of eligible voters in case of delays or malfunctions in the electronic system. Between the general election and the runoff, he opened investigations into four progressive voter registration organizations. He’s pushed for an end to no-excuse absentee voting. He created an online portal for requesting general-election absentee ballots to make it easier for people to vote during the pandemic but stopped short of sending paper request forms to every active voter.

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And yet, instead of being hailed by the GOP as a capable public servant who’s done almost every legal thing to help his party retain its political power, Raffensperger has spent these weeks fielding calls from the likes of Sen. Lindsey Graham, who asked him whether it was in the secretary of state’s power to throw out all mail-in ballots from counties with higher rates of nonmatching signatures (it’s not). He’s getting letters from the likes of former Rep. Doug Collins and the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, saying that while “your office has publicly committed that transparency was vital during the election process … we are troubled that there are multiple reports to the contrary.” (Raffensperger has dutifully investigated every dumb rumor of a pro-Biden criminal voting conspiracy, and this is the thanks he gets?) Since Raffensperger announced the presidential election results, he and his wife have received multiple death threats sent to their personal cellphones. And that was before the release of the now-infamous phone call from Trump.

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If Tuesday’s runoffs favor the Democrats, and if they’re too close to call for any length of time, Raffensperger’s life could get much worse before it gets better. Graham and other high-ranking GOP legislators will probably dial him back up to inquire about the feasibility of tossing votes from Democratic-leaning precincts. Will Trump care, when his name’s not on the ballot? Maybe not, but the guy’s been known to hold a grudge. And if the Democrats end up winning, Republicans will most likely blame him for every piece of legislation the Biden administration manages to squeak through the Senate.

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Raffensperger certainly doesn’t deserve death threats, but neither does he deserve pity for the partisan backlash to his bare-minimum upholding of fair election standards. Anyone who’s paid a moment of attention to Trump’s presidency cannot have been surprised that he and his supporters are willing to go to great, extralegal lengths to keep the man in power. You might even say that, as a Trump-supporting Republican, Raffensperger has gotten exactly what he bargained for. He noted in his November nonresignation statement that he was “unhappy” at the prospect of “our President” losing an election. Two months and 19 irate phone calls from Trump later, Raffensperger still isn’t convinced that a president who attempts to use his influence to subvert democracy and falsify election results is undeserving of the office. When George Stephanopoulos asked him on Monday whether he’d vote for Trump again, Raffensperger insinuated that he would. “I support Republicans, always have,” he said. “I probably always will.”

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