Ga. GOP rift widens, House Speaker scorches state’s election chief

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger last spring encouraged absentee voting – at times to the dismay of his Republican colleagues – as he sent ballot request applications to all 6.9 million active voters. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder (May 2020)

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is one of a handful of powerful Georgia Republicans to publicly reject conspiracy theories about President-elect Joe Biden’s election win over President Donald Trump.

Raffensperger continues to feel the heat for that stand from members of his own party, many not publicly accepting Trump’s defeat and instead sowing doubts that the president lost Georgia by nearly 12,000 votes, as certified early this week.

Thursday, the state’s top GOP officials continued a tense standoff over Trump’s loss more than a month after Biden was declared the winner of Georgia’s Nov. 3 election. The heat grew more withering by the day this week as Republicans take stock of the first win by a Democratic presidential candidate in Georgia in decades. Trump poured gas on the fire at a Valdosta rally Dec. 5.

Georgians are set to cast 16 Electoral College votes for Biden Monday.

The GOP-run State House Governmental Affairs Committee held a Zoom meeting Thursday that allowed Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to spin unfounded tales of a win stolen from the president right under the noses of Georgia election officials. Four U.S. House Republicans signed onto a motion supporting a Texas lawsuit that GOP Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr called “constitutionally, legally and factually wrong.” And Republican Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said his dissatisfaction with Raffensperger’s job performance this year is enough to take the power to elect a secretary of state away from voters.

“I think it’s time Georgia would look at an alternative way of electing our secretary of state,” Ralston said at a hastily called Capitol press conference. “There is more than one option as an alternative. Frankly, I like the option of having the General Assembly elect that individual for a set term.”

Raffensperger’s deputy didn’t mince words.

“In a clear power grab, Ralston and the Trump campaign want to give the General Assembly the power to select winners of elections and violate the will of the people,” said Deputy Secretary Jordan Fuchs.

Ralston said he came to the decision after Raffensperger’s office declined to appear at the hearing where Giuliani was featured, citing litigation on several fronts.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said Thursday he will recommend that the Legislature work to transfer secretary of state selection away from voters. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

“I am completely shocked, I’m disappointed,” Ralston said. “I can never remember in my time serving as General Assembly, a constitutional officer refusing to come before a House or a Senate committee to offer up information that might be helpful to the people’s representatives.”

Ralston said some Raffensperger decisions before the committee snub rubbed him the wrong way.

Chief among those grievances are Raffensperger’s decision to promote absentee voting by mail during the pandemic and to send out nearly 7 million absentee ballot request forms to Georgia voters before the June 9 primary.

But changing the way a state elects a constitutional officer is no small task, said Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law professor at Georgia State University.

Passing a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate.

“Given the fact that there is not a supermajority of Republicans, particularly in the House where the margins are exceedingly tight, there’s absolutely no way that you’re going to get the requisite number of legislators to sign on,” he said.

If every Republican voted in favor, Ralston would still need the support of 17 House Democrats, but it will be hard to convince them that’s in their interest, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

“Democrats will probably say ‘Let’s don’t do that, we might have a shot of winning in 2022,’” Bullock said. “I assume that Raffensperger is going to get challenged by a Trumper, and it may be difficult for them to put Humpty Dumpty back together with all the internal fights.”

Democrats came close to winning the secretary of state race in 2018, when Raffensperger beat Democrat John Barrow 52% to 48% in a runoff election.

The move would be a big boost to the power of the Legislature and could make the secretary of state’s office subject to gerrymandering in a way other statewide offices are not. But even if a constitutional amendment is not likely to go anywhere in the 2021 General Assembly, Ralston could win the approval of the conservatives he represents, Bullock said.

“It certainly won’t offend people in his district, and that, ultimately is who he answers to, electorally,” he said. “Sure, he’s chosen by the Republican caucus, but that wouldn’t offend them either. It’s enhancing the power of the Legislature, why would they be unhappy with that? And taking a whack at Raffensperger will score points with some Trump voters.”

In addition to Raffensperger, the attorney general, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Gov. Brian Kemp are among the state’s few top Republican leaders who publicly say they need to move on from the decided presidential election and focus on the two fraught U.S. Senate runoffs on the ballot Jan. 5. Kemp has declined to call a special session of the Legislature to take control of the naming of presidential electors, arguing he does not have the legal authority. Kemp has instead supported legislation to bolster election security in the coming Legislative session and said last Sunday the last recourse for a Trump challenge is through the courts.

Georgia voting systems implementation manager Gabriel Sterling held a Thursday afternoon Capitol briefing shortly before Ralston’s where he mocked some of the more outlandish conspiracies he has heard.

“I am not, in fact, a communist. I’m not a commie. My stepmother is actually from Cuba, so it’s actually more offensive than normal to be called that,” he said. “I believe I can speak for the secretary, myself and likely the governor: none of us have received any money from the Chinese communists. Saying this out loud, it seems even that much more ridiculous that I have to say it, but that’s where we’re at right now.”

Sterling, a Republican, said he understands why people have trouble believing the state went for Biden. But Georgia, particularly metro Atlanta, has been trending Democratic for years.

He expressed frustration with Giuliani and Trump, who he said were giving oxygen to disinformation and eroding peoples’ trust in the election process, leading to threats to workers just trying to do a job.

“We’ve had people be followed, we’ve had an elections director have a car window broken out after getting a threatening email at two in the morning, we have people stalking outside of our elections offices in Cobb County, we’ve had a warehouse manager, he was simply taking trash to the dumpster, and he had somebody follow him with a camera and tell him he was going to be going to prison,” Sterling said. “This guy, again, is just a guy with a regular job. We have to be responsible.”