Bookman: Trump’s arm-twisting might have worked under new election rules

Columnist Jay Bookman writes that provisions in Georgia's new voting law that give state lawmakers more say over elections could have provided another avenue for former Donald Trump to twist arms if they'd been in effect in 2020. In a Jan. 2 phone call, Trump pressed the secretary of state to "find" votes for him. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Almost five months later, Donald Trump’s dictatorial refusal to accept defeat still looms large over the country, particularly here in Georgia. It continues to alter election law, election outcomes, the arc of political careers and even the course of American history.

Admittedly, some of those consequences have been positive. In January, after witnessing Trump’s attempt to outright cancel an election that he could not win legitimately and peacefully, angry Georgia voters protested by sending not one but two Democratic senators to Washington. Those two votes gave Democrats control of the Senate, allowing passage of an historic pandemic-relief bill that is already helping to boost our economic recovery.

On the other hand, Trump’s ongoing claim that he won the state “easily,” only to have it stolen through imaginary voter fraud, has forced state Republican leaders to treat the fake fraud as real, and to invent ways in which it can be “prevented” in the future. Last week, that led to passage of SB 202, the so-called “Election Integrity Act of 2021.”

Reading through the bill, it becomes obvious that Georgia’s Republican leaders have been trying to walk a political tightrope. They needed to make changes that were dramatic enough to convince Trump and his angry, myth-addicted base that they had restored “election integrity,” yet they didn’t dare make their voter-suppression so egregious and blatant that it would alienate moderate and independent voters or be easily overturned in the courts.

So Republicans didn’t dare to revoke no-excuse absentee voting altogether, as many conservative legislators had demanded, because they feared the public backlash. But they could and did add restrictions and roadblocks to make vote-by-mail more difficult. Likewise, they couldn’t reduce Sunday “souls to the polls” voting without making their targeting of Black voters too obvious, but they could and did ban use of mobile voting units such as those deployed by Fulton County. They also couldn’t outlaw drop boxes, but they could and did restrict drop box numbers, locations and operating hours.

As a result, much of the bill reads like a series of half-measures that tinker at the margins without making wholesale change, but that’s misleading. In a state where Trump lost by fewer than 12,000 votes out of more than 5 million cast, and where Gov. Brian Kemp won election in 2018 by just 55,000, tinkering at the margins through voter suppression can easily be enough to alter the outcome of an election.

And changes of another sort might prove more ominous.

As we know, Trump tried hard to overturn the results of the 2020 Georgia elections, probing at every pressure point he could find. He worked the governor, he worked the Legislature, he worked the secretary of state, the state attorney general, the U.S. attorney general, fraud investigators, the U.S. attorney for north Georgia, Congress and state and federal courts, trying to get someone, anyone, to throw out the results and declare him the winner. But the system of checks and balances held up; the voters’ choice was honored.

The problem is that SB 202 weakens, rather than strengthens, the system’s ability to stand up to such pressure the next time. For example, under previous law, the secretary of state served as chair of the rule-making State Election Board, setting its agenda and leading its meetings. No longer. SB 202 not only strips the secretary of his or her role as board chair, it strips him of a vote as well. Under the new system, the Elections Board chair is appointed by the state Legislature and the secretary – a statewide, elected constitutional officer charged with running fair elections – is in effect busted to a non-voting, powerless staff position serving the board.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (center) loses his role as chair of the State Election Board as part of a sweeping election law the governor signed off on last week. File/Georgia Recorder (2019)

In 2020, legislative leaders could fend off pressure from Trump to overturn the election by accurately pointing out that they had no legal power or ability to do so. With legislators now appointing both the chair and a majority of the five-member Election Board, that is less true today that it was then.

Also for the first time, the revamped State Election Board has the power to fire local election officials and replace them with officials of its own choosing, creating another possible opening for partisan meddling. The new law also goes out of its way to guarantee political partisans the right to challenge and try to remove a literally unlimited number of voters from the rolls. We saw a glimpse of the trouble-making potential for such large-scale challenges in the 2020 election, when a Texas group called True the Vote tried to disqualify more than 360,000 registered Georgia voters right before the runoffs. In two counties, Muscogee and Ben Hill, local elections boards cooperated with that effort, initially removing more than 4,000 voters from the rolls before a federal judge intervened to stop them.

If this system had been effect in 2020, Trump would have found several more arms to twist and several more places to apply pressure. Maybe the system would still have held. Maybe the outcome would have been the same. But then again, maybe it wouldn’t. It’s important to note that Trump himself enthusiastically endorses the new law, concluding that it’s “too bad these changes could not have been done sooner!”

And if Trump likes these changes, if he truly believes these changes would have produced a different outcome in 2020, then we have given ourselves real cause for worry.