Attacks on Election Integrity in Georgia Tests System Key to Democracy During Runoff

These photos shows Raphael Warnock, left, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Loeffler on Nov. 3, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photos)

(CN) — At a press conference Thursday, Dec. 10, voting system implementation manager for the Georgia Secretary of State Gabriel Sterling, tried to clear up some of the disinformation around the election.

Over the last few weeks, Sterling has taken the podium in front of the south stairs of the Georgia Capitol to give updates and explain the process as the state tallied the results of the November general election, launched a hand re-tally audit and finally a recount of the results. And with that job, he has pushed back on disinformation.

In the weeks following November’s general election, fueled by President Donald Trump, doubts and misinformation spread regarding Georgia’s voter system. But in this critical race that will determine the makeup of the U.S. Senate, the question remains of how voters are responding to the claims their election system is faulty in this runoff and elections beyond.

“Giving oxygen to this continued disinformation is leading to a continuing erosion in people’s belief in our elections and our processes,” Sterling said during the conference. “We have rules, we have laws.”

At the press conference last week, Sterling ran down a list of false allegations that cropped up in the aftermath of President-elect Joe Biden’s narrow win in the state.

No, neither he nor other election officials have seen money from the Chinese communists, Sterling said. No, he’s not a commie.

However, the Trump campaign has fanned the smoldering embers of debunked stories.

No, there wasn’t a rush of felons voting in the election, Sterling said. The Secretary of State’s office is investigating less than 100 instances of felons possibly voting. And Sterling said the system makes it impossible for unregistered or underaged people from casting ballots.

He compared the task of rebutting the misinformation to using a shovel against an ocean, the disinformation brought by Trump, using the august weight of the office of the president.

Sterling is a Republican. His own family members cannot believe that Trump lost the deep south state of Georgia. But Biden narrowly won thanks to the normal ebbs and flows of demographic change in the state, he said.

Then there’s talk of people who want to take their ball and go home, the folks who say they’d rather sit out the election.

“Do not listen to those who tell you don’t vote on January 5 as a protest. That’s silly. It’s a silly thing to do, to deny yourself the vote,” Sterling said.

On Dec. 14, the Electoral College confirmed that Biden is the 46th president of the United States. The day after, Trump retweeted attorney Lin Wood’s comments that Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger should be jailed.

On Friday, Trump used Twitter to once again demand Kemp call the state Legislature into a special session to attack the election results.

“Governor @BrianKempGA of Georgia still has not called a Special Session,” Trump wrote. “So easy to do, why is he not doing it? It will give us the State. MUST ACT NOW!”

The doubt Trump expressed in the integrity of Georgia’s voting infrastructure has trickled down into the runoff race. Republicans Senator David Perdue, seeking reelection, and Senator Kelly Loeffler, seeking to keep the seat she was appointed to after former Senator Johnny Isakson stepped down, have both called on Raffensperger to step down over his administration of the election. 

They again issued a joint statement supporting the Texas Attorney General’s failed effort at the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn the results of the election.

This week, they accused Raffensperger of failing to provide a list of the newly registered voters who signed up to vote between the general and runoff election.

Raffensperger hit back in a statement. Not only were the lists publicly available, someone at the National Republican Senatorial Committee said both campaigns already had the data.

While the Secretary of State’s office has been vocal in countering the president, the guidance it has given state officials running the election has been sparse. 

Courthouse News made a records request for all the communications the Secretary of State sent local election officials about the integrity and security of the runoff in the weeks following the general election. 

It provided two messages from Elections Division Director Chris Harvey, one which directed election officials to a link where Dominion Voting Machines, which provided the state’s election equipment, created a page on its website debunking some of the disinformation leveled against it.

The Secretary of State’s office did not reply to Courthouse News’ requests to interview Sterling or questions regarding its records request.

Similarly, the Perdue and Loeffler campaigns did not return requests for comment.

On Wednesday, Loeffler repeatedly brushed aside questions from reporters asking if she accepted Biden’s win of the White House.

But even while the Secretary of State’s office is parrying baseless allegations the election was rigged, a federal judge said Georgia’s election system is vulnerable to breaches and breakdown.

In an October opinion and order ahead of the general election, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg denied the Coalition for Good Governance’s request to switch the state over to what it sees as an easier and more secure option: hand-marked paper ballots. 

The state was just rolling out the machines provided by Dominion Voting Systems and there was a learning curve, the judge reasoned. But in the same opinion, Totenberg said the plaintiffs raised significant concerns about the state’s system.

“The Plaintiffs’ national cybersecurity experts convincingly present evidence that this is not a question of ‘might this actually ever happen?’ — but ‘when it will happen,’ especially if further protective measures are not taken,” Totenberg wrote.

The ballot marking system — one of the first of its kind adopted by a state — has voters fill out their choices on a screen, which then orders a printer to spit out the ballot, and the voter’s selections are recorded when a scanner reads a barcode printed on the ballot.

The problem is two-fold, the Coalition argues. First, the tablet screens voters use to fill out their ballots are large enough that other people can see a voter’s selections — eroding secrecy of the ballot. And second, voters are casting votes with a barcode they cannot verify.

Furthermore, according to the coalition’s director Marilyn Marks, it’s a quirk of human nature for voters to trust the machines and not to check their ballots after they are printed and before they are fed into a scanner, and they take the sticker declaring “I secured my vote!” and leave the polls.

The Coalition for Good Governance is spending the runoff election gathering data, collecting evidence, and working as election observers credentialed by the Libertarian Party, Marks said in a phone interview.

“We have watched voters coming to small polling places in rural areas and literally you could see the fear on their faces, being afraid to vote in front of the minister’s wife, the landlord, whatever. We have heard poll managers talk to voters about how they were voting and say things like ‘Ima tell your daddy,’” Marks said.

She says it’s an insecure voting system and the best way to currently cast a ballot in Georgia is to vote by mail with its hand-marked ballot, filling it out and signing the envelope carefully and either mailing it or dropping it off.

“If it’s a choice between not voting and voting on the machines, definitely vote. Definitely vote on the machine because your chances of it being recorded correctly are still good and that voting is still the right thing to do,” Marks said.

Justin Levitt, an election law expert and law professor at Loyola Marymount University, said election officials in Georgia were exemplary in standing up to their party and saying Trump didn’t win under the state’s election rules.

“If the alternative is Kemp engineering a takeover of the election process, contrary to what the voters of Georgia actually wanted, it has to be that eventually standing up for what the voters actually said is better for confidence in future elections than not doing that,” Levitt said.

Levitt noted there are election-related conspiracy theories on the left and the right. Feeding some of the distrust in the election was the 2018 race for Georgia’s governor’s seat.

Two years ago, Georgia saw a notably contentious race for governor, between Republican Brian Kemp — who did not resign as secretary of state and oversaw his own election — and voting rights activist Stacy Abrams.

Levitt said Abrams did not deny Kemp had won, but used her speech to highlight deficiencies and unfairness in the system.

“Abrams refused to deliver a concession speech but she acknowledged early and often that Brian Kemp won given the rules in place and that he would be the governor of Georgia. That’s not what Donald Trump has done,” Levitt said.

Trump’s lawsuits are affecting the misinformation in 2020 because the lawsuits, despite largely floundering when brought before judges, have been filed and supported by the president. The sheer volume feeds the narrative.

“People aren’t used to frivolous litigation by the president,” Levitt said.

It leads to a situation “profoundly weird” where millions of Americans believe the election in Georgia was stolen by GOP election officials for Democratic candidates, he said.

It’s logical to believe the president’s rhetoric is not helping the Republican Party during the runoff, he said.

For the campaign running on the ground, the Republicans who won’t acknowledge Biden’s victory even after the electoral college certified the election, it presents a messaging problem to communicate the stakes of the election.

“One of the reasons you don’t just invent facts about a rigged election is people don’t want to participate in a rigged election,” Levitt said.

It’s hard to predict what may happen next, Levitt said. Typically, runoff elections are low-turnout events. Typically, elections aren’t run during pandemics.

But this is an election to determine whether the U.S. Senate is favorable to a new administration or generally hostile. Plus, voters broke turnout records during the November election weeks before.

To understand what’s happening in Georgia, you have to talk to the Georgia voter, Levitt said.

On Monday, during the first day of Georgia’s early voting period, retired custodial supervisor Hilda Smith, 66, voted at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena for Democrats Ossoff and Warnock saying the other party didn’t do enough to help the country. He did so expressing caution about the security of the election system that he says has flaws.

“It’s the best we’ve got right now. I hope they work out the bugs in the system down the road somewhere,” Smith said. 

A few hours south in Savannah, Mildred McClain held her photo ID in her hand as she stood outside the Savannah Civic Center to cast her support for the Democrats in the races.

The 71-year-old who runs a community-based organization said she “absolutely, absolutely” has confidence in the election system.

The voting system has checks and balances and the people running it, “though they may be Republican, they have good moral courage, and they’ll do the right thing,” she said.

Courthouse News reporters Lauren Gallet and Kayla Goggin contributed to this report.

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