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Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger Defends Controversial Election Law

13 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Since last November, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has come under fire from two very different directions.

Trump loyalists are still angry at Raffensperger for pushing back against the former President’s false claims that there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election. When Trump told the Georgia election official he just wanted “to find” the 11,780 votes he needed to win Georgia, Raffensperger refused to comply—saying “we believe our numbers are right,” the Washington Post reported.

Voting rights advocates, who are critical of restrictions in the state’s new election law, are upset too, given Raffensperger’s support for the measure. On March 25, Georgia enacted an overhaul of it’s election law, which includes a shortened time frame to request absentee ballots, a ban on most out-of-precinct provisional ballots, limitations on drop boxes, and no longer allowing non-poll workers to hand out food and drink to voters waiting in line within a certain distance of polling stations and lines.

Since then, multiple law suits have been filed over the new law, but Raffensperger maintains it will expand access to voting in the state and “has common sense safeguards.” Up for re-election next year, the Secretary of State is also confident about his prospects, despite having lost support among some conservatives over resisting Trump. Republican party officials in two of Georgia’s conservative strongholds adopted resolutions condemning Raffensperger along with Governor Brian Kemp earlier this month.

In a phone interview, Raffensperger spoke to TIME about Georgia’s new law, the corporate blowback that ensued and whether he would support Trump if he is the Republican nominee in 2024. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

TIME: There aren’t too many Secretaries of State that are household names. But you found yourself in the national spotlight last year after Trump asked you to help him win Georgia. Has the national focus on your state made it easier or harder for you to do your job?

Raffensperger: I would say it’s just put us under more scrutiny from both sides. Everything goes back to our 2018 gubernatorial elections with Stacey Abrams. She had a narrative of voter suppression, President Trump had a narrative of voter fraud. So I think we’ve had a relatively high profile for awhile.

You were evacuated out of Georgia’s capitol building by state troopers in early January as a group of about 100 pro-Trump protesters gathered outside, some of them armed. Have you faced any other threats like you did that day?

Well, my wife got a death threat last Sunday. So we still do get threats. I know that people were upset about the election but you have to understand that my job is to make sure we have fair and honest elections. As a Republican, I was disappointed with the results also. But the results are the results. And that’s my job—it’s to make sure that we accurately and securely provide that information.

You have repeatedly said that Georgia’s recent elections were secure and successful. Why then, do you think was there a need to reform the election laws? Do you agree with the rationale lawmakers put forth that the reforms were necessary for election integrity?

My viewpoint is that we took a hit to the confidence in the election process going back to 2018 with Stacey Abrams. She did not concede defeat*.

We had this question about voter suppression and that was her narrative for two years. So we went ahead with House Bill 316 in 2019 that included a new verifiable paper ballot system since she questioned the accuracy of the machines. We joined the Electronic Registration Information Center so we could update our voter rolls objectively, instead of what she said was a very subjective measure. When I ran in 2018, I said we needed to move away from signature match and move towards having something objective, like requiring driver’s license numbers for absentee ballots. That’s what was incorporated in Senate Bill 202 and I support that. And so do voters.

*Stacey Abrams said in 2018 that she acknowledged governor Brian Kemp would be certified as the election’s winner but has said repeatedly that she did not concede. “As I have always said, I acknowledged at the very beginning that Brian Kemp won under the rules that were in place,” Abrams said earlier this month at a congressional hearing. “What I object to are rules that permitted thousands of Georgia voters to be denied their participation in this election and had their votes cast out.”

Your office recently highlighted a new nonpartisan report that ranks Georgia’s election access among the top two-thirds of states in the country because it allows no-excuse absentee ballot voting and has 19 days of early voting. However the head of the organization who published the report—David Becker—has said Georgia’s new election law “had a very good system in place” and the new bill “took a step backward from that.” Do you agree with that analysis? Why or why not?

I agree with the part that we are the mainstream of what most states do. I believe that David Becker’s biggest concern was the prohibition allowing the state election board to take over local election boards*. I’ve been very clear: I’m not happy that I’ve been removed from the chairmanship of the state election board. I believe that should be a position that is responsible to the voting public.

*Becker has spoken out against several of the law’s restrictions, including its limitations on drop boxes, the ban on provisional ballots cast before 5 p.m. and criminalizing non-poll workers handing out food and water to voters in line.

Could you speak more about the provision that would remove you as head of the state election board? Why is this a big concern for you?

My biggest concern is about putting an unelected person in charge of a very powerful position. And then they’re not held with any direct accountability back to the voters. We need something that’s designed to help counties whose election boards have repeatedly failed them. But I think everyone needs to understand that local election boards, the state election board, can’t overturn election results whenever they want. They’re going to tabulate the ballots, just like they always have.

You have previously said that “the bottom line is that this bill expands access to the ballot.” How do you reconcile that with parts of the law that also include so many restrictions like limitations on drop boxes, a ban on most out of precinct provisional ballots and shortening the window to request an absentee ballot?

Number one, for the first time, we’re going to have photo ID for absentee ballots. More than 95% of our voters have a driver’s license, so it’s a very objective measure of identifying voters.

People need to understand that (drop boxes) were illegal the day before the bill passed; they were only used last year because of emergency COVID authorization. And many people don’t realize that last year 35 counties didn’t provide a single one in November. Now the bill is going to require every one of Georgia’s 159 counties to have a drop box. The drop box now has safeguards to it.

As it relates to the shortened time frame in which voters can request an absentee ballot, I think that’s a good thing. What that’ll do is make sure we have a more uniform process. Otherwise it was really presenting a challenge to election officials. The previous system meant that counties had to process requests for multiple different elections at the same time; it was very bureaucratically challenging, so it really goes back to the efficient election process. We also made it so voters must request an absentee ballot no less than 11 days before a primary or election to help enfranchise voters because the late requesters, they weren’t getting their ballots on time. And if they did show up, then they’d have a lengthy cancellation process, which added to the lines. And then they just missed their opportunity to vote.

People have asked about the provision not counting out-of-precinct ballots, except in the last two hours of Election Day. They have to understand that Georgia right now will be aligned with 25 other states, so I believe that puts us in the mainstream. We originally allowed that as an option just in case somebody went to the wrong precinct but out-of-precinct voting is a cumbersome process that takes time. It delays results.

We also extended early voting, which has broad bipartisan support. (The law requires an additional mandatory Saturday for counties and formally codifies Sunday voting as optional but reduces the time for early voting in runoff elections.) We’ve also now set in stone that every voting day for anybody will be from a minimum of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. And then the counties—typically our large metropolitan counties—that were doing 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. can still do that. So you can be a 12-hour or you’ll be doing that 8-hour window but it’ll be every day as opposed to just two hours a day.

Our goal is to make sure we have a safe, uniform process for as many counties as possible, recognizing that our smallest counties have 2,500 people, our largest has a million. But we’re balancing the security with accessibility. We’ve addressed the issues that were raised from the 2018 election. So we are really taking away politicians’ excuses of why they lose elections, because we’re really having a robust control system. And yet we’re still having accessibility, which puts us in the mainstream of what you’re seeing in all of the other states in America.

To your point about drop boxes, voting rights advocates have complained that by requiring drop boxes to be inside facilities, it takes away from their very purpose of increasing accessibility. They also point out that many urban counties will have significantly less drop boxes than they did in recent elections.

I think when people talk about the drop boxes being outside in recent elections, they’re skipping over a big point. Last year, we were in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic. With the drop boxes outside, voters could drive up in their car, jump out, put their ballot in the box and then drive off. They never had to come in contact with other people.

We are now—with the vaccinations and COVID dissipating somewhat—back to intermixing and so they don’t have that same concern. But our preference, if we didn’t have a COVID pandemic, would have been to have those to make sure they’re under 24/7 surveillance inside.

Multiple civil rights groups have now sued over Georgia’s new election law, alleging that it violates the constitution and Voting Rights Act and makes voting harder for minority and working-class voters in particular. President Joe Biden has said the new law is an “atrocity” and “Jim Crow in the 21st century.” What’s your reaction to the President and civil society’s criticism? Do you think it’s fair?

I think the Jim Crow lie is dangerous for election confidence. It’s not helpful. As long as we have that personal integrity, an appropriate balance of security and accessibility and the results are accurate, candidates need to accept it and we need to quit throwing out these pejorative terms because they’re really dangerous for election confidence.

What’s your reaction to firms’ decisions to take their business out of the state, like Major League Baseball shifting its All-Star game to Colorado?

I’m a small business owner and so I look at this from a small business person perspective. But when you are a publicly traded company wading into public policy questions, you have to understand that right now, we have a nation that really is split into two camps. It’s very polarized. So whenever you make a decision in the political realm you’re going to probably get your potential customers irritated. If you really look at what the bill does, it really has common sense safeguards for Georgia elections.

Several local officials, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, have spoken out against the law as well. Gwinnett Solicitor General Brian Whiteside has said he won’t prosecute the law’s line-warming provision. What do you think could be the impact if local officials choose not to apply parts of the law?

I believe it’s really dangerous and unfortunate when elected officials say that they will violate their oath to faithfully serve the constitution and the laws of the state. I take my oath very seriously and I will continue to do that. I have to focus on what I can control and that’s what I do everyday. Those people will be answerable obviously to the voters at some point.

Do you worry that your own stance that there was no widespread fraud, despite Trump’s claims, has cost you support from your base?

President Trump had 80 million Twitter followers; I have just under 70,000. So there’s this huge megaphone, blasting out misinformation, disinformation. People don’t like the results. I would have preferred a different result also. But at the end of the day, what was put out there (by Trump) was not based on facts.

It’s really an education process. (People) have to understand that what you’re really doing is tabulating the ballots based on the people’s choices. As a Republican, I personally believe that Republicans have a better message. And I hope that we do a better job of engaging voters and building and embodying our base’s support so we can win more elections.

Is it fair to say that you feel confident about your own re-election in November 2022?

It’s fair to say that I’ll be running a robust campaign. And at the end of the day, the voters of Georgia make these decisions.

Would you support Donald Trump if he’s the Republican nominee in 2024?

I have always supported the Republican nominees.

This article has been updated to note that while Stacey Abrams’ acknowledged Kemp as the winner of the 2018 race, she has also made comments that she did not concede.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com