Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, must have been surprised to hear Donald Trump call him a Democrat a few days ago. Raffensperger is a former state representative and, by all accounts, a lifelong Republican. But le Parti Républicain, c’est Trump. You’re either with him or against him.
Raffensperger announced Wednesday that the secretary of state’s office would conduct a hand recount of ballots in the presidential race. On the surface, it might appear to be a capitulation to Republican political forces looking for a way to overturn the election results or, barring that, to delegitimize them.
But things aren’t quite that simple. Today, the difference between President-elect Joe Biden and Trump in vote totals is under 15,000 ballots on about 5 million votes cast — a difference of about three-tenths of a percent. The smaller the margin, the larger the number of votes an auditor needs to ensure that the error rate of the audit is below the margin between the candidates.
Auditors had initially intended to check a smaller sample of ballots to check the election mechanisms, but more than a million ballots would be needed for a statistically valid audit, Raffensperger’s office said. As a practical matter, it would take just as much effort to hand count the whole election. So that’s what they’re doing.
“We’ll be counting every single piece of paper, every single ballot, every single lawfully cast legal ballot,” Raffensperger said Wednesday at a press conference.
The announcement comes a day after Georgia’s two U.S. senators — Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue — issued a joint press release Monday calling for Raffensperger’s resignation, describing the election as rife with “mismanagement.” The release does not specify what constitutes mismanagement on his part; one can only assume they are referring to a result which doesn’t end with a Trump victory, or their own. Neither campaign responded to a request for comment.
The move blindsided both Raffensperger and the state’s Republicans, which now find themselves choosing sides between the administrators of a government that they control and a president that they do not.
One might think of this as two camps within Georgia’s Republican Party: the Isakson wing and the Collins wing. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s office buried an announcement of staff changes by releasing it on Election Day. The changes signaled a meaningful shift in the governor’s public posture toward, well, madness like this. Kemp replaced many of his inner circle with long-serving hands of former Sen. Johnny Isakson, widely perceived as less ideologically driven than their predecessors on Kemp’s team.
Contrast this with Trump’s appointment of former congressman Doug Collins to run his recount effort in Georgia. Collins, one of Trump’s most vocal supporters in Congress, ran against Loeffler in Georgia’s jungle primary after Kemp passed him over for appointment to the Senate seat vacated by Isakson. Collins’s challenge drew sharp criticism for exposing the seat to a Democratic challenger by making it harder for Loeffler to gain a simple majority on the first ballot.
With a challenge from her right, Loeffler found herself running ads touting her conservatism. In one particularly absurd ad, Loeffler was cast as “more conservative than Attila the Hun,” complete with an actor in yellowface in a yurt. Meanwhile, Perdue tried to diminish his support for Trump in his campaign advertising as polling showed Trump’s growing disfavor in Georgia. Loeffler came in second to Rev. Raphael Warnock, but beat Collins by about 300,000 votes. Loeffler and Warnock face each other in a runoff January 5.
But without Trump at the top of the ballot here, one wonders if that diminishes their appeal to Trump’s base when turnout will determine the victor of the runoffs in January. Neither can afford to lose voters who view them as part of Washington’s systemic failures. The loyalty test, it seems, requires them to attack fellow Republican Raffensperger for being insufficiently pro-Trump.
That loyalty test might have led to a bonkers end run around the election itself. Kemp, state House Speaker David Ralston, and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan issued a joint statement Tuesday in response to questions about whether the state would hold a special legislative session to invalidate the election results and assign electors to Trump.
“Any changes to Georgia’s election laws made in a special session will not have any impact on an ongoing election and would only result in endless litigation,” the statement said. “We share the same concerns many Georgians have about the integrity of our elections. Therefore, we will follow the coming audit and recount closely, and will work together to keep Georgia’s elections safe, accessible and fair.”
Georgia’s governor and both chambers of the General Assembly are controlled by Republicans, as is that of Arizona. The U.S. Constitution does not require a state to submit its choice for president to an election; it merely requires that it be done “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.”
Appointing new electors would be a straight steal, fomenting chaotic protests and massive litigation. Everything about this thwarts democracy and the rule of law. But it was seriously discussed — and conservative talk show hosts Mark Levin and Sean Hannity have both raised the idea.
Kemp and the speaker have also ruled out a special session to close an apparently loophole in Georgia’s voter registration laws which allow recent transplants to register to vote in January’s special election. The law criminalizes voting in that election by people who do not intend to reside in Georgia after the election, but it doesn’t prevent people from registering.