A top staffer for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Tuesday that he was on the line when Sen. Lindsey Graham asked his boss whether he had the power to reject certain absentee ballots, a question Raffensperger interpreted as a suggestion to toss out legally cast votes.
Graham has denied having made such a suggestion, while Raffensperger told The Washington Post on Monday that “It sure looked like he was wanting to go down that road.”
Gabriel Sterling, who oversees voting systems in the state, told reporters Tuesday that he was on the call between his boss and the South Carolina senator, who, like Sterling, are Republicans.
"What I heard was basically discussions about absentee ballots, and if a - potentially - if there was a percentage of signatures that weren't really, truly matching, is there some point when you get to where you can say, if somebody went to the courtroom, could say, 'Let’s throw out all these ballots because we have no way of knowing because the ballots are separate.' And that was part partially what was going on," Sterling said. "I could see how Sen. Graham viewed it one way and Secretary Raffensperger viewed it one way. But, you know, our job in this state has to follow the law and follow the process as we continue to do. There's no physical ability for this office to do anything along those lines."
Raffensperger told the Post he’s faced rising pressure from fellow Republicans who want to see Democrat Joe Biden’s narrow lead in the state reversed. Nearly 5 million votes were cast in the presidential election in Georgia, and Biden was leading President Donald Trump by about 14,000 votes. His comments came as election officials across the state were working to complete a hand recount of votes in the presidential race.
When Georgia voters return an absentee ballot, they have to sign an oath on an outer envelope. County election office workers are required to ensure the signature matches the one on the absentee ballot application and the one in the voter registration system, Raffensperger said in a statement over the weekend.
Raffensperger said Tuesday during an interview on Peacock TV's “The Mehdi Hasan Show" that the numbers show that Trump cost himself the election in Georgia.
“There were actually 24,000 Republican voters that voted absentee in the June primary, and those same 24,000 voters, did not show up to vote in either absentee or in-person on the day of election or the 15 days of early voting we have," he said. "So they just disappeared and they were ripe for the picking, they were there in June for the primary and they should have come home and voted for President Trump in the Fall.”
He also discussed his call with Graham, saying that the South Carolina senator in effect asked about specific counties where there might be a bias to accept certain ballots and whether political bias might have caused election workers to accept ballots with non-matching signatures. Graham also asked, the secretary said, whether Raffensperger could throw out all absentee ballots in counties with higher rates of non-matching signatures.
"I said, 'No, you can't do that,' and you can't tie this back anyway because they've been separated. You don't know how people voted at that time," Raffensperger said during the interview.
When asked about the conversation with Raffensperger, Graham said Monday that he was “trying to find out how the signature stuff worked.” He said Raffensperger “did a good job of explaining to me how they verify signatures.”
Asked about Raffensperger’s interpretation that he was suggesting that legally cast ballots should be thrown out, Graham said, “That’s ridiculous.”
Asked Tuesday why a senator from South Carolina was calling the secretary of state of Georgia, Graham said, "Because the future of the country hangs in the balance."
Graham said earlier in the day he was also concerned about two other states that Trump lost, Arizona and Nevada, and that he'd spoken to officials in both states “as a United States senator who’s worried about the integrity of the election process.”
The secretaries of state of both states denied that they had spoken to him.
Arizona's secretary of state Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, excoriated Graham in an appearance on Hasan's show on Tuesday.
"I don't think elected officials from other states have any business questioning the election process in, in other states," she said.
Hobbs also said her office has been bombarded with harassing calls and, like Raffensperger, she and her family have been threatened.
Graham later clarified he'd spoken to Gov. Doug Ducey in Arizona and "people" in Nevada.
"I am all over this. I am not backing off. I am asking questions about how to verify signatures with mail-in balloting - but I never suggested to the secretary of state to do anything inappropriate," Graham said.
Raffensperger doubled down on the accusation Tuesday during an interview on "CBS This Morning."
"Senator Graham implied for us to audit the envelopes and then throw out the ballots for counties who had the highest frequency error of signatures," he said.
Trump, who has made unfounded claims of voting irregularities and fraud, and his allies have repeatedly taken to social media to criticize Raffensperger and the way the state’s hand tally was being conducted. The secretary of state has responded in social media posts of his own disputing their claims.
On Tuesday, Raffensperger knocked down a right-wing conspiracy theory that computer glitches had "switched" some votes in the state — announcing that an audit found no issues with the state's voting machines.
“We are glad but not surprised that the audit of the state’s voting machines was an unqualified success,” Raffensperger said. “Election security has been a top priority since day one of my administration. We have partnered with the Department of Homeland Security, the Georgia Cyber Center, Georgia Tech security experts, and a wide range of other election security experts around the state and country so Georgia voters can be confident that their vote is safe and secure.”
County election officials around the state worked through the weekend on a hand tally of the votes in the presidential race as part of a legally mandated audit to ensure the new election machines counted the votes accurately.
Once the tally is complete and the results are certified, the losing campaign can request a recount, which would be done using scanners that read and tally the votes.
Election officials said Monday that the hand tally had turned up more than 2,500 votes in one county that wasn’t previously counted but that that won’t alter the overall outcome of the race.
The unofficial breakdown of those votes was 1,643 for Trump, 865 for Biden and 16 for Libertarian Jo Jorgensen, according to Sterling.
“The reason you do an audit is to find this kind of thing,” Sterling said.
He said the issue appeared to be an isolated problem and that there were “no fundamental changes” in other counties.
County election board Chairman Tom Rees said it appears the ballots were cast during in-person early voting but election officials weren’t sure how they were missed.
The county elections office suffered several setbacks, including a top official being infected by the coronavirus, and it seems proper procedures weren’t followed when the results were tabulated by machine, Sterling said. But the county had the paper ballots and caught the problem during the hand tally, he said.
Raffensperger told the Post that he and his wife have received death threats in recent days.
“Other than getting you angry, it’s also very disillusioning,” he said.
County election officials were instructed to complete the count by 11:59 p.m. Wednesday. The deadline for the state to certify election results is Friday.
The hand tally appeared to go smoothly in most places, and the vast majority of the state’s 159 counties had completed their work by Monday, Sterling said. What remained was mostly data entry and quality control measures before submitting results to the secretary of state, he said. State election officials have said they wouldn’t release any results from the tally until the whole process is complete. The tally resulting from the audit is what will be certified, election officials have said.
Raffensperger’s office has consistently said it’s likely the results will differ slightly from those previously reported by the counties but that the difference is not expected to change the overall outcome of the race.