Republican Party organizations have continued to support President Donald Trump’s unfounded allegations of voter fraud, amplifying his message in the press and in court filings. No such claim has survived legal scrutiny. The president's own Department of Homeland Security has said that the 2020 election was “the most secure in American history,” a statement that resulted in the firing of the director of that agency’s cybersecurity division. Just last week Trump summoned Michigan Republican leaders to the White House to try to throw out the state's election results. Despite these efforts, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania have certified the results in favor of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. And on Monday, the head of the General Services Administration approved the official transition process.
A handful of Republican senators has particularly disgraced the U.S. Senate in their willingness to support Trump’s doomed attempt to reverse the results of a lawful and secure election.
A handful of Republican senators has particularly disgraced the U.S. Senate in their willingness to support Trump’s doomed attempt to reverse the results of a lawful and secure election. The most egregious example is Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the subject of an ethics complaint we filed, along with former Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub, last Wednesday with the Senate Ethics Committee.
The complaint centers on a phone call Graham placed to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to propose that Raffensperger invalidate thousands of mail-in ballots. According to The Washington Post, Graham “asked whether Raffensperger had the power to toss all mail ballots in counties found to have higher rates of nonmatching signatures,” which would have included ballots legally cast by eligible voters. In a subsequent interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Raffensperger explained that he took the senator’s message to mean “look hard and see how many ballots you could throw out.”
Graham denies this account and maintains he was merely inquiring into the standards for mail-in ballots. His denial is not plausible. CNN reported that a staffer for Raffensberger, Gabriel Sterling, said “he participated in a controversial phone call with Sen. Lindsey Graham and claimed he heard Graham ask if state officials could throw out ballots.” Sterling and his family have received death threats and are now under 24-hour police protection.
Moreover, in the process of denying an attempt to invalidate ballots in Georgia, Graham admitted to reporters that he had also spoken with officials in Arizona, Nevada and possibly other states, because, as he said, “the future of the country hangs in the balance.”
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Almost as worrisome as these attempts to influence election officials is Graham’s invocation of his authority as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to further the Republican narrative of fraud. Four days after the election, he vowed to launch a committee investigation into alleged irregularities, declaring that as chairman "all credible allegations of voting irregularities and misconduct will be taken seriously.” The next day he credited “allegations of system failure, fraud” as the reason Trump lost the election.
Graham is indeed empowered to investigate irregularities. But it would be a profound misuse of his office to call for an investigation for the purpose of bolstering Trump’s bid for re-election. Thus far there has been no public disclosure of any further plans regarding Graham’s promised investigation. Let’s hope it stays that way. If, however, Graham follows through, it will be clear that the investigative powers of the U.S. Senate are being pressed into service to challenge election results after the fact, either to reverse the outcome of the presidential election or to intimidate voters, election workers and the Georgia secretary of state in the upcoming January Senate runoff.
As we documented in an October report issued under the auspices of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the use of public investigatory powers for partisan political purposes has been a hallmark of the current administration, as demonstrated by William Barr’s Department of Justice. If our norms have become so distorted that the investigative powers of the Senate are similarly available for misuse, our country is experiencing a rule-of-law crisis of the first order.
Senate ethics rules prohibit Senate employees from engaging in campaign activity, unless it is clear that they do so on their own time, outside of Senate space, and without using Senate resources.
Senate ethics rules prohibit Senate employees from engaging in campaign activity, unless it is clear that they do so on their own time, outside of Senate space, and without using Senate resources. But there is no reason to suppose that Graham’s attempt to interfere in either the presidential election or the Georgia Senate runoff is being done in his personal capacity, rather than as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Taken in the context of the threats to launch an investigation into voter fraud, it is difficult to separate Graham’s official position from his personal one in support of Trump and GOP candidates in Georgia. It would not have been necessary to disentangle the two, however, had Graham steered clear of any conduct that cast doubt on his impartiality as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Perhaps the most deeply concerning aspect of Graham’s disenfranchisement campaign lies in its motive and methodology, namely to coordinate efforts across the Republican Party to flip the results of the election, a goal that could not be accomplished without disenfranchising a large number of Black voters. Both Georgia and South Carolina, Graham’s home state, have a history of infringing on the voting rights of African Americans. In recognition of this history, both states were previously under the supervision of the Department of Justice based on provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the 5-4 Shelby County v. Holder decision, however, the Supreme Court in 2013 rescinded this supervision. Graham’s actions are illustrative of the type of conduct that might not have happened had the Voting Rights Act been fully in effect.
Graham did not succeed in his apparent attempt to disenfranchise thousands of Georgians in the November 2020 election. But if the Georgia secretary of state or his staffer had had less integrity, Graham might have prevailed. Such misconduct on the part of a sitting senator is an embarrassment to the Senate and a threat to our democracy, one that must be addressed in a full assessment of U.S. election security in the new administration. Graham’s actions should be clearly identified and vociferously rejected by his fellow senators, as well as by the Biden administration. They should make clear that interference with the counting or certification of votes is conduct unbecoming of a senator and will not be tolerated.