Trump: Georgia voting law doesn't go far enough

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The New York Times

Georgia’s New Law, and the Risk of Election Subversion

What would have happened if the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, had responded, “OK, I’ll try,” in a January phone call after President Donald Trump asked him to “find” 11,000 votes? No one can be sure. What is clear is that the question has been overlooked in recent months. Public attention has mostly moved on from Trump’s bid to overturn the election; activists and politicians are focused more on whether to restrict or expand voting access, particularly by mail. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times But trying to reverse an election result without credible evidence of widespread fraud is an act of a different magnitude than narrowing access. A successful effort to subvert an election would pose grave and fundamental risks to democracy, risking political violence and secessionism. Beyond any provisions on voting itself, the new Georgia election law risks making election subversion easier. It creates new avenues for partisan interference in election administration. This includes allowing the state elections board, now newly controlled by appointees of the Republican state Legislature, to appoint a single person to take control of typically bipartisan county election boards, which have important power over vote counting and voter eligibility. The law also gives the Legislature the authority to appoint the chair of the state election board and two more of its five voting members, allowing it to appoint a majority of the board. It strips the secretary of state of the chair and a vote. Even without this law, there would still be a risk of election subversion: Election officials and administrators all over the country possess important powers, including certification of election results, that could be abused in pursuit of partisan gain. And it’s a risk that H.R. 1, the reform bill congressional Democrats are pushing, does relatively little to address. The new Georgia law does not inherently make it easier to “find” 11,000 votes. Almost all of the powers that the Legislature might use already existed — they were just vested in other people or bodies. They could have been abused before and could be in the future, regardless of the new law. And the law has eligibility requirements for a chair that exclude many of the sort of people who would seem likeliest to abuse their authority, including anyone who has been a political candidate, campaign contributor or party organizer in the two years before the appointment. This is not guaranteed to preclude a rabid partisan leading the board, but no such checks had existed on the secretary of state. (Raffensperger, a Republican, previously served in the Georgia House of Representatives.) The law takes power from the very person, Raffensperger, who a mere three months ago rebuffed Trump’s plea to find 11,000 votes. State legislators demoted Raffensperger for a reason: Many were probably sympathetic to Trump’s allegations. And if the Legislature had a problem with how Raffensperger handled the 2020 election, it is reasonable to wonder whether it might have supported board members aggressively backing the claims advanced by Trump. Can state boards, county boards or anyone else use their administrative powers to flip electoral outcomes? After the November election, a majority of Republican members of Congress and state attorneys general signed on to efforts that would have invalidated millions of votes and brought about a constitutional crisis. With that backdrop, it seems naive to assume that no one would try to abuse such power, whether in Georgia or elsewhere. It’s worth going back to Trump’s infamous call. While the oft-quoted line about “finding” votes makes it sound as if he wanted Raffensperger to manufacture votes out of thin air, Trump said he had already found the votes, in the form of thousands of ballots he said were cast illegally: “We have all the votes we need. You know, we won the state. If you took, these are the most minimal numbers, the numbers that I gave you, those are numbers that are certified, your absentee ballots sent to vacant addresses, your out-of-state voters, 4,925. You know when you add them up, it’s many more times, it’s many times the 11,779 number.” In addition to the 4,925 out-of-state voters mentioned, Trump baselessly asserted in the call that there were hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots with forged signatures. He alleged, based on imperfect matches between lists of voters, that there were 4,502 voters who voted but weren’t registered; 18,325 voters with vacant addresses; 904 voters who voted only with a P.O. box address; and nearly 5,000 votes by dead people. And with virtually no evidence whatsoever, he alleged great malfeasance in Atlanta’s Fulton County, including 18,000 votes having to do with someone who did something nefarious and “3,000 pounds” of shredded ballots. County and state election officials hold a variety of powers relevant to such claims. They evaluate whether to accept or reject ballots, and they certify results. In Georgia, they hear eligibility challenges. It would have been hard to employ these powers to aid Trump, let alone to survive a subsequent court challenge. But there are levers that they could have at least tried to pull, even if it’s not clear what would have come of it. One option is that the state board could have usurped the power of Fulton County, based on the president’s allegations in the general election and other allegations from the primary (the law requires evidence of failed administration in at least two elections over the prior two years). The state board could have either used the president’s allegations as a basis to refuse to certify the result or to disqualify otherwise eligible voters. It would be hard or even impossible to pull this off immediately after an election. The law requires a fairly drawn-out hearing process before the state can interfere in county elections. The preliminary hearing can’t be held for at least 30 days after an initial petition, which is after the Georgia certification deadline. But perhaps a nefarious board could lay the groundwork earlier, potentially putting a newly appointed superintendent in control before the elections, when he or she would have the ability to preemptively disqualify voters and ballots. County election boards heard similar kinds of challenges to voter eligibility during the Georgia runoff. The state Republican Party and a Texas group challenged the eligibility of hundreds of thousands of voters in December, based on whether a voter appeared to match someone on the Postal Service list of people in the National Change of Address Registry. A few small counties actually went through with trying to invalidate voters on this basis. This eligibility challenge was rejected by the U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Abrams Gardner, who happens to be the sister of Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the 2018 governor’s race in Georgia to Brian Kemp. But although the eligibility challenge faltered in the runoff, it is not obvious that ironclad protections exist against eligibility challenges, either as a matter of court precedent or as a matter of federal law. A narrower challenge could have had a better chance of surviving a court challenge. And the new Georgia law makes these kinds of challenges easier, by allowing a single person to challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters. Another option to thwart an election might be to stop certification. The new Georgia law does not do much to make it easier to block certification, as the secretary of state — not the board or the Legislature — still certifies results statewide. But county election boards, including in Georgia, generally certify their election results, which the secretary of state then certifies statewide. Trump tried to thwart efforts to certify the results certification, turning routine hearings into televised events. In the end, Trump’s effort failed. Election officials overwhelmingly acted to preserve the integrity of the election, despite immense political pressure to act. Even so, the president did manage to persuade a handful of officials to vote against certification on dubious grounds. If secretaries of state had not certified election results, whether in Georgia or elsewhere, it might have plunged the country into crisis with uncertain consequences. It is not unreasonable to wonder whether there is a chance of something similar occurring in the future, given how many House Republicans refused to certify the electoral count. Election administrators may have other options to undermine elections, besides disqualifying ballots and voters or decertifying the results, either in Georgia or in other states. All of this represents an obvious threat to American democracy. And yet the risk of election subversion has been overshadowed by the fight over new restrictions on voting, especially by mail. Progressives have been concerned about these kinds of restrictions for years, and the reform bill H.R. 1 was written in part as a response. But since the law was mainly devised before the 2020 election, its provisions don’t directly address the new risk that election officials could subvert election results. There is no provision, for instance, requiring nonpartisan administration or certification of federal elections. H.R. 1 does have provisions that would indirectly limit the options available to actors who might try to subvert elections. One notable example is a provision against voter caging, which precludes eligibility challenges based on matched lists, like the change of address notification challenge attempted in December. It also includes provisions that ensure basic election administration, like requiring that people don’t wait in line longer than 30 minutes. But with the main focus of the proposed law being to improve democracy, by expanding voting access and more, it is not at all obvious whether H.R. 1 amounts to a comprehensive effort to protect democracy. And even if it does have the protections it needs, the risk of election subversion has received such little attention that relevant provisions might not be included in a slimmed-down bill. Those provisions have not been mentioned in most proposals for a narrower bill. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company