“The most corrupt election in the history of the country.” Three hundred and twenty eight days after losing the 2020 election, that’s what Donald Trump was still grousing about this past weekend at the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry, Georgia. “The people of Georgia must replace the RINOs and weak Republicans who made it all possible,” he told the crowd.
In case there was any mistaking who Trump meant, the primary challenger in the race for Georgia Secretary of State was already waiting in the wings. To cheers, Congressman Jody Hice (R-GA) promised that, come November, he would “get rid of Brad Raffensperger” — the sitting secretary of state who ignored Trump’s demands to “find” enough votes to close the margin with Biden. As for Gov. Brian Kemp — the other man Trump blames for his humiliating defeat last fall — the former president said he’d prefer Kemp’s Democratic rival Stacey Abrams to the governor. “Stacey, would you like to take his place? It’s OK with me,” Trump said. (Abrams hasn’t declared her candidacy, but is widely expected to challenge Kemp to a rematch next fall.)
Trump’s swing through the peach state this weekend had a specific purpose beyond bellyaching, though. He was there to pump up the candidacy of Herschel Walker, legendary University of Georgia running back, former NFL star, dissociative identity disorder sufferer, accused domestic abuser, and Trump’s 2022 pick for U.S. Senate. (Walker has denied the abuse allegations.)
Walker is running against Raphael Warnock, who was swept into office along with fellow Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff in January, handing Democrats a razor-thin majority in the U.S. Senate. If Walker were to win against Warnock next November, it would not only redeem Trump after the twin trouncings of the candidates he backed in January’s runoff — Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue — it could also tip control of the Senate back into Republican hands. But in order for Walker to have a shot, the Georgia GOP would have to do something about Fulton County: the largest county in the state and the Democratic stronghold that helped deliver the victories for Ossoff, Warnock, and Joe Biden.
Thanks in large part to Trump’s incessant complaining, Republicans may have a secret weapon to guarantee victory come 2022, in the form of a new law explicitly designed to address the ex-president’s gripes. State Bill 202, signed into law in March, includes a raft of measures that Republicans say will tamp down the “widespread voter fraud” Trump insists took place, despite zero evidence to support such claims. It mandates having an ID to cast a vote, restricts mail-in voting, criminalizes giving food or drinks to people waiting in line, among other restrictions designed to make it harder for people to vote.
When the law passed in March, voting rights advocates were particularly concerned — given the enormous pressure Trump put on election officials to change the results in November — about a provision that empowers the GOP-controlled state election board to suspend or replace local election officials and delay the certification of election results.
Robb Pitts, chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, was one of them. Now, Pitts says, “my greatest fear has come to pass.” In late July — after a formal request from five state GOP representatives — the state board of elections opened a “performance review” of Fulton County, the first step in the process that would allow them to seize control of the board of elections in one of the state’s most populous and heavily Democratic counties, which includes most of the city of Atlanta.
State House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, a Republican whose suburban district lies in Fulton, said she wrote the letter out of concern about “the sloppy manner in which elections were conducted in Fulton County in 2020 and in the years leading up to then.”
It’s the first time the law’s novel provisions are being tested, so it’s still unclear at this point how exactly the process is supposed to work. “We haven’t even been officially notified of what they’re going to be looking for, how they’re going to proceed,” Pitts says. “No timeline, no nothing.”
Under the new law, the board will conduct a preliminary investigation and hold a hearing within 90 days. But Pitts cited an outside analysis that indicates the whole process could take more than a year to play out.
While the pretense for the review is the 2020 election, in Pitts’ mind, this is all a bid to take over the election board ahead of the Senate race, and the next presidential contest. “Votes have been counted three times — one time by hand — and results were substantially the same each time. The 2020 election results have been certified. If that’s true, what is this all about? Why keep this up? Well, it’s pretty simple: It’s about the 2022 election and the 2024 election.”
If there were any doubt sthat partisan motives were underlying the decision to open an inquiry into Fulton County, they evaporated two weeks ago when Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger threatened to remove Fulton County’s “entire elections board” under SB202 if the board voted to confirm former Atlanta City Councilmember Cathy Woolard as its newest member.
Raffensperger took issue with the fact that Woolard consulted for Abrams’ voting rights organization, Fair Fight, which has sued his office over voting rights issues in the past. His deputy, Gabe Sterling tweeted an image with Woolard’s personal information, including her phone number. (Sterling later deleted the tweet and apologized; Raffensperger’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment,)
Woolard, for her part, was taken aback by Raffensperger’s response. She was surprised, first, she says, because, thanks to Trump, Raffensperger doesn’t actually have the power to remove anyone under the new law — SB 202 strips the secretary of state not just of his role as chair of the state election board, but of his seat on the board as well. “He doesn’t have any authority to remove the election board, so I thought it was kind of careless of him to make a public threat like that,” Woolard tells Rolling Stone.
Second, she was surprised by the personal nature of the attack. Both Raffensperger and Sterling, she says, “were quite public about the fact that they had received death threats, and they really lamented the way things got personal.” (Last December, Sterling made an emotional speech after election workers’ lives had been threatened, begging for an end to the violent rhetoric surrounding Trump’s lie that the election was stolen from him.) “I would have thought that he would have understood,” Woolard says, “that [posting my personal information] was pretty inflammatory and could lead to a pretty bad situation for me and my family.”
Seth Bringman, spokesman for Abrams and Fair Fight, was not surprised. Raffensperger “sees it as good for him, politically, to attack Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight nonstop, and that is what he does,” says Bringman. “And there was a very marked shift in his rhetoric post-election day when he realized that simply saying who had more votes was potentially going to lose him his primary.”
Pitts agrees. “What he’s doing is smart politics on his part. He is trying to curry favor with the president and all of the supporters and believers in the big lie — and the big lie is still alive and well.”
Raffensperger may be powerless in this situation — the board approved Woolard’s nomination two weeks ago, and the secretary of state has been quiet on the issue since. But the state board of elections, the entity with the actual power to remove members of the board, is moving forward with the investigation that could replace the Fulton board. The deadline for a hearing is October 28th.
If they succeed, Pitts doesn’t think the state board of elections will stop with Fulton. Fulton County will “probably be followed by one of the other four big counties in the metro area here — DeKalb County, Gwinnett County and Cobb County, Clayton County. We five counties make up almost 40 percent of the population of the state of Georgia,” Pitts says. “We’re ground zero in this effort.”