Times-Journal staffers interviewed Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Wednesday concerning Georgia’s controversial new elections law. The law has put the state in the national spotlight as Democrats denounce it as an exercise in voter suppression while Republicans call it common sense. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why don’t we start with you sharing what you believe are the good things about this new elections law the governor signed last week.
Brad Raffensperger: Top of the list will be the driver’s license ID (requirement) for absentee ballots — moving away from signature match, which is a subjective measure, to driver’s license (ID numbers), which is objective. ... We’ve been sued both by Democrats and Republicans over signature match. In fact, last year, South Carolina lost signature match when they were sued by the Democrat(ic) Party.
What we’re seeing nationwide is that many states, red and blue states, are using driver’s license (as proof of identity) because it’s a unique identifier. In fact, the Minnesota secretary of state and also the Minnesota Democrat(ic) Party have been using this and they embrace it. So I would hope that the Democrat(ic) Party here in Georgia would embrace it as well.
The second one is early voting. We have actually expanded it from a 16-day minimum to a 17-day minimum. And then counties, if they want to, can add two additional weekends of Sunday voting, so that’d be 19 days total. So more early voting. So that makes it more accessible for voters. But the other thing it does, is the more people that vote early, the less people that have to show up on Tuesday on Election Day.
And then we had actually been working hard with counties, especially after the June primary in the middle of the pandemic last year, about long lines. ... And we worked really well on that because our average wait time in the November election, it was a two-minute wait time. But now we set that one hour goal. We’d like to really work towards 30 minutes, but one hour has been set in law. In other words, if you have a precinct in some county where they have long lines, they’ll have to bust that precinct in half, or they’re going to have to go ahead and add additional equipment or poll workers.
I think the other thing that comes to mind is the four-week runoff. We used to have a four-week state runoff and then an eight-week federal runoff. ... We now get a four-week runoff for both elections. And I think that’s a good thing. It’ll be much easier on the counties, also the candidates, and particularly the candidates’ back pocket, because the elections won’t be so expensive. And from the viewers’ standpoint, there’ll be less commercials for you to have to suffer through on TV. So it’s a win-win-win all the way around, we believe.
Q: I’m wondering how you feel about being removed as chair of the state elections board. Doesn’t the law now allow the state legislature to choose who will chair the state elections board? Do you consider this an attack on you? And do you consider this good policy?
A: Let’s set aside the personality. To your question, “Do I consider this good policy?” Absolutely not. I think it’s very poor policy, and here’s why. Since 1960 ... the secretary of state, who holds an elected office as a constitutional officer, who reports to the voters every four years, was the chair of the state election board. And therefore, if the state election board made decisions that the voters did not support, they could hold them accountable. Now you have a 100% unaccountable board that is appointed. ... And that’s a very powerful board, because they’ve increased the powers of that board, to fire county election directors. If (the board) make(s) a mistake, and that doesn’t work out, who are you going to hold accountable? An unelected official? And so if the secretary of state chaired that or some other elected officer, you could then hold them accountable at the ballot box. So you lose a big accountability measure.
Q: The other four members of that board, that stays the same?
A: That stays the same. And they were always unelected. So now it’s a 100% unelected board making very big decisions for the people of Georgia.
Q: Have you talked with the county elections directors, both rural and urban, about how much it might cost to implement these changes to elections law and how those are going to be funded?
A: No, we haven’t. I hope that the General Assembly reached out to the counties and got a budget for that and looked at the impact. ... I think the four-week runoff, that helps everyone from the standpoint of budget(s).
Q: Local elections departments have to take action if certain precincts have lines that are longer than an hour. In the June primary last year, one of the reasons that lines were longer than anybody would like was because it was hard to find elections workers. I’m wondering what happens in an event where the lines are long, but for whatever reason, local elections officials can’t find the workers they need to cut down on those lines. It strikes me as an issue where sometimes even one’s best efforts might not be enough to solve that.
A: I really think we should look at June as a once-in-100-years event. We were ... really, still, in the depths of COVID. In spite of all those issues, I believe Cobb did a good job. I know they had some issues there, but you have a very well-run county. But the challenge that they had was, a lot of the poll workers, (their) average age was 72-plus, so they stepped out because of COVID. And then how do you recruit poll workers? And how do you get them trained? ... But that really was an outlier. I don’t think we’ll see that again.
If you look at the fall election ... we weren’t quite post-COVID, we were still in a COVID environment, but we could actually start recruiting poll workers. We recruited 35,000 new poll workers, got them trained up, and that was good. It made them great spokesmen about what they did see, great spokesmen for election integrity, the security of the vote, because there was a lot of disinformation, misinformation afterwards. But I do think it’s appropriate to have a measure to push counties to have short lines. If you look at Cobb County’s history, they very rarely have those type of long lines. You have a very solid election director who will make sure that if there were any issues, that they’re prepared for the next election. But there are some counties that they’ve been making the headlines in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1993. And they never seem to get it right.
Q: The new law limits the use of ballot drop boxes. I know that before the pandemic, ballot drop boxes weren’t even a thing. Drop boxes will also only be available during early voting days and hours rather than 24/7 as they were during the previous election. How do you feel about that?
A: It’s not a measure that I would have supported as currently written. Many of the counties, actually many of the red counties, strong Trump counties, even those election directors have stood up and said, “I would have preferred to have one drop box for every early voting location.” And that seems to me to be a very reasonable measure ... And that way, it makes it easier for voters. But I’m sure that’s something that the General Assembly will come back and review at some point. It’s the first time it’s ever been put into state law. And so I guess it’s dipping their toes in the water. And I would think that at some point, they’ll look at that again in the future if it needs to be revised upward.
Q: There have been a number of critics of the new law, from Sen. Raphael Warnock to Stacey Abrams. Also, just today, several major businesses within Georgia have criticized the law — Delta’s CEO sent a note that was critical of the law to Delta employees, Microsoft issued a statement that took aim at the drop box change and narrowing the window to request and complete an absentee ballot. Some Democrats have called this an attempt at voter suppression, Jim Crow 2.0, etc. How do you respond to those accusations?
A: I didn’t write the law, and so every measure that’s in that bill is not obviously something that I supported. ... But the General Assembly has spoken. And we will implement the law as currently written. I’m more than happy to discuss with any CEO concerns or questions that they might have. I believe at the end of the day that we’ll still have record turnout in 2022. And candidates have every opportunity to win their races. They just have to run their races.
Q: Let me follow up on that question. For Abrams and Sen. Warnock to call this law “Jim Crow in a suit” is a very serious accusation. Is that fair, in your opinion, to call it this?
A: No, it’s not fair, but look at Stacey Abrams, she never plays fair. Because if you look at what she did in 2014, she went out and poll-tested a bunch of terms and phrases, and what she found as the emotional hook were the words “voter suppression,” taking people back to pre-1965. ... I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she’s poll-tested the words “Jim Crow 2.0,” because she’s looking for emotional hooks, so she can raise money. I believe she’s sitting on $90 million right now, and has a tremendously lavish lifestyle. But as I said, I’d be willing to debate her on the issues if she’d like to come on down to the Carter Center. We could talk about this and go through this one, point by point.
There may be areas that I’d actually agree with her, but I doubt there’d be very many of them. As I’ve stated, I would probably have modified a few things — I would not have changed the state election board chair, I probably would have also done a few other different things in that area. But it’s easy to second guess the General Assembly. Our job now is to implement (the law). But what she said is not helpful, because it’s really playing with people’s emotions.
Q: One of the measures in the bill that has drawn the most attention is the ban on distributing water and food to those who are standing in a voting line. Can you speak to that?
A: For a long standing law, we had a 150-foot exclusionary zone: no politicking, no electioneering in that 150-foot zone. And what we were finding and what other political parties were finding is that other candidates, they were having their people, you know, coming into that zone, handing out water, snacks, things like that.
First off, in November on Election Day, we had average wait time of two minutes. So there weren’t many long lines. But second of all, they were doing electioneering, they were handing out the water, you knew who it came from, it was a way to touch a voter before they went into the ballot box.
Going forward, if you want to hand out water, (if) you want to make sure they have a snack, then give it to the precinct workers. And they’ll hand it out in a nonpartisan, bipartisan measure, so that there’s no potential hint of electioneering in that 150-foot safe zone.
Q: Do you believe this law was in reaction to former President Donald Trump saying the election was stolen from him?
A: When I ran in 2018, I wanted a secure way of identifying absentee ballots. The problem with the absentee ballots was that in 2005, long before I got here, we had no excuse absentee voting with signature match. Signature match is very subjective. I always saw that as a potential weakness, and so did the Carter-Baker Commission of 2005. I wanted to go to a very objective measure. So therefore, I’m grateful that the General Assembly passed that measure so we will now have objectivity for voter identification, a secure way for that process. Early voting number of days, we’ve actually added the number of days, so no one should have an issue with that. Shortening the lines, we already had worked with the counties on that, but now it’s codified in law. And that’s a good thing. And a four-week run off with ranked-choice voting ... I think those are all good measures.
There may be a few more tweaks that we could have done, such as having additional absentee ballot drop boxes. But already there’s three lawsuits that have been filed on these bills. They’ll all be litigated, and I believe at the end of the day, this law will stand.
Q: Now that you’ve had a chance to digest it, what’s your take on President Trump in his famous phone call asking you to find more votes to allow him to win Georgia?
A: We knew the numbers. We had the data. And the numbers just weren’t there. There wasn’t systemic voter fraud of the magnitude that would overturn the results of the race. And in fact, the proof of all that is what Sydney Powell’s lawyer stated two weeks ago, when he in effect said in a filing that “no reasonable person should have had cause to believe the statements that Sydney Powell made.” We knew that they weren’t supported in fact but many people did (not). And that led to a very difficult time in our American history because of that. And therefore what we say as it relates to elections, we have to be very cautious and mindful and not play with people’s emotional hooks. Elections are far too important to do that. We need to be very thoughtful as we modify election law to make sure it makes it more secure, but also make sure that it balances out with the appropriate accessibility.
It is a balancing act sometimes, because one side feels one way, one side may feel the other — but we do that with integrity. At the end of the day we want 100% of the people to understand: those were the results and the voters can accept the results. I know they don’t like them. As a Republican, I wasn’t fond of the results either, but those were the results, and that’s what we need to have: people that will accept the results and then realize, “I need to do a better job next election cycle to help my team win.”
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t asked you?
A: I just want to continue to reiterate to all voters that I will continue to fight to protect democracy. I think I’ve shown that coming out of the November race. I want to make sure that we balance accessibility with security, that we know that we’ve run honest and fair elections here in Georgia. Elections are too important not to do that.