Brad Raffensperger was on his way out when the bartender stopped him. He wanted a word.
The man had been lingering in the doorway as Raffensperger, a Republican serving as Georgia’s top election official, spoke to a little over a dozen members of the chamber of commerce in Washington, a small town about two hours east of Atlanta. Raffensperger had seen him from the lectern and asked if he wanted to ask a question – he declined. Now the bartender had more courage. He wanted to ask about the phone call. “How did that make you feel?” he said.
He was referring to the infamous 2 January 2021 call from Donald Trump in which the president asked Raffensperger to overturn the results of the 2020 election. “All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state,” Trump said. Raffensperger, who oversaw three recounts of the presidential vote, all of which affirmed Joe Biden’s victory, refused the request, enraging Trump.
That phone call is now at the center of what may be the most important primary election this year.
Raffensperger is running for re-election as Georgia’s secretary of state and Trump is seeking to oust him from office. He wants to replace him with Jody Hice, a Republican congressman who has said the election was stolen and joined efforts to overturn it. It’s one of several races across the country in which Trump is seeking to install allies in important election administration positions in which they could throw out the results of a future election.
Georgia’s race is especially significant – it’s the only place where Trump is seeking to punish a statewide Republican election official for explicitly refusing his request to subvert democracy. It could determine whether the person overseeing the next presidential election in Georgia is someone who prevented an election from being overturned or someone who tried to overturn the last one. Election day is 24 May and the race is very close, recent polling shows.
Whoever wins will oversee elections in Georgia, which has emerged in recent years as ground zero in fights over election rules. The state has long been seen as a Republican bastion, but in recent years non-white voters have been exercising new levels of political power. It is now a political battleground after Democrats won the presidential race and two Senate seats last year.
“All eyes should be on this race between Raffensperger and Hice,” said Joanna Lydgate, CEO of States United Action, which is tracking election deniers running for office across the country. “Georgia was a place in 2020 where we watched three statewide elected officials stand up and protect the vote, protect the will of the voters. If we want to see that happen again in 2024, if there are further efforts to undermine our elections and the results and ultimately the will of American voters, we need to make sure that we’re electing people who fundamentally believe in the system.”
She noted all three officials who refused to overturn the election in 2020 – the governor, attorney general and secretary of state – are up for re-election.
Raffensperger, a mild-mannered engineer, is an odd fit to be at the center of a race for US democracy. He’s not a flamethrower and he’s a little bit awkward as a politician, occasionally stumbling over his words. He can land a political punch, but is more comfortable discussing trusses and beams and quoting Ecclesiastes and CS Lewis.
One day in early May, Raffensperger stood in front of the federal courthouse in Atlanta, a wrinkle or two in his red tie, as he raised his voice to speak over nearby construction. After speaking and taking questions for about 10 minutes, he darted off from the podium, down the steps, and hurried back toward his office at the Georgia capitol. “I’m an engineer through and through and so sometimes I’m not as eloquent with my words as I need to be,” he said the next day.
He also has wholeheartedly championed traditional Republican efforts to restrict voting access. He is a staunch defender of a new Georgia law that bans handing out food or water to people standing in line to vote. He believes Georgia should get rid of no-excuse mail-in voting. He also supports getting rid of a federal blackout period that prevents people from being purged from the voter rolls within 90 days of an election. The centerpiece of his campaign is preventing non-citizen voting, which is virtually nonexistent, according to Raffensperger’s own office.
Nsé Ufot, CEO of the non-partisan New Georgia Project, which works on voter registration in the state, said Raffensperger had received national praise for not overturning the election, “as if that alone is the litmus test as to whether someone is a vote suppressor or not”.
“He did not break the law that one time. That does not mean that he does not align with the party’s priorities and with their lies and rhetoric about voting,” she said.
Raffensperger’s focus on non-citizen voting in particular shows how he is pandering to his party, said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University. “He is looking for a low-cost symbolic gesture that I think he hopes will restore his conservative bona fides among people who questioned them because he didn’t overturn the results of the 2020 election,” she said.
Raffensperger has refused to back down from his defense of the 2020 election, essentially betting that voters will re-elect him for doing his job and standing up to Trump, even if they support the former president.
At the event in Washington, Raffensperger methodically laid out his case for upholding the results of the 2020 election to the small crowd (there was a competing baseball game and awards dinner that night). He relied on statistics: 28,000 Georgia voters skipped the presidential election but voted down ballot, Raffensperger said, repeating a statistic he frequently mentions on the campaign trail. Republican members of Congress got 33,000 more votes in Georgia than Trump did, he said. Republican state senators got 400,000 more votes than Trump, he added.
He then detailed how he looked into Trump’s claims of election fraud. When Trump said thousands of dead people voted in 2020, Raffensperger’s office investigated and found just four. Then Trump said more than 2,000 felons voted in the 2020 election. Raffensperger investigated and found that there were possibly 74. Trump then said 2,423 non-registered voters cast a ballot in 2020. Raffensperger investigated and found there were zero. Then Trump started saying machines were flipping votes and Raffensperger did a hand recount of all 5m ballots cast in the state and found the results were essentially the same. It was one of three ballot counts in the state that affirmed Biden’s victory there.
“Every allegation that was made, we checked it all out. As an engineer, you want to make sure you check it out, right? Because you don’t want to look foolish,” he said later.
Raffensperger doesn’t say it outright, but it seems that a central bet of his campaign is that the truth about the 2020 campaign will prevail.
He is betting on voters like Carolee Curtis, an 82-year-old retiree who lives in Rome, a city in deeply Republican north-west Georgia, who voted for him. At the early voting site where she voted, signs dotted the parking lot for Hice and Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right congresswoman who represents the district. There were none for Raffensperger.
“I felt that under all that pressure, he did a good job,” she said after casting her vote. “I know it upset Trump, and I’m a Trump person, but fair is fair.”
Kenneth Studdard, 56, who owns Dogwood Books in Rome, also said he liked Trump, and said he would probably vote for Raffensperger, though he wasn’t following the race too closely yet. “I think he did a good job. I think the other guy’s running more for spite,” he said.
It seems unlikely that Hice, a pastor and former radio host, would be running absent the myth of a stolen election. He has built his entire campaign around the idea.
This contrast was on full display during a candidate debate in Atlanta in early May. Hice repeated a number of lies about the 2020 election and said that Raffensperger created so-called ballot harvesting in Georgia (Raffensperger supported a 2019 law that outlawed third-party collection of mail-in ballots). He claimed Raffensperger had made a deal with Stacey Abrams to weaken signature matching standards in the state (a 2020 court settlement required that multiple election officials check a signature before it was rejected and notify the voter before rejecting it).
Hice also criticised Raffensperger for sending out mail-in ballot applications during the election (Raffensperger sent out mail-in ballot applications to all Georgia voters during the state’s 2020 primary, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, but did not do so during the general election).
After the debate, Hice told a small gaggle of reporters that nothing would convince him the 2020 election results were accurate.
“I would not have certified them without getting first, an absolute understanding of what an accurate election result was,” he said. “This election was just overwhelmed with fraudulent activity. There’s nothing that can change my opinion of that.”
If elected secretary of state, it could be Hice on the other end the next time Trump, or another politician, calls with a request to find votes. Hice didn’t answer how he would handle such a request, but said he didn’t see anything wrong with it in 2020.
“Absolutely, there was nothing wrong with that request,” Hice said. “He was not saying ‘go out and find illegal ballots for me.’ He was saying look at all the fraud that’s out here. Do your job. Make sure we have legal ballots that are cast, legal ballots that are counted, and had Brad done so, I believe the outcome would have been different.” Trump’s phone call was not a generalized request to investigate. When Raffensperger and a lawyer told the president they had probed his allegations, the president said refused to accept it. “I won this election by hundreds of thousands of votes. There’s no way I lost Georgia. There’s no way,” Trump said.
Hice’s message that resonated with Mike Albright, 62, who voted for Hice in the Atlanta suburbs.
“I was very disappointed by the last election. I didn’t think the results were honest. I think there was a lot of corruption that went on. And the current secretary of state didn’t know how to do an adequate investigation,” he said. “I don’t think his audits were adequate. They weren’t real audits. Basically, they didn’t confirm that voters were really voters.”
In Rome, Tom and Emily Saltino also voted for Hice. They said they were unconvinced Trump lost the 2020 election in Georgia because they had seen the large crowds of people that came to see him when he visited the state.
“[There were] a lot of things he could have done, it seems, that was not done to satisfy the masses that everything was on the up and up”, Tom, 84, said. “I just think that position needs to be cleaned up, somebody new come in.”
Emily added she would not vote for Raffensperger in November if he won the Republican nomination.
During the debate, Raffensperger pointed out repeatedly that Hice was lying, but at times even he seemed exasperated by trying to convince people that was the case.
“The real problem that you have gets down to basic honesty,” he said. “It gets down to, it was actual, total, disinformation, misinformation, outright lying. And there’s not much I can do about that,” he said. “Jody Hice has been running from one rumor to another for the last 18 months. And how can you have confidence when people that should be holding a responsible position as a sitting congressman should be telling the truth?”
Talking with the bartender in Washington, Raffensperger defended his decision to stand up to Trump. “I wanted to make sure I was respectful to President Trump’s position of authority,” he began. “He was disappointed. But I’ve been disappointed in life. I haven’t won every football game or basketball game ever played. My volleyball team in high school wasn’t that strong either, but we still played and had a good time. And when we lost, we tried harder.”
“It sounded like intimidation to me,” the man said. “I personally appreciate what you did very much. I hope you hear that all the time.”
“You’re a good man,” Raffensperger said back. “God bless you.”
Afterwards, Raffensperger lingered in the town square for a bit talking to voters as the sun set over the courthouse – the county’s early voting site. He sounded like a man who was at peace with his decision to defy the leader of his party, even if it costs him his job.
“Those are all good people in there. And even people that can dog cuss you and the people that are mad, I keep in mind that they’ve been lied to. I gently say misinformation, disinformation. People know that there weren’t thousands of dead people,” he said, swatting the occasional bug away. “A person of integrity expects to be believed, and when he’s not, he lets time prove him right. So time has proven me right.”
Raffensperger would not say whether he would vote for Trump again in 2024. And he declined to say whether he would vote for Hice if he gets the Republican nomination. “As secretary of state, I don’t endorse candidates,” he said.
Even though he has received an onslaught of death threats and harassment since the 2020 election, Raffensperger doesn’t really seem to have given much thought to the possibility of not running again. “If the good walk off the field and leave the field to the bad, then the bad wins,” he said.
But in his race, it’s quite possible that lies could prevail. What message would it send if that happens?
“It means that we need to do more rebuilding of ourselves individually,” Raffensperger said.