Georgia was the site of some of the fiercest battles over the 2020 election results. The vote difference was razor thin with President Joe Biden winning by about 12,000 votes. Former President Donald Trump and his allies in Georgia’s GOP waged, and some continue to wage, a fierce effort to get the election overturned. These moves to change Georgia’s election results started almost immediately after Election Day, as Trump aggressively targeted the state, especially the vote in the Atlanta metro area.
Trump’s criticism of the Georgia vote inspired mass protests, bringing white nationalists, far-right conspiracists, and militia extremists from around the country into the state. On November 3, 2020, Trump supporters gathered outside the state capitol to protest the election results and others attempted to oversee the still on-going vote counting process. Trump riled up his supporters by making statements such as “[i]n Georgia, a pipe burst at a faraway location, totally unrelated to the location of what was happening, and they stopped counting for four hours, and a lot of things happened,” one of his typical false allegations of vote rigging. Trump also promoted protests at vote counting locations on social media.
A November 19 rally at the Georgia Capitol was filled with extremists. White nationalist Nick Fuentes was on hand, as was Proud Boys head Enrique Tarrio, who led the crowd in chanting the group’s racist mantra that western men “created the modern world.” Protesters chanted “do not steal elections,” “we want Trump,” and “stop the masks” during the rally. Conspiracy theorist and Trump supporter Alex Jones was also there as the protesters occupied the Capitol rotunda. “This is a major moment. You guys are the literal vanguard, and Georgia is a key battleground state in all of this,” Jones told the crowd. Jones also demanded that state lawmakers call a special session to investigate alleged fraud. Another “Stop the Steal” rally was held on November 21, where Trump supporters gathered outside the Georgia Governor’s mansion in Atlanta. The protest came after Georgia’s secretary of state’s office confirmed a six-day hand recount had been completed reaffirming Biden’s victory.
Trump himself was a particularly bad actor in Georgia, an important focus of his attempts to undo his 2020 election defeat. Among other things, Trump pressured the state’s Republican secretary of state in a January 2021 phone call to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s victory and falsely accused two Black election workers, Wandrea Moss, and her mother, Ruby Freeman, of pulling out suitcases of fraudulent votes in Fulton County. This accusation led to the horrific abuse and threats that caused Ms. Moss to leave her job.
Ultimately, Trump’s election denialism took over much of Georgia’s GOP, even though Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger refused multiple efforts to overturn the 2020 results. Trump’s denialism also became cemented in conservative circles, driving the ongoing efforts to undermine the legitimacy of Georgia’s election system.
State Officials Stand Up for Trump
Though Kemp refused to comply with Trump’s wish to overturn the election, his calls for action were picked up by key Georgia officials who engaged in some of the most extraordinary attempts to change the results. By late December, state Senators William Ligon and Brandon Beach had called for a special session of the General Assembly to investigate voting fraud. When Kemp and the legislature’s leadership rejected their request, the senators circulated a petition among lawmakers to convene the session. The two men also held a televised hearing where Trump’s lawyers shared conspiracy theories about alleged ballot stuffing and rigged voting machines and revealed a plan to file a lawsuit in Fulton County to overturn the election results. Among other things, they claimed they had evidence that tens of thousands of ineligible voters had cast ballots. They demanded the General Assembly send a slate of electors to Washington who would illegally elect Trump as president. Ligon and Beach also sided with Texas in its lawsuit to overturn the election results in Georgia and other states.
On December 14, 2020, groups of Republicans in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Michigan, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin signed official-looking documents that represented the signatories as the duly authorized or potential alternate presidential electors for Trump, the so-called fake elector slates. The actions of these fake electors are now the subject of state and federal criminal probes. Georgia’s fake elector slate was filled with key Georgia GOP officials including the GOP treasurer, Joseph Brannon, assistant GOP secretary Ken Carroll, assistant GOP treasurer Vikki Townsend Consiglio, GOP first vice chairman Carolyn Hall Fisher, State Senator and now GOP candidate for Lt. Governor Burt Jones, Chairman of the GOP David Shafer, as well as at least six other GOP officials.
Beach and Ligon were persistent. On December 22, they challenged their own party’s leadership for Trump, naming as defendants in a lawsuit Kemp, state House Speaker David Ralston and state Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller. Beach and Ligon were the Georgia plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., that sought to prevent then-Vice President Mike Pence and Congress from accepting the legitimate electors from Georgia and four other states Biden won. In addition to Pence and key Georgia officials, the defendants included the U.S. House and Senate, the Electoral College, and public officials from the five states.
The lawsuit cited ludicrous allegations that had already been rejected in previous lawsuits, including an assertion that emergency rules for processing absentee ballots were illegal. The main claim was that legislators in Georgia and elsewhere had violated the Constitution by failing to certify the election themselves. It asked the court to order Pence and Congress to reject the election results from Georgia and other states until their legislatures held an unnecessary vote to certify the electors. A U.S. District Court judge dismissed the lawsuit on numerous grounds less than two weeks after it was filed. The judge found the lawsuit “rests on a fundamental and obvious misreading of the Constitution.” The judge was so incensed he referred the plaintiffs’ attorney to a committee for disciplinary action. “Courts are not instruments through which parties engage in such gamesmanship or symbolic political gestures,” the judge wrote in his dismissal.
Trump Takes Matters Into His Own Hands
None of these efforts were leading to change in the Georgia vote. Trump took matters into his own hands with the infamous January 2, 2021, phone call where he asked Raffensperger to find the votes he needed to overturn Georgia’s election result. Raffensperger later described sitting at his kitchen counter, listening while Trump said that not reporting voting fraud would be “a criminal offense.” He said Raffensperger and Ryan Germany, general counsel for the secretary of state’s office, were at “big risk.” Raffensperger took it as a threat. “President Trump is using what he believes is the power of his position to threaten Ryan and me with prosecution if we don’t do what he tells us to do,” he wrote in his recent book. “It was nothing but an attempt at manipulation.”
Also on the call to Raffensperger was Trump lawyer Cleta Mitchell, who now works for the Conservative Partnership Institute liaising with the RNC in several states to train election workers. She is among those currently under subpoena in a criminal investigation by the Fulton County district attorney. Mitchell was a key actor in the attempt to find ways to keep Trump in power through fake elector slates in battleground states. White House call logs show she is also among a handful of individuals with whom Trump spoke on January 6 and she sued to block the House January 6 Select Committee from obtaining her full phone records.
Ultimately, Trump’s phone call prompted a criminal investigation that legal observers believe put him at “substantial risk of possible state charges.” Also on January 2, the day of Trump’s call to Raffensperger, some Georgia legislators prepared a letter urging Pence to delay the tally of Electoral College votes for 12 days “for further investigation of fraud, irregularities and misconduct” in the election. Among the 16 Georgia legislators who signed the letter were Beach, Ligon, and Burt Jones. The letter appeared on Ligon’s senate stationery and Jones planned to deliver it to the vice president personally during an upcoming visit to Washington, D.C.
The campaign to aid Trump took other forms on January 2. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jeffrey Clark again pressed his superiors at the Department of Justice to urge Georgia officials to convene a special legislative session, with Clark claiming that Trump had offered to make him acting attorney general, replacing Jeffrey Rosen. At the time, Clark was on record saying he might turn down the promotion if Rosen agreed to send the letter demanding a special legislative session in Georgia. Rosen and acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue refused to send the letter, according to a Senate investigation report.
On January 5, while Georgians were voting for two U.S. senate seats, Burt Jones was in Washington. He carried with him the letter signed by the 16 Georgia legislators that asked Pence to delay certifying the presidential election results when Congress convened the next day. Jones intended to hand the letter to Pence personally at a dinner for the vice president’s supporters that night at the Naval Observatory, but he changed his mind.
On January 6, Raffensperger emailed Georgia’s congressional delegation, including the Republicans who planned to contest the state’s election results at the January 6 joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote. Hoping to change their minds, in a 10-page letter Raffensperger disputed allegations involving Dominion voting machines, absentee ballots, access for poll watchers, and illegal votes. As a Republican, Raffensperger told them he was disappointed with the election result, but state investigators had found nothing out of the ordinary and the election had correctly been decided for Biden.
While Trump supporters rallied in Washington, D.C., and hundreds eventually stormed the Capitol, a smaller group gathered outside the Georgia Capitol where Raffensperger was working. Some were armed with rifles. One protester entered the Capitol looking for Raffensperger. Though the protester was unarmed, police escorted Raffensperger out of the building. “I did not know until I arrived home that the U.S. Capitol was under assault,” he later recalled.
After the insurrectionists had been removed from the Capitol that night, some Georgia Republicans continued to seek to overturn the election. When Congress reconvened, U.S. Representative Jody Hice introduced a challenge to Georgia’s results, citing an “unprecedented amount of fraud and irregularities” in the election. Georgia Representatives Rick Allen, Buddy Carter, and Marjorie Taylor Greene agreed with Hice. Interestingly, Senator Kelly Loeffler changed her mind about supporting the challenge. Without her support in the Senate, it died. “The events that transpired have forced me to reconsider, and I cannot now, in good conscience, object to the certification of these electors,” Loeffler said on the Senate floor. “The violence, the lawlessness and siege of the halls of Congress are abhorrent and stand as a direct attack on what my objection was intended to protect, the sanctity of the American democratic process.”
Election Deniers In Charge
Regardless of Kemp’s and Raffensperger’s rejection of Trump and his allies’ lies, election deniers are a huge force in Georgia. They include nine sitting Republican U.S. Congress members, the GOP candidate for U.S. senate, and a candidate to lead the state Senate. Even Kemp, who was harshly attacked by Trump for not trying to overturn the election, has allied himself with deniers in the months since the 2020 vote.
Specifically, Kemp has embraced election denier Burt Jones, his running mate as the GOP candidate for lieutenant governor. This even though Jones signed on as a false elector and was deeply involved in the effort to have Pence reject the Electoral College votes. Kemp doesn’t seem concerned with the fact that Jones is now a target of the Fulton County district attorney’s criminal investigation into Trump’s broader efforts to interfere in the 2020 election. If Jones wins, he will serve as president of the Georgia senate, and may be able to influence the election in 2024 by, for example, guiding the Georgia legislature in appointing its own electors, irrespective of the vote count, as many Trump-aligned activists hope that Republican state legislatures will do in the future.
Kemp has also used the powers of his office to spearhead anti-voter legislation which resulted in Georgia becoming one of the first states to pass an anti-voter law, SB 202, which Kemp admitted he signed because he was “frustrated” with democrats winning in 2020. And Kemp has refused to criticize Trump and fought a subpoena to testify against him in the Fulton County election interference probe, and he has refrained from criticizing the former President,’ no doubt to avoid risking Trump’s wrath and the votes of the Georgians who remain loyal to Trump.
And Beach and Jones didn’t give up their election denying efforts. In June 2021, both, along with state GOP chair David Shafer, visited Arizona to witness that state’s partisan and highly criticized election review conducted by the Cyber Ninjas, which ironically found Biden had won more votes in the state than was reported in the official election results.
Ongoing Investigations into Possible Electoral Manipulation
There are at least two major investigations in Georgia about possible interference by Trump allies and election deniers. In Fulton County, District Attorney Fani Willis has said that she and her team have heard allegations that serious crimes were committed and that some individuals may end up in jail.
Willis opened the investigation in early 2021, prompted by the January 2021 phone call between Trump and Raffensperger. During that conversation, Trump suggested the state’s top elections official could “find” the exact number of votes that would be needed to flip the election results in Georgia. Denying wrongdoing, Trump has described the call as “perfect.”
Willis has sought testimony from numerous witnesses with ties to Trump as part of her investigation, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. Giuliani, who’s been told he’s a target of the investigation, testified before the special grand jury in July. Nearly 20 people have been notified they are targets of the criminal investigation, and more could be added.
Earlier this month, prosecutors said in a court filing that a Georgia poll worker who was falsely accused of voting fraud by the former president had been erroneously pressured and threatened with imprisonment during a meeting arranged with the help of an ally of the Trump campaign. Other evidence has surfaced of Republican Party vice chair Betsy Kramer directing poll watchers to take photos of any out-of-state cars at voting sites and to avoid answering directly if questioned about what they were doing. “While you are poll watching, go outside a few times during your assignment and look around the parking lot,” Kramer wrote. “If someone asks what you are doing, say you are stretching your legs.”
Kramer also told poll watchers to record videos of voters dropping off their ballots and to send the videos to a GOP email address for voter fraud reports. Those who weren’t assigned to early-voting locations “need to stake out the absentee ballot voter drop off boxes,” Kramer wrote. “Be especially aware of anyone dropping off more than one ballot.”
County election workers have now alleged that some poll watchers violated rules and policies. For example, on December 28, a county employee wrote that three Republican Party poll watchers refused to leave a polling location despite rules permitting only two watchers from the same party to serve at the same time. The email was forwarded to the county’s party chair Trey Kelly who asked one of the poll watchers about the accusation. The poll watcher denied breaking the rules, pointed out other alleged issues at the polling site, and added, “There was fraud committed in this election and Biden did not win.” Another poll watcher replied to the email thread, alleging that a manager at the polling location had told her all voided absentee ballots would be shredded, adding, “I think she said at the warehouse?” and calling on elected officials to address such “fraudulent actions.”
Willis’ probe has steadily expanded since it began early last year. It now covers presentations on unfounded election fraud claims to state lawmakers, the fake elector scheme, efforts by unauthorized individuals to access voting machines in Coffee county, and a campaign of threats and harassment against lower-level election workers. Willis may seek Trump’s testimony and anticipates indictments in December.
The situation in Coffee County is particularly problematic. There, a Republican county official escorted two operatives working with an attorney for former President Donald Trump into the county’s election offices on January 7, 2021, the same day a voting system there was breached. The breach is now under investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and is also being investigated by the Fulton County DA.
In the surveillance video obtained by CNN, Cathy Latham, a former GOP chairwoman of Coffee County who is under criminal investigation for posing as a fake elector in 2020, escorted a team of pro-Trump operatives to the county’s elections office. The two men seen in the video with Latham, Scott Hall and Paul Maggio, have acknowledged that they successfully gained access to a voting machine in Coffee County at the behest of Trump lawyer Sidney Powell.
Text messages, emails, and witness testimony filed as part of a long-running civil suit into the security of Georgia’s voting systems show Latham communicated directly with the then-Coffee County elections supervisor about getting access to the office, both before and after the breach. One text message, according to the court document, shows Latham coordinating the arrival and whereabouts of a team “led by Paul Maggio” that traveled to Coffee County at the direction of Powell.
Three days after the breach, Latham texted the Coffee County elections supervisor, “Did you all finish with the scanner?” According to court documents, Latham testified she did not know what Hall was doing in Coffee County. But when confronted with her texts about the scanner, she asserted her Fifth Amendment rights. Maggio worked for Sullivan|Strickler, which court documents show was a firm hired by Powell. The firm told CNN that it was “directed by attorneys to contact county election officials to obtain access to certain data” in Georgia and also “directed by attorneys to distribute that data to certain individuals.”
The video and text messages that have surfaced in a civil lawsuit suggest the fake elector plot and the effort to breach voting machines in Georgia were part of a larger, coordinated plan to subvert the 2020 election. Some of the same Trump lawyers and allies who helped orchestrate the effort to seat fake electors in states Trump lost in 2020 were also involved in attempts to gain unauthorized access to voting machines in numerous counties around the country seen as friendly toward the former president. Investigations into these activities are ongoing.
Election Officials Threatened
Election officials came under attack within days of the 2020 vote. As votes were still being counted two days after the election, a Chatham County elections board member received several threatening phone calls. The caller said, “you’d better stop counting those illegal votes.” Poll workers, elections board members and even the Secretary of State have had their lives threatened since the election. These threats poured in in the form of emails, voicemails, texts, letters, social media posts, and in-person confrontations including gathering outside election officials’ homes. The threats often expressed false claims that the election was stolen.
During a hearing of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, Shaye Moss, a former election worker in Georgia’s Fulton County gave a terrifying account of the threats she received after Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani falsely accused her and her mother of smuggling in suitcases of ballots to rig the election for Joe Biden. Moss, who is Black, said she received messages “wishing death upon me. Telling me that I’ll be in jail with my mother. And saying things like, ‘Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.’” “A lot of them were racist,” Moss said. “A lot of them were just hateful.” Several of the people who bought into the election lies even showed up at the home of Moss’ grandmother to make a citizen’s arrest. “I’ve never ever heard her or see her cry, ever in my life,” Moss testified. “She called me screaming at the top of her lungs … saying people are at her home.”
In Fulton County, a poll worker had to go into hiding after an unnamed person in the absentee ballot processing area Tweeted a video of him throwing away some paper. The unnamed narrator said the poll worker was discarding a ballot. “He was merely discarding a list of instructions that had been put into one of the envelopes,” Fulton County Elections Supervisor Richard Barron said in a news conference. “The only thing you do at that station is separating the envelopes and opening them.”
Raffensperger, and his deputy, Gabe Sterling, have also testified about the relentless attacks they and their colleagues faced in the wake of Trump’s lies about the election. Raffensperger and his wife were victims of organized harassment and doxxing. His wife, he said, received “disgusting” text messages that were sexual in nature, and supporters of the president’s election claims broke into the home of Raffensperger’s daughter-in-law, where she was staying with her children.
In the wake of these threats, Georgia announced new efforts to protect election workers on Election Day, including a text-alert system that allows workers to report threats at their polling locations if they encounter them.
Problematic Partisan Poll Workers
There was already ample evidence of problematic, partisan election workers during the 2020 election. During the state-ordered audit of presidential ballots, the Carter Center, which provides election observers around the world, had observers watching the Georgia vote. The Center sent out 68 monitors to 28 counties and in many locations found that GOP-affiliated poll monitors outnumbered democrats. The Center documented several instances where the behavior of Republican monitors was “perceived as potentially intimidating to audit workers, or where it became more aggressive,” according to a preliminary report issued to the secretary of state’s office.
Georgia’s election director in 2020, Chris Harvey, has described Trump backers showing up as self-appointed poll watchers that year to observe the state’s manual recounts, harassing election workers and disrupting the process. Harvey, who is advising a group of election officials and law enforcement, fears a repeat in the upcoming midterms, saying, “The whole tension that we’re expecting to see at polling places is something we’re talking to election officials about, something we’re talking to law enforcement about”
There is considerable concern that, in 2022, election lies will lead to problems at the polls. As false claims and conspiracy theories have taken hold among a wide swath of conservative voters, and the GOP and election denying organizations are actively recruiting election staff, many are concerned about those signing up to help administer elections for the first time. The possibility they will play a crucial role at polling places is a new worry this election cycle. Sean Morales-Doyle, an election security expert at The Brennan Center for Justice, said,“I think it’s a problem that there may be people who are running our elections that buy into those conspiracy theories and so are approaching their role as fighting back against rampant fraud.”
Gumming Up the Works
As in other battleground states, Georgia has seen a surge in public challenges to its voter rolls, which have been made easier by legislation passed in 2021 that allows people and groups to submit an unlimited number of challenges to the eligibility of voters. The situation has the potential to be particularly chaotic, according to voting rights groups in the state. This aspect of the 2021 law, known as SB202, is impacting Georgia’s 159 counties, each of which has its own board of elections that now face these challenges.
Dele Lowman Smith, chair of the DeKalb Board of Registration and Elections, said the increase in challenges to voter registrations has been “a huge headache” for the volunteer board and its limited staff. They have to review the challenges, consult attorneys, and schedule hearings for the public. “It’s been a burden to have all these unexpected and unpredictable meetings,” she said. Smith has said the state has provided no formal guidance on how to handle the challenges and that election officials in other counties have reached out seeking help. “Everybody has had to figure this out on their own,” she said.
The bulk of the challenges have been in Gwinnett County, where VoterGA, a local Georgia group with ties to Trump allies, submitted challenges in late August to more than 37,000 voter registrations. The group has denied allegations that it’s targeting people of color. Prior to the January 2021 senate runoff elections, the national group True The Vote had compiled a list of 364,000 voters to challenge. In October, Gwinnett County dismissed all of their challenges up to that date. That month, a single Marietta resident challenged the status of 1,350 Cobb voters that she claimed failed to have an identifiable address.
And, the Cobb County and Chatham County election boards rejected attempts to remove people from the registrar’s rolls. These counties’ election boards faced more than 1,500 eligibility challenges launched against registered voters. The Cobb board rejected the voter registration challenges due to lack of probable cause, with many of the claims being based on missing apartment numbers and dorm names at Kennesaw State University. The board voted 4-1 to reject the appeals, with Republican Party appointee Pat Garland casting the lone no vote.
Election Denial Groups
In Georgia, there is one election denial group that has been particularly active in the state, VoterGA, profiled here. Additionally, individuals have been involved in such activities as challenging voter registration and alleging fraud, but beyond VoterGA it is national groups that have engaged in the bulk of the denial activities in the state. National groups including Cleta Mitchell’s Conservative Partnership Institute, The American Project created by Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne and disgraced former Trump advisor Michael Flynn, and Look Ahead America, founded by former Trump aide Matt Braynard, have all been involved in various election denying activities in Georgia.
VoterGA is led by co-founder Garland Favorito and claims its goal is to “protect the Legal Vote of All Georgians.” On the group’s website, it says Favorito “is a career Information Technology (IT) professional with over 40 years of in-depth experience and over 17 years of volunteer research into electronic voting systems.” Favorito serves as volunteer elections director for the Constitution Party of Georgia, a hard right and fringe political party that supports the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment, which allows for direct election of senators. VoterGA is against marriage equality and adoption by LGBTQ+ couples, opposes social security and advocates for repealing the Sixteenth Amendment, which allows for federal taxes. VoterGA has been involved in mass challenges of voter eligibility, particularly in the counties that make up the greater Atlanta area. In Gwinnett County, the group has questioned the eligibility of nearly 40,000 voters. Favorito has also been involved in signing up poll watchers from people who attended “Stop the Steal” rallies, according to the group’s website. The site also says, “Our co-founder, Ricardo Davis built an automated sign-up form” for poll watchers that has signed up hundreds. The group says it works closely with “our Election Integrity Coalition partner, the Constitution Party of Georgia” by hosting an ongoing “weekly Election Integrity update Zoom call for VoterGA.” The group has pushed for voting audits and “debuted a 12 Months of Cover-ups Christmas parody” video that alleges voter fraud and other election problems. Favorito said at a news conference in September that they would keep up their voter challenges. “You’re going to see in the future similar numbers to what you are seeing today from Gwinnett,” he said of the voter challenges. According to CNN, activists aligned with the group have described themselves as undertaking a “people’s audit” of elections. In some cases, they have used commercially available bulk change-of-address data and compared it to the county voter rolls to argue that some voters have moved and no longer qualify to cast ballots in Georgia. According to a recent news release, VoterGA is backed financially by The America Project. That organization was founded by onetime Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com. The America Project previously helped fund a widely discredited review of ballots cast in Maricopa County, Arizona.