President Donald Trump is trying to reverse the results of the presidential election through legal proceedings and unrest. And amidst it all, the question has arisen whether Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of his close allies, attempted to get Georgia's Secretary of State to throw away a large number of legally cast postal ballots – something that could theoretically turn a state around Joe Biden won against Trump.
Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger claims that Graham almost did so in a conversation with him on Friday. He says Graham asked if he had the authority to discard all postal ballot papers in countries where postal ballot rejection rates were relatively high because their signatures did not match the signatures of voters.
"It sure looked like he wanted to go that route," Raffensperger told Amy Gardner of the Washington Post.
If Raffensperger's interpretation of Graham's meaning is correct, it would be a bold, undemocratic attempt by a Trump ally to reverse the election results. And some Democrats, like Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), are calling on the Justice Department to investigate Graham's actions.
For his part, Graham – a former Trump critic who has become one of the president's most staunch supporters – told Gardner he was just asking questions, worried about fraud and trying to find out how Georgia checked the ballot papers. (Graham later said he made a similar call to the Arizona governor and did not name other officials.)
Another Georgian official, Gabe Sterling, confirmed Tuesday that the conversation did indeed include a discussion of whether Raffensperger could discard all ballot papers from counties with high rates of signatures being rejected. However, Sterling also said he could see why Raffensperger and Graham might have interpreted the conversation differently.
The Georgia census is not close enough for Trump
At the end of the first Georgia count, Biden led Trump with around 14,000 votes.
Georgia is also the only swing state Biden has won where all relevant state officials are Republicans. This makes it a natural place for Trump to focus his efforts on reversing the election results. However, local GOP key official Raffensperger has disproved the Trump allies' conspiratorial claims of widespread election fraud since the election and made it clear that he has found no evidence of such things.
Under pressure from the president and his allies, Raffensperger ordered a nationwide manual review of the results. This test, which is expected to be completed by Wednesday, has revealed some errors in the initial count that will reduce Biden's lead somewhat. Raffensperger has repeatedly stated, however, that these errors are not nearly enough to change the outcome.
For Trump to regain leadership in Georgia, he needs something … bigger. Something like the invalidation of legally submitted postal ballot papers under a false pretext.
In part because Trump repeatedly belittled postal voting as unreliable prior to the election, Democrats voted far more often than Republicans this year by mail. Because of this, postal ballot papers have been a primary target in Trump's by-election lawsuits – he wants Biden votes to be dropped.
And that has to happen quickly – because according to state law, Georgia has to confirm its election result this Friday.
What was lost when Graham called Raffensperger?
Senator Graham Raffensperger called last Friday. Raffensperger has now passed on his report on their conversation to several media outlets. He said he initially thought Graham would call to discuss the two Georgia Senate runoff elections – but then he was surprised Graham brought up the current census.
Graham asked Per Raffensperger if the postal ballot papers counted could still match the original envelope from which they were sent. Raffensperger said they couldn't. The signature verification process takes place before the ballot is counted as the secret ballot must be kept. This means that now you can't go back and check an approved ballot against the identity and signature of a voter.
Then, Raffensperger continued, things would have changed. "Sen. Graham has indicated that we should check the envelopes and then throw away the ballot papers for counties with the highest frequency error in signatures, "Raffensperger told CBS on Tuesday.
The idea here seems to be that Raffensperger should check all signatures since certain mail-in ballots could no longer be matched against signatures, and if the check showed high rates of mismatched signatures in certain counties, he should just toss all postal ballot papers in these counties.
Raffensperger told CBS that he then ended the call and said he would "be back and I would speak to an attorney and I would come back to him." He continued, "We have just decided the best action is not to come back and get involved again."
So what was it about?
In the two days following the election, before the race was scheduled for Biden and Trump denied the results, the President's son, Donald Trump Jr. noted that Graham hadn't said much on the matter.
Soon after, Graham picked up the banner. With frequent Fox News appearances, he began repeating Trump's message and trumpeting dubious allegations of electoral fraud. And now, as we've learned, he called Republican officials in Georgia and Arizona to inquire about their counting and verification procedures. (Graham told reporters Tuesday that he had also spoken to a Nevada official, but later said he misspelled that he had just been briefed by someone else about the legal situation in Nevada.)
Now Graham claims that his comments to Raffensperger were only part of an effort to find out how the process worked. "That wasn't the purpose of the conversation to throw away ballots," Graham told CNN on Tuesday. "I categorically reject that, that was not my intention." Graham also said he was not acting on behalf of Trump's election campaign, telling the Washington Post that he was only acting "as a United States Senator worried about the integrity of the electoral process".
Raffensperger says it is true that Graham did not immediately tell him to discard the counties' postal ballot papers. Rather, he addressed the prospect, asked about it in a hypothetical sense, and "implied" that it was a reasonable idea. In particular, Raffensperger told NPR that Trump's team had asked for something similar in a lawsuit in Michigan and that it was therefore "pretty clear" that Trump and Graham were "on the same side". (Jessica Huseman and Mike Spies of ProPublica report that Trump's team has been pressuring Raffensperger for months to support Trump and somehow help him win.)
Georgian election official Gabe Sterling, who attended the conference call, said Tuesday that the discussion was about what "possibly" could happen if "someone went into the courtroom".
"What I heard was discussions about postal ballots – if there was a percentage of signatures that didn't really match, we could eventually go to court and throw away all of the ballots," Sterling said, according to the Washington Post. "I could see Senator Graham see it that way and Secretary Raffensperger see it that way," he added.
In addition, Huseman and Spies of ProPublica report that two members of Raffensperger's office who answered the call confirmed to them that "the Foreign Secretary's account was correct and that they were appalled by Graham's request."
Overall, if you look at all of these comments, there is really no real argument about what Graham said about the call. He does not deny that he has questioned whether, in theory, all ballots from certain counties could be thrown away. The argument is over whether he was investigating a hypothesis or making an implicit proposal.
Despite Graham's protests that there was nothing unusual about this, it is noteworthy that Raffensperger, a lifelong Republican, was sufficiently disturbed by the conversation that he became public about it.
In the end, it can't mean anything as Raffensperger has proven resilient to pressure from Trump's camp. But when the president tries to unsubstantially reverse the clear election results, it doesn't look good when one of his close allies calls on a (Republican) civil servant and brainstorms scenarios about what tens of thousands of unfavorable votes he might have been cast by the Count be deleted.
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