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…