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Georgia Indictment Underscores Threats to US Election Security

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INDICTMENT WATCH - As Georgia prosecutors announced the indictment of former President Donald Trump and 18 others for their efforts to overturn the 2020 election, much attention has been paid to the infamous phone call in which Trump told Georgia’s chief election official that he wanted “to find 11,780 votes.” But this phone call was only one part of a broad campaign to pressure Georgia’s public officials to cast doubt on the election results or even disregard the will of the voters. And the effort did not stop on January 6—the lies spread and the futile pursuit to build support for those lies created lasting consequences for elections, both in Georgia and across the country.

By the end of November 2020, most states, including Georgia, had not only finished counting all ballots, but also conducted recounts and post-election audits that confirmed the presidential election outcome every time. In Georgia, counties first counted all ballots using electronic tabulators, then counted all ballots by hand, and then recounted all ballots using different electronic tabulators, each time confirming that Trump had lost the election. Courts across the country had also considered and rejected more than 60 lawsuits that claimed there was outcome-determinative fraud.

Yet on December 3, Trump advisors Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman (both indicted) appeared before the Georgia State Senate, spreading conspiracies about the election, falsely accusing two election workers of fraud, and urging the senators to appoint false electors to support Trump. On December 5, Trump reportedly called Gov. Brian Kemp, demanding that he call for a special legislative session to overturn the election results. Similar calls and meetings continued over the next month with Georgia’s attorney general, state house of representatives, an investigator with the secretary of state’s office, and finally, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger himself. At each step, Trump and his allies presented baseless claims of widespread fraud that state officials rebuked. In the meantime, Trump’s allies allegedly arranged for a fake slate of Trump-supporting electors to wrongly declare themselves duly elected and assert that Trump won the presidential election.

The Coffee County voting system breach was one of many similar incidents across the country where Trump’s supporters sought to gain access to voting systems and other critical election infrastructure.

The scheme eventually spread from lies about the last election to actions that threaten future elections. The day after the January 6 attack, a Coffee County, Georgia election official who had previously spread conspiracies about Dominion Voting Systems welcomed a team of security researchers into the election office to examine the county’s equipment. The security researchers—who were reportedly paid for by a nonprofit run by Trump ally Sidney Powell and had previously been hired to examine voting systems in Michigan and Nevada—allegedly copied software and data from the county’s voting systems and posted the data to a password-protected site where election deniers across the country could download it. Powell and three others have now been indicted.

The Coffee County voting system breach was one of many similar incidents across the country where Trump’s supporters sought to gain access to voting systems and other critical election infrastructure. Fortunately, officials in Georgia and other states have responded to these breaches by decommissioning the affected equipment and ordering replacements. Colorado and Michigan went a step further by prosecuting the responsible parties. But these breaches still present a significant threat to election security. Although there is no evidence that any voting equipment was manipulated in a way that would impact election results, election deniers have nonetheless used the data obtained to try to create a credible veneer for their allegations of stolen elections. And the incidents may encourage more damaging attacks down the road.

Trump and his allies’ attacks on Georgia’s elections also spurred attacks on the people who run those elections. Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, a mother and daughter who served as poll workers in 2020, faced a barrage of violent threats that forced them into hiding after Trump and Giuliani falsely accused them of fraud (Giuliani recently conceded in a court filing that his statements about Freeman and Moss were false). Raffensperger and his family faced similar threats and intimidation that forced them into hiding and prevented them from visiting their grandchildren. The threats of violence against election workers became so widespread, they led Gabe Sterling, then a voting systems manager at the Georgia secretary of state’s office, to publicly plead with Trump to condemn the harassment before someone was killed. In the days before the Georgia indictment, Sterling said that the risk of incendiary lies about election integrity spurring violence against public officials remains his biggest concern.

Here too Georgia has mirrored a broader trend: rising threats and harassment against election workers. The Brennan Center’s April 2023 nationwide survey of election officials found that nearly 1 in 3 have been harassed, abused, or threatened because of their job, and an alarming 1 in 5 are concerned about being physically assaulted on the job in future elections.

Our poll also found that a majority of election officials are worried about political interference in how they do their jobs, including 1 in 9 who are concerned about facing pressure to certify election results in favor of a specific candidate or party in future elections. The relentless pressure campaign on public officials in 2020 surely contributed to this concern, as did the wave of laws that state legislatures passed after 2020 that criminalized a range of election worker activities or that limited election officials’ authority over elections—for example, when the Georgia legislature removed the secretary of state from the state election board.

These attacks have pushed many experienced election workers out of the profession altogether, leaving a significant gap in election administration knowledge. In North Carolina, at least 40 of the state’s 100 counties have replaced their election director over the last four years. And in Nevada, 10 of the state’s 17 counties have changed their top election official since 2020. Nationwide, 1 in 5 local election officials are expected to be administering their first presidential election in 2024. This extensive turnover may risk more administrative errors while running elections, fueling further conspiracies and attacks on our democracy.

Seeking accountability is necessary but not sufficient to repair a democratic system that has been badly damaged by the election denial movement that continues across the country. Ahead of 2024, leaders at all levels of government must not only stand up for the integrity of our election system, but also invest in safeguards to protect the people who run it and our democracy as a whole.

(Derek Tisler serves as counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.)

 

(Lawrence Norden is the senior director of the Elections and Government Program, where he leads the Brennan Center’s work in a variety of areas, including its effort to bring balance to campaign funding and break down barriers that keep Americans from participating in politics, ensure that U.S. election infrastructure is secure and accessible to every voter, and protect elections from disinformation and foreign interference. This story was featured in Common Dreams.)

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