Written by Richard Fausset, Rick Rojas and Maggie Astor
On the eve of Georgia’s high-stakes Senate runoffs, a top state election official Monday delivered a stinging condemnation of President Donald Trump over his false claims of voter fraud, and issued an emotional appeal to Georgians to ignore the president’s disinformation and cast their ballots Tuesday in a race that will determine control of the Senate.
The official, Gabriel Sterling, ticked off a point-by-point rebuttal of Trump’s grievances about his loss in Georgia to Joe Biden, which the president aired most recently over the weekend in a phone call with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican. Trump pressured Raffensperger during the conversation to “find” votes to overturn his general election loss.
“I wanted to scream,” Sterling said at an afternoon news conference, referring to his reaction to the call between Trump and Raffensperger. Sterling, the state’s voting system implementation manager, said the president’s allegations of fraud had been “thoroughly debunked.”
“I personally found it to be something that was not normal, out of place, and nobody I know who would be president would do something like that to a secretary of state.”
His sharp rebuke offered the most vivid example of how Trump’s sustained assault on Georgia’s voting integrity has roiled the state’s politics before Tuesday’s runoffs. Even as Trump prepared to campaign in northwest Georgia on Monday night for the two Republican incumbents, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, party officials worried that his unfounded claims of a rigged election would depress turnout among its base.
The president and Biden were making last-ditch efforts to sway the outcome of the two runoff races that decide not just which party will control the Senate but the arc of Biden’s first-term policy agenda. If the two Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, both win, Democrats will control the White House and both chambers of Congress.
At his rally Monday night in Dalton, in northwest Georgia, Trump recycled his baseless claims that he was the victim of electoral fraud, and he promised to fight on. “That was a rigged election, but we’re still fighting, and you’re going to see what’s going to happen,” he said. Trump also called Tuesday’s vote “one of the most important runoff elections in the history of our country,” and praised Perdue and Loeffler.
The Democrats were trying to steal the White House, he told the crowd, so they could not afford to let them steal the Senate.
He repeated his bogus assertion that he won “by a landslide’’ and said that he hopes Vice President Mike Pence “comes through for us,’’ an allusion to Pence’s role presiding over Congress when it meets to certify the Biden’s victory Wednesday. “He’s a great guy,’’ he said of Pence. “Of course if he doesn’t come through I won’t like him quite as much.”
Sweeping into Atlanta late Monday afternoon, Biden made no direct mention of Trump’s telephone call but did obliquely criticize the president’s strongman tactics.
Addressing a few hundred supporters splayed out on the hoods and roofs of their cars in a downtown parking lot, Biden said Trump was absorbing a harsh lesson in democracy.
“As our opposition friends are finding out, all power flows from the people,” said the president-elect, adding that politicians cannot “seize power.”
Clad in a black mask emblazoned with the word “VOTE,” Biden encouraged the multiracial audience of Georgians to do just that.
“It’s not hyperbole, you can change America,” he said.
That was the heart of Sterling’s message as well as he implored voters to head to the polls Tuesday. “If you’re a Georgia voter, if you want your values reflected by your elected officials, I strongly beg and encourage you, go vote tomorrow,” he said. “Do not let anybody discourage you. Do not self-suppress your own vote.”
Hours before Trump’s appearance in Dalton, many of his die-hard supporters defended his phone call to Raffensperger.
Neal Fitzgibbons, of Kennesaw, said the president just wanted the secretary of state “to look really closely at all the irregularities we saw.”
Fitzgibbons cited many of the same debunked claims that the president made.
“Things were questionable, if not downright thievery, and should be looked at,” he said.
The visits by Biden and Trump ratcheted up the intensity in races that have already become the most expensive Senate contests in U.S. history. Including the campaigning before the runoff, more than $469 million has been spent in the Perdue-Ossoff contest, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and more than $362 million has been spent in the Loeffler-Warnock race.
As they have throughout the race, Republicans continued to warn Monday of a dire slide into a hard-left socialism if Democrats gain control of both Congress and the White House.
And Democrats are making the case that Trump sought nothing less than to nullify the will of the electorate and undermine Democracy with his call to Raffensperger.
Earlier in the day, Pence amplified the Republican message in a visit to a megachurch in the central Georgia city of Milner.
Standing before an image of a U.S. flag and twin screens that declared, “DEFEND THE MAJORITY,” Pence said, “We need Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to get in the way of the radical left agenda in Washington, D.C.,” as the crowd broke in with chants of both “Four more years” and “Stop the steal.”
Pence did not mention the president’s phone call Saturday to Raffensperger, which was first reported by The Washington Post. A number of legal scholars said that the president may have violated state and local laws, although they also said that pursuit of criminal prosecutions would be unlikely.
Nonetheless, Georgia elections officials Monday had received at least two formal calls for investigations into whether Trump had violated state laws.
In an appearance Monday in Conyers, a suburb east of Atlanta, Ossoff, the head of a video production company who is challenging Perdue, sought to draw parallels between Trump’s phone call and Georgia’s long history of voter suppression and disenfranchisement.
“The president of the United States on the phone trying to intimidate Georgia’s election officials to throw out your votes,” Ossoff said to a gathering of volunteers preparing to go canvassing. “Let’s send a message: Don’t come down to Georgia and try to mess with our voting rights.”
Among rank-and-file Democrats, the president’s phone call only added to their anger and their desire to push the senators who have so closely aligned themselves with Trump out of office.
Hillary Drummond Simpson, a retired elementary and middle school teacher, said that she was left puzzled by the support that the president still had. “I don’t get it,” she said. “I don’t understand what they are looking for in a leader.”
Verdaillia Turner, who was in Conyers to help with canvassing, said she thought the president’s strong-arm tactic might help Democrats build momentum. “It’s like a perfect, beautiful storm, and all eyes are on us,” said Turner, the president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers.
Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman facing off against Warnock, deflected questions about Trump and his phone call as she campaigned around the state before heading to join the president Monday night. “My sole focus is on tomorrow, Jan. 5,” she said at an Atlanta-area airport.
At the rally Monday night, and earlier in a tweet, Loeffler said that she would join the dozen or so U.S. senators Wednesday to vote against the certification of the election results granting Biden’s victory.
Perdue, who has been quarantined because of a possible exposure to the coronavirus, appeared Sunday night on a Fox News program where he said that he did not think the president’s pressure campaign on Raffensperger would affect the election.
Perdue blamed Raffensperger for the leaked recording of the one-hour conversation.
He also defended Trump’s assertions about electoral fraud. “What the president said is exactly what he’s been saying the last few months, and that is, the last two months anyway, we’ve had some irregularities in the election in November and he wants some answers. He has not gotten them yet from the secretary of state.”
Though Georgia has suffered a number of problems administering elections of late, with long lines, delayed results and technical glitches, some elections officials expressed confidence that Tuesday’s election would go smoothly.
Officials in Fulton County said that 370,000 ballots had already been cast there. While not specifically mentioning Trump, the Fulton County elections director, Richard Barron, addressed an “audio recording late yesterday” in which Fulton County was mentioned more than a dozen times.
In the tape, Trump made a number of claims about election fraud by Fulton County, including allegations of what he called “ballot stuffing.” Raffensperger’s office said those claims were investigated and rejected as unfounded.
“There’s been a great deal of misinformation out there,” Barron said. “We don’t have the resources to respond to each one of them. And we’ve been focusing on preparing for tomorrow and conducting the election legally and fairly.”
At his news conference, Sterling spent some time going through numerous individual false claims made by the president or his lawyers. They have claimed that thousands of votes were cast in Georgia by people who were under 18, weren’t registered to vote, registered late or registered with a post office box instead of a residential address. The secretary of state’s office investigated the claims, Sterling said, and did not find a single ballot cast by anyone in any of those categories.
He added that Raffensperger does not have a brother named Ron who works for a Chinese technology company, as one of the conspiracies retweeted by the president claims.
In fact, Sterling said, Raffensperger does not have a brother named Ron at all.