Lindsey Graham’s controversial call with Georgia’s secretary of state, explained
President Donald Trump is trying to overturn the presidential election results with lawsuits and bluster. And in the midst of it all, a question arose as to whether Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of his close allies, tried to get the Georgian Secretary of State to throw a large number legally cast mail-in ballots – which could theoretically return a state Joe Biden won to Trump.
Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger says Graham almost did so during a call with him on Friday. He says Graham asked if he had the power to throw all mail-in ballots in counties where the rejection rates of mail-in ballots were relatively high because their signatures did not match the signatures of registered voters.
“It looked like he wanted to go down that road,” Raffensperger told the Amy Gardner of the Washington Post.
If Raffensperger’s interpretation of Graham’s meaning is correct, it would be a bold and undemocratic attempt by a Trump ally to overturn the election results. And some Democrats, like Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), appeal to the Department of Justice to investigate Graham’s actions.
For his part, Graham – a former Trump critic who has become one of the president’s most ardent supporters – said Gardner he just asked questions, worried about fraud, and tried to find out how the Georgia verified mail ballots were legitimate. (Graham said later he made a similar appeal to the governor of Arizona and other anonymous officials.)
But another Georgian official on call, Gabe Sterling, confirmed Tuesday that the conversation effectively involved a discussion of whether Raffensperger could reject all ballots in counties with high signature rejection rates. Sterling also said, however, that he could see why Raffensperger and Graham may have interpreted the conversation differently.
Georgia tally not close enough for Trump
At the end of the initial count in Georgia, Biden led Trump by around 14,000 votes.
Georgia is also the only swing state Biden won in which all relevant state officials are Republicans, making it a natural place for Trump to focus his efforts to overturn the election results. Yet the top GOP official there Raffensperger has refuted conspiratorial claims by Trump allies about widespread voter fraud since the election, making it clear that he found no evidence of such a thing.
Under pressure from the president and his allies, Raffensperger ordered a statewide results audit. This audit, which should be completed by Wednesday, has arrived some mistakes in the initial tally, this will reduce Biden’s lead somewhat. But Raffensperger has repeatedly stated that those mistakes won’t be close enough to change the outcome.
Indeed, in order for Trump to take the lead in Georgia, he needs something … bigger. Something like the invalidation of ballots legally cast by mail under a false pretext.
In part because Trump has repeatedly criticized postal voting as unreliable ahead of the election, Democrats were much more likely to vote by mail than Republicans this year. That’s why mail-in ballots have been a primary target in Trump’s post-election lawsuits – he wants Biden’s votes cast out.
And he needs that to happen quickly – because state law requires Georgia to certify its election results on Friday.
What happened on Graham’s call with Raffensperger
Last Friday, Senator Graham called Raffensperger. Raffensperger has now given his account of their conversation to many media electrical outlets. He said he initially thought Graham was calling to discuss the two Senate second-round elections in Georgia – but then was surprised Graham brought up the current tally.
According to Raffensperger, Graham asked if the mail-in ballots that had been counted could still be reconciled to the original envelope from which they had been sent. Raffensperger said they couldn’t. The signature review process takes place prior to the counting of the ballots due to the need to preserve the secret ballot. This means that you can no longer go back and match an approved ballot to the identity and signature of a voter.
Then, Raffensperger continues, things changed. “Sen. Graham asked us to check the envelopes and then throw away the ballots for the counties that had the highest frequency of signature errors, ”Raffensperger told CBS Tuesday.
The idea here seems to be that, since specific mail-in ballots could no longer match signatures, Raffensperger would have to examine all signatures, and if the examination revealed high rates of mismatched signatures in some counties, he should then simply cast all mail ballots in those counties.
Raffensperger told CBS he then ended the call, saying he “would go back and talk to a lawyer and get back to him.” He continued, “We just decided that the best action wasn’t to come back and re-enlist.”
So what was it all about?
In the two days after the election, before the start of the race for Biden and as Trump contested the results, the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. observed that Graham had not said much on the matter.
Not long after, Graham took the banner. In frequent appearances on Fox News, he began to echo Trump’s message and claim questionable allegations of electoral fraud. And, we have now learned, he has started calling Republican officials in Georgia and Arizona to inquire about their counting and checking procedures. (Graham told reporters on Tuesday that he also spoke to a Nevada official, but said later he misspoke, that he had just been briefed on the Nevada legal situation by someone else.)
Now Graham says his comments to Raffensperger were just part of an effort to learn more about how the process works. “It was not the point of the conversation, to throw the ballots away,” Graham told CNN on Tuesday. “I categorically reject this, it was not my intention.” Graham also said he was not acting on behalf of Trump’s campaign, tell the washington post he only acted “as an American senator who was concerned about the integrity of the electoral process.”
Raffensperger says it’s true Graham didn’t outright tell him to reject the county ballots. Rather, he approached the prospect, asking about it in a hypothetical sense, and “implying” that it was a reasonable idea. Notably, Raffensperger tell NPR that Trump’s team demanded something similar in a Michigan lawsuit and therefore it was “pretty clear” that Trump and Graham were “on the same page.” (Report by Jessica Huseman and Mike Spies of ProPublica that Trump’s team has been pressuring Raffensperger for months to endorse Trump and somehow help him win.)
Georgia poll official Gabe Sterling, who was on call, said Tuesday that the discussion was about what could “potentially” happen if “someone went to court”.
“What I heard were discussions about mail ballots – if there was a percentage of signatures that didn’t really match, is there a time when we could go to court and throw away all the ballots? according to the Washington Post. “I could see how Senator Graham saw it one way and Secretary Raffensperger saw it one way,” he added.
Additionally, Huseman and Spies of ProPublica Report that two members of Raffensperger’s office who were on call confirmed to them that “the Secretary of State’s account was correct and that they were appalled by Graham’s request.”
Overall, when you look at all of these comments, there is no real dispute about what Graham said on the call. He does not deny that he questioned whether all the ballots in certain counties could theoretically be rejected. The dispute is over whether he was exploring a hypothetical or making an implicit suggestion.
Yet despite Graham’s protests that nothing was unusual here, it should be noted that Raffensperger, a lifelong Republican, was disturbed enough by the conversation that he made it public.
In the end, it may be nothing, as Raffensperger has shown himself to be resistant to pressure from Trump’s camp. But when the president tries to baselessly overturn the clear election results, it doesn’t really look great that one of his close allies calls up a (Republican) state official and thinks about scenarios on the way tens of thousands of negative votes for it could be hit from the count.