In the months since the 2020 election, brazen attempts by supporters of former President Trump to overturn the results have dovetailed with undemocratic efforts by state legislatures to make voting harder. In both cases, the perpetrators have leaned on false claims of widespread voter fraud. But many officials who stood firm against Trump’s lies about a stolen election have nonetheless avoided criticizing or have even voiced support for the voting restrictions borne from those lies.
Such is the case among top conservative officials in Georgia, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Raffensperger defended Georgia’s election results against Trump’s vote-overturning designs but has voiced support for his state’s new restrictive election law, which sparked widespread public outcry when it passed in March. Another such figure in Georgia is Gabriel Sterling, a top elections official in the secretary of state’s office, who rose to prominence in early January after publicly debunking Trump’s lies about voter fraud.
On April 27, Sterling participated in a Yahoo! News podcast discussion about the integrity of the 2020 election and Georgia’s new law. During the podcast, Sterling said that concerns about voter suppression were unfounded, and that state-level election proposals were merely a necessary response to voters’ concerns about election integrity. But as investigations by American Oversight and others into the all-too-real efforts to restrict voting access have revealed, Georgia’s new law — like similar measures being advanced in other states — relies on fear and unsubstantiated allegations to go beyond simply assuring voters of election security.
On March 25, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law the Election Integrity Act of 2021, an expansive bill that combined a number of alarming voting-restriction provisions, including one that enables state officials to seize control of local election boards. The law also removes the secretary of state from the State Election Board, a move Sterling claimed was political retaliation by House Speaker David Ralston, who was capitalizing on the growing dislike of Raffensperger among Georgia Republicans.
The new law is not the only threat to the autonomy of Georgia’s local election boards. American Oversight has filed numerous records requests regarding efforts to pass legislation changing the authority or composition of various county boards of election across the state. Our investigation into efforts to alter the Pickens County Board of Elections revealed that the current board strongly opposed the proposed changes, which appear to have been developed by the county’s state legislative delegation in conjunction with the Pickens County Board of Commissioners.
While Sterling did make clear that he is not a fan of the usurpation of local power, he did not object to the law’s other egregious measures, which require absentee voters to provide photo identification, limit the use of ballot drop boxes, and criminalize the provision of food and water to voters as they wait in line.
During the podcast discussion, Sterling said that millions of Georgia voters lacked confidence in the election. He continued to defend the integrity of Georgia’s 2020 election and said that voters’ concerns were unfounded, but maintained that mere assurances would not have satisfied them. Early findings from our investigation into the origins of recent voting restriction bills suggest that many legislators, including in Texas and Iowa, similarly relied on unsubstantiated allegations and fears, not evidence of actual fraud, as justifications for imposing voting hurdles. This is further supported by Sterling’s claim that Georgia General Assembly leadership urged legislators in January to introduce legislation aimed at curbing the post-election conspiracy-driven panic. “The leadership of both the state House and the state Senate said to all their members, ‘Introduce whatever you need to, to get your people to calm down,’” Sterling said on the podcast.
Trump and his supporters had been pushing baseless claims about widespread voter fraud long before the 2020 election. This included Trump’s early creation of an “election integrity commission” led by prominent voting-restriction advocates, which never found evidence of the large-scale fraud that it set out to identify. Multiple states, including Georgia, similarly created election fraud task forces, which also failed to turn up any widespread fraud but instead served to undermine faith in the democratic process before voters even went to the polls.
Just weeks before the 2020 election, in response to an American Oversight record request, a member of Georgia’s Raffensperger-created Absentee Ballot Fraud Task Force confirmed that there was no widespread voter fraud in Georgia. In addition, the task force — the ostensible purpose of which was to protect the integrity of Georgia’s elections during the Covid-19 pandemic — met only one time, six months before the election, suggesting that the officials behind it were not particularly concerned about the existence of widespread fraud.
Just before the end of the podcast, Sterling stated that he had not been personally contacted by Trump or anybody from his team about changing his position on the election. In March 2021, American Oversight obtained an audio recording of the Dec. 23, 2020, call between Trump and the Georgia chief election investigator, separately obtained and reported on by the Wall Street Journal, during which Trump pressed for an investigation into Fulton County’s election returns. We also obtained an email sent to Georgia Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs by then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’ legislative adviser in late December, requesting a call to follow up on Meadows’ visit to Cobb County the week prior.
While Sterling directly blamed Trump for inciting the violent Jan. 6 Capitol attack, his claim that the actions of both Trump supporters and progressive voting-rights activists had “undermined their voters’ belief in the outcome of the elections” provides cover for the dangerous lies that have been used by those seeking to undermine democratic processes — lies that are now being used to justify making it harder to vote.
Across the country, lawmakers have capitalized on unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud to push for nearly 400 state bills seeking to restrict ballot access, and in so doing, have perpetuated the very same unfounded allegations. As legislators and state officials from Arizona to Florida propose and implement significant hurdles to exercising the right to vote, American Oversight will continue to investigate efforts to limit voting access and to thwart democracy. This includes our investigations of pre-election attacks on absentee voting, a voting-restriction group’s 11th-hour effort to purge thousands from Georgia’s voter rolls, as well as efforts to undermine the results of the 2020 election, from the Jan. 6 insurrection and Texas’ lawsuit challenging vote counts in other states, to Arizona’s sham “audit” of results in its largest county.
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