The problem, according to Brad Raffensperger, is Stacey Abrams. Three years ago, while returns were still being processed in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, it looked like Brian Kemp was going to win, and Abrams, his Democratic opponent, wasn’t ready to admit defeat. Abrams’s reasoning was that Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state at the time, had cheated, using a range of voter suppression tactics unmatched in modern politics: voter-ID laws, proof-of-citizenship requirements, aggressive voter-roll purges, restrictions on early voting, and the mass closure of polling sites. Kemp probably would’ve won without these measures — demographics were on his side — but the confusion they introduced was meant to throw poor and nonwhite voters for a loop.
In case that didn’t work, Kemp was also overseeing the election. To Abrams, these facts were more than enough to be skeptical that the rules were being applied fairly and to insist that all provisional and absentee ballots be counted before the results were officially declared.
It was the beginning of the end for Raffensperger, who went on to become Kemp’s successor as secretary of state. The public’s faith in elections subsequently fell to a dangerous low, he now says, forcing him to do something about it. He knows Donald Trump was lying when he claimed the 2020 election had been stolen from him — the secretary famously declined to “find” the extra votes the former president asked him to look for in January to help him win — whereas he and other Republicans have not denied Abrams’s allegations, even if they have disputed the notion that they were “cheating.” Raffensperger has chosen to support a new anti-democratic initiative based on Trump’s lie anyway: a review of all 147,000 absentee ballots cast in Fulton County.
Not incidentally, he’s also fighting for his political life. This is important for understanding why he’d characterize his indulgence of this effort as aimed at restoring “integrity” to the electoral process as a general goal, rather than a party-specific one. Republican activists voted to censure him at the state GOP convention earlier this month. He’s facing a Trump-supported primary challenger in Jody Hice, a congressman who passed the purity test increasingly demanded by the GOP base: He voted to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. These developments are a culmination of the party’s post-2016 turn, where fitness is measured by loyalty to Trump. But in Raffensperger’s telling, it started with Abrams speaking out about actual malfeasance. “In Georgia, it goes back to the 2018 governor’s race, when Stacey Abrams did not concede,” he told the New York Times in an interview last month.
Ahistorical blame-laying is nothing new for embattled incumbents. What’s notable about Raffensperger’s example is that it comes from a man who has been praised widely for his principled insistence on the truth at a moment when it was deeply unpopular in his party, yet has also embraced delusion in the interest of endearing himself to delusional voters. That is to say, Raffensperger is still a Republican beholden to the demands of modern Republicanism. And those demands have become increasingly unhinged. Turning Abrams into a supervillain may be a promising diversion, freighted with the kind of racial insinuation that’s benefited politicians across the ideological spectrum. But it also avoids challenging the party’s Trumpian pivot, and so calls into further question its leaders’ willingness and ability to do so.
That Abrams is both a Black woman and a voting-rights advocate has made her an irresistible target for Republican lawmakers. When Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia went public with his long-awaited compromise to S1, the voting-rights bill supported by most of his party but not by him, Abrams praised it as a set of “basic building blocks.” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell immediately recast it as “the plan endorsed by Stacey Abrams,” a “no compromise” bill that would amount to an “election takeover.” In the same spirit, Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri claimed that Manchin’s proposal became “the Stacey Abrams substitute, not the Joe Manchin substitute” the moment she gave it her blessing.
These remarks gave a national platform to sentiments that had already been brewing at the local level. Raffensperger recently touted his planned purges of Georgia’s voter rolls — one of the measures that drew scrutiny when his predecessor used it to winnow the electorate — by bragging about how he “fought and beat Stacey Abrams in court in 2019” for the right to proceed with a previous purge. Earlier this month, Governor Kemp was booed at the same GOP convention whose delegates censured Raffensperger. In an effort to mollify them, he responded by claiming to be the “one person who’s beaten Stacey Abrams.” And Vernon Jones — the former state legislator, recent GOP convert, and all-around more popular convention speaker than Kemp — took a similar tack, comparing Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer to the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. “Dorothy isn’t leading them from Kansas,” he quipped. “They’re being led by that Wicked Witch from the South, Stacey Abrams.”
The state-level implications of this campaign are clear. Damaging Abrams politically by making her out to be a radical and a villain is a preemptive strike ahead of her expected second shot at running against Kemp for the governorship next year. The stakes are even higher this time because of Georgia’s emergence as a swing state this past election. The backlash Kemp has received from GOP activists for not doing more to give Trump the state’s 16 electoral votes seems to have put him in peril.
But name-dropping Abrams also serves a bigger ideological project focused on the vote itself. The Republican Party has long been committed to anti-democratic voting restrictions. But ever since Trump made it party dogma that Democratic election victories were fraudulent by default, and must be disputed accordingly, the GOP has embraced these constraints with a zeal unseen since the immediate aftermath of the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision, which gutted protections enshrined in the Voting Rights Act.
Abrams is a natural focal point for the GOP’s paranoid fears because of her outsize prominence in stories about how Georgia turned purple. For them, she has come to symbolize the theft of what is rightfully theirs and, with Raffensperger’s contribution, the erosion of faith in the mechanics of American democracy. That such erosion was a core goal for Republicans going back at least a decade earns no mention in this origin story.
This strategy has served the party well so far — both as a pretense to place more power over voting apparatuses into the hands of GOP-held legislatures and as a means to justify getting rid of local election officials who don’t actively pursue their interests. It has also evolved in a way that transcends the former president. Trump turbocharged the GOP’s anti-democratic impulses, which now have a more impassioned and more conspiratorial-minded base of support. This puts officials like Raffensperger in an incomprehensible position. Keeping his job depends on embracing the very forces he claims to be fighting against.