When Brad Raffensperger is sworn in as secretary of state Jan. 14, he will assume control of an office that’s been accused of suppressing minority votes in the past, he'll be a party to several lawsuits in the present and he will oversee changing Georgia’s voting system in the future.
The Johns Creek Republican has been working to transition into the role since his Dec. 4 runoff victory against Democrat John Barrow, and says he has been working with many different people to make sure he is prepared for the job.
“The staff has been helping us, and connecting us with each of the different departments so we can see what they've been doing,” Raffensperger said in a recent interview. “We're really getting a detailed deep dive.”
He’s also received guidance from Gov.-elect Brian Kemp, who was secretary of state before the election, and current interim secretary of state Robyn Crittenden.
At last week’s meeting of the Secure, Accessible and Fair Elections Commission, Raffensperger also heard from Democrat Cathy Cox, who was secretary of state from 1999-2007 and in charge of overseeing the last major change in how Georgia’s elections are run.
The commission will soon make recommendations on moving the state from 16-year-old direct-recording electronic voting machines, or DREs, to some sort of paper-based system. The two primary contenders are purely paper-based ballots that are counted by optical scanners, or what’s known as a ballot-marking device.
A ballot-marking device still uses a digital touchscreen to present voters with their electoral options, but the final ballot is printed out on paper. Depending on the device, a voter’s selection may be coded into a barcode that is scanned.
On the campaign trail and in an interview, Raffensperger expressed his preference for these devices to replace Georgia’s 27,000 existing DREs.
“I want to make sure that when your ballot leaves your hands it could never be changed,” he said. “But also, that we never get into what you were thinking.”
During the SAFE Commission meeting, former secretary of state Cox told the group when some counties previously used paper ballots, there were higher error rates. Cox said voters would do things like circle names instead of filling in ovals, which meant those votes could not be counted.
Raffensperger said using ballot-marking devices would solve that problem and give voters an opportunity to ensure the accuracy of their vote.
“With the ballot-marking device, your intent is clear,” he said. “And before the ballot is counted, we want you to have that opportunity to review what your selections are, then it will go to an optical scanner.”
The SAFE Commission will make a recommendation after its final meeting in January, the legislature will have to craft and pass a bill and the secretary of state’s office would then move forward with the bid process.
Raffensperger hopes to have a new system ready to test by the 2019 local elections and fully implemented in time for the 2020 election cycle.
Another part of the job come January will be making sure people understand changes to the voting process, and that they have faith in the overall system.
During the 2018 general election period, virtually every part of the state’s voting system was challenged in federal court, from the so-called “pending list” of voter registrations to DREs used in the election to how absentee ballots are counted and processed.
And Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, who lost a razor-thin election against Kemp, called him an “architect of suppression” and launched a voter advocacy group mid-November to challenge voting laws in the state.
Raffensperger said his office should be working to demystify the way voting works in Georgia, and make sure a new voting system doesn’t turn people away from participating.
“Sometimes when people don't feel confident [in a voting system] what they do is they don't show up,” Raffensperger said. “And we want people to be fully comfortable with the new system. We want them engaged, we want great turnout… and that would be a tremendous success story for our department.”
Raffensperger hopes that comfort will come from a large-scale outreach and education effort. He said his office will work with state legislators, county elections officials and local groups to get the word out once a final system is decided on.
“We would love to reach out to the chambers, the Lions Clubs, church groups, the NAACP, the Hispanic-American Chamber…” Raffensperger listed. “If people call us, we want to be there and help people test these machines and show how you step through the process to vote.”
Restoring the trust will also need to happen under the Gold Dome.
Democrats have pre-filed two bills that seek to remove the controversial “use it or lose it” law that allows voters to be removed from the rolls after several years of inactivity and the so-called “exact match” law that rejects voter registrations if they do not exactly match a state or federal database.
Raffensperger, a former state house member, said he wants to work across the aisle with Democrats on approving a new system and making tweaks to state election code.
“At the end of the day, what we want is both sides to have a meeting of the minds,” Raffensperger said. “No one gets 100 percent of what they want, but I would like to see that 100 percent of people are heard.”
Implementing a new voting system will also give the secretary of state-elect an opportunity to flex an administrative muscle in providing guidance to Georgia’s 159 counties, a robust corporations division and other responsibilities in the office.
Speaking about concerns from the Nov. 6 election about long lines at polling places, not enough machines at busy precincts and county officials being swamped by higher turnout.
Raffensperger said he would like to use more efficient systems across the state to have more people vote, and vote faster.
“Each county can have differences in their procedures, and I would like to have those as uniform as possible” Raffensperger said. “I’d really make sure we have clarity, that we have clear guardrails so we’re not wondering ‘what did they mean here, what did they mean there?’”
That will mean looking at counties who run elections well and using them as teaching tools for counties that have more stress points, he said.
The increased local and national attention on elections in Georgia also brought an increase in people voting, and Raffensperger said that’s a good thing.
“So because we know voters are engaged, we need to be prepared,” he said. “We shouldn’t be surprised that we have 65 percent of voters showing up and we should make sure we have enough machines and we’re ready to go.”
With the extra attention, he hopes there’s extra attention in learning about other aspects of the secretary of state’s office too, like the corporations division and the licensing division, but also wouldn’t mind flying under the radar once things settle down.
“I don't know if we'll ever get to a point where people know what we do,” he mused. “In some respects, that's okay because we would be doing our job so well that we're not in a fly in the ointment, we're not a burr under their saddle and things are running so smooth.”