In Georgia, GOP Upheaval Over Elections Continues Into 2022

ATLANTA (AP) -- The storm over how Georgia's elections are run is far from abating, as Republicans echoing former President Donald Trump's falsehoods about a stolen 2020 election make new proposals atop last year's state law that set a benchmark for restrictive GOP voting changes nationwide.

Republican gubernatorial challenger David Perdue on Thursday joined calls for a new state police unit solely to investigate election law violations.

Many proposals, mostly from Republicans seeking office this year, appear unlikely to progress. But they show how upheaval over the 2020 elections keeps driving GOP politics in Georgia and other states.

Seth Masket, a University of Denver political science professor researching the aftermath of the 2020 elections, said that when it comes to denying the results, "it's never enough" for Trump or voters who support him.

"He keeps kind of setting the marker for what support for him looks like," Masket said. "You can really never go far enough down that path to prove it. And it turns out a lot of the Republican electorate just loves it."

Perdue lost reelection as a Republican U.S. senator to Democrat Jon Ossoff after being forced to a runoff in January 2021. Trump goaded him to enter the governor's race, targeting Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for not overturning Georgia's election. Federal and state election officials and Trump's own attorney general found no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president's allegations of fraud were also rejected by courts, including by judges Trump appointed.

An AP investigation into potential voter fraud in Georgia and five other battleground states where Trump disputed his loss to President Joe Biden found fewer than 500 cases. In Georgia, officials identified 64 potential fraud cases, representing 0.54% of Biden's margin of victory in the state. Of those, 31 were determined to result from administrative error or some other mistake.

Nonetheless, such allegations are accepted gospel among many Republicans. Days after Perdue entered the governor's race in December, he sued -- claiming fraud in Georgia's Fulton County cost him and Trump the 2020 election.

Election problems in Georgia are currently handled by the secretary of state's office, which employs investigators with police powers. The incumbent secretary, Republican Brad Raffensperger, has come under scorn from Trump. Trump called Raffensperger on Jan. 2, 2021, asking Raffensperger to "find" enough votes so Trump can win, sparking a state election tampering investigation that on Thursday resulted in a call for a special grand jury.

Raffensperger was removed from the State Election Board and is being challenged by Republicans who reject the 2020 election results, including Trump-endorsed U.S. Rep Jody Hice.

Raffensperger's investigators debunked in detail fraud claims in Fulton County in a now-dismissed suit that mirrored Perdue's. Raffensperger declined comment on Perdue's proposal, which would further reduce the influence of the secretary of state's office.

"The purpose of this law enforcement unit is to give Georgians confidence that only legal votes will be counted, and that anyone who tries to interfere with our elections will be arrested and prosecuted," Perdue said in a statement.

He told Valdosta radio station WVGA-FM on Wednesday that the unit would be part of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, a proposal already made by GOP state House Speaker David Ralston and Kemp. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made a similar proposal.

Perdue also said Thursday that he wants results to be "independently audited" before being certified, although he didn't say what that means.

Kemp spokesperson Cody Hall said Perdue's proposal "finally admits his entire campaign is based on a lie" because Georgia governors have no legal authority to run elections, investigate them or alter results.

Georgia's State Election Board has referred hundreds of cases to the attorney general's office since 2016, records show, with none resulting in a criminal prosecution. A few people have been prosecuted by district attorneys.

David Worley, who served in the Democratic Party slot on the State Election Board, said fines and legal orders that resolve many investigations are appropriate, because many violations are inadvertent.

"Before you lead somebody away in chains, you have to prove that they intended to violate the law," Worley said.

The State Election Board is currently deciding whether it should take over Fulton County's local election board, a new power under last year's election law. The odds of intervention in the state's most populous county appeared to improve when Republicans this week chose Janice Johnston for their party's spot on the five-member panel.

Johnston has repeatedly appeared at meetings to criticize the Fulton County board, raising questions about whether she can be impartial.

Even Republicans who Trump isn't supporting are competing for voters by pushing election falsehoods. Georgia Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller wants to abolish all drop boxes for absentee ballots, calling them "the weak link when it comes to securing our elections against fraud." The move came months after Miller supported allowing drop boxes under limited circumstances. It also came after Trump endorsed state Sen. Burt Jones, Miller's primary rival for Georgia lieutenant governor.

Jones backs a bill saying voters should mostly mark papers ballots by hand instead of using machines made by Dominion Voting Systems.

Raffensperger and Miller also want to amend the Georgia Constitution to include a ban on voting by noncitizens that is already in state law.

But a Jan. 13 hearing on that measure points to the difficulty of satisfying voters focused on 2020. Among those who testified was Janelle Clodfelter, who said what she was really wants is a "full forensic audit."

"It worries me that you're considering placing this particular referendum or resolution on the ballot, when we don't feel secure with our ballots," Clodfelter said.