In mid-December, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman texted her counterpart in Georgia to offer support and encouragement.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s top election official, was in the unenviable position of overseeing a high-stakes runoff election that will decide the balance of power in the Senate while responding to a barrage of baseless claims by President Donald Trump and his allies that the state’s November election was rigged.
“I was very frustrated with some of the garbage I was hearing on the national level,” Wyman, also a Republican, said.
“So I texted (him) and just said, ‘Hey, hang tough. You’re doing a great job. And if it’s helpful, I will get on a plane tomorrow. If there’s anything I can do, you let me know.’ ”
Raffensperger took her up on the offer and Wyman flew to Georgia last week to tour voting facilities and lend advice and moral support to election officials in the Peach State, where Tuesday’s runoff will decide which party holds a majority in the Senate.
Wyman said she was impressed by the Georgia election workers’ performance under enormous pressure and scrutiny, so she was “very disappointed” when she heard a recording of an hourlong phone call in which Trump pressured Raffensperger on Saturday to change the state’s vote tally.
Two statewide recounts have verified that President-elect Joe Biden won Georgia by 11,779 votes.
“I just want to find 11,780 votes,” Trump said. “Flipping the state is a great testament to our country because, you know, this is – it’s a testament that they can admit to a mistake or whatever you want to call it.”
In the call, released Sunday by the Washington Post, Raffensperger and his general counsel, Ryan Germany, calmly explained to Trump and his lawyers that their office – along with state and federal investigators – had looked into each of the unproven claims the president reeled off and found no evidence of vote rigging.
An increasingly agitated Trump brushed aside the Georgia officials’ responses and continued pressing them to “recalculate” the results, alternating between flattery, criticism, begging, debunked conspiracy theories and apparent threats.
Trump also suggested Raffensperger should side with him as a member of the GOP, something Wyman took issue with as a Republican. In the highly decentralized U.S. election system, voting is run at the county or municipal level under the leadership of each state’s chief election officer. In most states, including Washington and Georgia, those top officials are elected.
“When I hear anyone making an appeal to an election official based on party loyalty, it’s disturbing and alarming,” Wyman said. “That’s asking Brad Raffensperger to violate his oath of office, to break the law and change the outcome of an election for political gain.”
“Luckily for this country, Secretary Raffensperger has a great deal of integrity and moral courage.”
Wyman is no stranger to contested elections. She served as Thurston County auditor during the 2004 governor’s race that saw Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, defeat GOP challenger Dino Rossi by just 133 votes after multiple recounts.
Mark Braden, a Republican election lawyer who worked for Rossi in the 2004 recount, said there’s a world of difference between a legitimately close election and the outcome in Georgia. Even if Trump had won the state, Biden would still have prevailed in the Electoral College vote.
“It’s more frightening than it is outraging,” Braden said. “I guess the president believes this stuff, but it’s like believing the world is flat. It’s that disconnected from reality.”
“The people who count the votes in Georgia, who are in charge of the process, are Republicans. Hell, they’re even conservatives. His own attorney general, who was very loyal to him … found nothing to support these arguments.”
Lisa Marshall Manheim, an associate professor of law at the University of Washington, said the call has prompted discussion in legal circles about whether Trump committed a crime by pressuring the Georgia officials.
“At best, the president’s call is contemptuous of the process,” Manheim said. “Regardless of whether it’s technically a criminal offense, it is entirely inappropriate.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., tweeted Monday that Trump “is spending his last days in office undermining our democracy because he didn’t get what he wanted.”
“It’s not surprising, raises serious & potentially criminal legal concerns, & won’t work,” Murray wrote. “These actions are dangerous & every elected official should reject them.”
Trump’s call to Raffensperger came just before what is expected to be a wild week in politics. After Tuesday’s voting in Georgia, Wednesday Congress will convene for what is normally a symbolic vote to certify the results of the Electoral College.
Rep. Russ Fulcher, a North Idaho Republican, announced Monday in a video posted to social media that he will object to the Electoral College results, joining a growing number of Trump loyalists in a rift that threatens to split the GOP.
While the gambit is destined to fail – it would require a majority in both the Senate and Democratic-controlled House to throw out the results – it will force Republicans to take an uncomfortable vote, either spurning the outgoing president or rejecting the same election results that got them elected.
Other congressional Republicans in the House and Senate have expressed outrage at the move. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., accused his GOP colleagues of threatening the American elections system in a Dec. 30 Facebook post.
“We have a bunch of ambitious politicians who think there’s a quick way to tap into the president’s populist base without doing any real, long-term damage,” Sasse wrote. “But they’re wrong – and this issue is bigger than anyone’s personal ambitions. Adults don’t point a loaded gun at the heart of legitimate self-government.”
Other GOP lawmakers, including Central Washington Rep. Dan Newhouse, are trying to walk a line between the two positions, declining to object to the results while echoing Trump’s unsubstantiated claims.
In a tweet Monday, Newhouse endorsed a statement by other House Republicans who wrote they are “outraged at the significant abuses in our election system … and the lack of safeguards maintained to guarantee that only legitimate votes are cast,” but would vote to certify the results because the Constitution leaves election administration to the states.
Wyman likened the baseless allegations of vote rigging from Trump and his allies to the disinformation campaigns she and her counterparts across the country have expected to come in “asymmetric warfare” efforts from countries like Russia, China and Iran.
Instead, those attacks are coming from inside the country.
“It’s undermining our system of government,” Wyman said. “The goal of an asymmetric warfare attack is for people to not believe the U.S. government is legitimate, because then you undermine America from within.”