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Raphael Warnock, Jon Ossoff, David Perdue, and Kelly Loeffler

Photo by CNN Politics/ Twitter

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

The lie that Georgia's presidential election was rigged through voter fraud is a right-wing fantasy — but these baseless claims could have a very real impact on the upcoming Senate runoffs. And that has some members of the state's right-wing media apparatus panicking.

Groundless allegations of voter fraud in Georgia's presidential election have pitted members of right-wing media, and the Republican Party as a whole, against one another ahead of two crucial January runoffs that will determine control of the Senate.

Trump loyalists are clinging to a manufactured conspiracy theory that Georgia was stolen for President-elect Joe Biden, even though Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has rejected such claims and a statewide audit found no evidence of widespread fraud. In response, right-wing media figures have lashed out at both Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp, who certified the state's election results last Friday.

Some Trump supporters have taken their complaints one step further — suggesting that they may not support Republican candidates Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) in the upcoming runoffs given their dissatisfaction with the handling of nonexistent voter fraud.

That threat has spooked some members of the right-wing media ecosystem in Georgia. Yet while some are desperately trying to refocus audiences angry with anyone who does not fully endorse Trump's absurd fraud claims, other media figures are helping to feed the party infighting.

Conservative Media Figures Attacking Georgia Officials

One of Trump's most ardent supporters in the state is actually a radio host based out of Virginia who only recently moved his show to Georgia, ahead of January's runoffs. Host John Fredericks, in explaining his decision to move to the state, complained about the supposed lack of true Trump loyalists among the state's talk radio hosts and singled out one fellow host in particular.

On November 19, Fredericks claimed, "There's no radio shows. Erick Erickson in the afternoon — are you kidding me? Never Trumper extraordinaire. I'm sure he's backing Raffensperger."

Erickson is one of the most prominent talk radio hosts in the state, and he openly supported Trump's reelection effort despite Fredericks' claim that he is a Never Trumper.

Since moving his show to Georgia a few weeks ago and launching a partisan "news" site designed to appear like a local publication — ostensibly to support Loeffler and Perdue — Fredericks has repeatedly hosted MAGA firebrands like attorney Lin Wood who have attacked the state's elected officials.

During a lengthy interview on November 20, Wood accused Kemp and Raffensperger of corruption and suggested that unless Republicans stood by Trump's efforts to overturn the election, Trump voters would not turn out to support Loeffler and Perdue.

"I don't believe the people that went out and voted and believe in Donald Trump are going to show up for the runoffs. You are not going to fool Georgia voters but one time. So these people that think they're going to try to, on the Republican side, get a win in the runoff, they are not going to get it unless they undo the fraud in the general election regarding President Trump." Fredericks agreed, telling Wood, "You're right."

Steve Bannon, a close Fredericks ally, echoed the sentiment on November 23 during an appearance on The John Fredericks Show.

"Quite frankly, if Kemp and the secretary of state and the lieutenant governor don't turn this around, … if they don't put their shoulder to the wheel, they should all be recalled. You should start a recall petition and recall them. And hey, if Democrats win it, who cares? It's better than having the hypocrisy of these Republicans who just feed at the trough."

National conservative media figures have also suggested that disillusioned Trump voters perhaps have reason not to turn out in January.

After a distraught caller complained that the Republican Party had abandoned Trump, radio host Rush Limbaugh expressed sympathy for voters who were threatening to sit out the Senate runoffs.

"Yeah we want to win the two seats, yeah we want the Republicans to maintain control, but there's a lot of people out there right now who are ambivalent and wouldn't mind if the Republicans lost those two seats and sit around and watch the Democrats and the Republicans deal with the mess that they have made."

On Fox, multiple hosts have assailed Kemp and Raffensperger, feeding outrage among the Republican base.

Fox host Sean Hannity suggested that Gov. Kemp was "cowering in fear" because he had allowed the election results to stand. Host Brian Kilmeade claimed that Raffensperger was "off the reservation of logic." And Fox Business host Lou Dobbs accused Raffensperger of "playing with votes."

Voter Fraud Conspiracy Theories Could Backfire

Meanwhile, conservative figures like Erickson have repeatedly denounced the fraud allegations and have warned of the danger they represent to Republican turnout. On Nov. 17, Erickson referenced the Dominion voter fraud conspiracy theory, arguing, "When you've got these conspiracy-mongers out there saying they are going to release some Kraken, it's going to expose that Dominion Voter Services stole the election in Georgia, well how can it be when the paper ballot and the machines align almost perfectly? None of it makes sense. You can't let the victim mentality soak in or you are going to have Georgia taken by the Democrats in the Senate."

Those right-wing media personalities who do question the voter fraud conspiracy theories are often met with fierce backlash from their audiences.

Georgia radio host Scott Ryfun, after suggesting that there's no evidence supporting claims that that election results in the state would be overturned, fielded angry callers on Nov.19.

"As you know, I have taken a lot of heat, a lot of heat, for suggesting that the numbers are not going to change." Ryfun continued. "I am trying to keep you from being so totally dispirited, and disheartened, and just done that you don't participate in the Senate race. That you lose faith in the Senate race. We can't do that."

Beyond Georgia, national conservative media outlets are also working to try to placate an angry base and to chastise top Republicans for fueling the outrage.

In an opinion piece for The Washington Examiner, Zachary Faria wrote, "Republicans can't rely on organizing and fundraising to get voters out while simultaneously telling their voters that Georgia elections are rigged, especially in pursuit of an outcome that is never going to materialize." Writing in National Review, Isaac Schorr criticized Loeffler and Perdue's calls for Raffensperger's resignation and asked, "Is it really in the senators' interests to tell GOP voters that there is no guarantee their votes will be fully and fairly counted?"

After years of promoting the myth of widespread voter fraud in an effort to suppress Democratic votes, right-wing media are now reckoning with an unexpected impact — that these claims may limit turnout among their own supporters and are tearing the conservative movement apart.


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The Arizona 2020 election "audit" under way

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As ongoing threats by Trump loyalists to subvert elections have dominated the political news, other Republicans in two key states—Florida and Arizona—are taking what could be important steps to provide voters with unprecedented evidence of who won their most close and controversial elections.

In both battleground states, in differing contexts, Republicans are lifting the curtain on the data sets and procedures that accompany key stages of vetting voters, certifying their ballots, and counting votes. Whether 2020’s election-denying partisans will pay attention to the factual baselines is another matter. But the election records and explanations of their use offer a forward-looking road map for confronting the falsehoods that undermine election results, administrators, and technologies.

In Republican-run Florida, the state is finalizing rules to recount votes by incorporating digital images of every paper ballot. The images, together with the paper ballots, create a searchable library to quickly tally votes and identify sloppily marked ballots. Questionable ballots could then be retrieved and examined in public by counting boards to resolve the voter’s intent.

“The technology is so promising that it would provide the hard evidence to individuals who want to find the truth,” said Ion Sancho, former supervisor of elections in Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, who was among those on a January 4 conference call workshop led by the Division of Elections seeking comments on the draft rule and procedures manual revisions.

Under the new recount process, a voter’s paper ballot would be immediately rescanned by an independent second counting system—separate from what each county uses to tally votes. The first digital file produced in that tabulation process, an image of every side of every ballot card, would then be analyzed by software that identifies sloppy ink marks as it counts votes. Several Florida counties pioneered this image-based analysis, a version of which is used by the state of Maryland to double-check its results before certifying its election winners.

“The fact that it has overcome opposition from the supervisors of elections is telling because the number one problem with the [elected county] supervisors is [acquiring and learning to use] new technology; it’s more work to do,” Sancho said. “The new technology doesn’t cost much in this case. Everyone has scanners in their offices already because every voter registration form by law must be scanned and sent to the Division of Elections.”

The appeal of using ballot images, apart from the administrative efficiencies of a searchable library of ballots and votes, is that the images allow non-technical people to “see” voters’ intent, which builds trust in the process and results, said Larry Moore, the founder and former CEO of the Clear Ballot Group, whose federally certified technology would be used in Florida recounts.

But Florida’s likely incorporation of ballot images into its recount procedures, while a step forward for transparency, is unfolding in a fraught context. In 2021, its GOP-majority state legislature passed election laws that are seen as winnowing voters and rolling back voting options. In other words, it may be offering more transparency at the finish line but is also limiting participation upstream.

The new recount rule is expected to be in place by this spring, months before Florida’s 2022 primaries and midterm elections. Among the issues to be worked out are when campaign and political party officials and the public would observe the new process, because the election administrators do not want partisans to intentionally disrupt the rescanning process. These concerns were raised by participants and observers on the teleconference.

The Arizona Template

In Arizona, Maricopa County issued a report on January 5, “Correcting the Record: Maricopa County’s In-Depth Analysis of the Senate Inquiry.” The report is its most substantive refutation of virtually all of the stolen election accusations put forth by Trump loyalists who spent months investigating the state's presidential election.

Beyond the references to the dozens of stolen election accusations put forth by pro-Trump contractors hired by the Arizona Senate’s Republicans, the report offered an unprecedented road map to understanding how elections are run by explaining the procedures and data sets involved at key stages.

The report explained how Maricopa County, the nation’s second biggest election jurisdiction (after Los Angeles County) with 2.6 million registered voters, verified that its voters and ballots were legal. It also explained key cybersecurity features, such as the correct—and incorrect—way to read computer logs that prove that its central vote-counting system was never compromised online, as Trump supporters had claimed in Arizona (and Michigan).

“I’ve never seen a single report putting all of this in one place,” said John Brakey, an Arizona-based election transparency activist, who has sued Maricopa County in the past and routinely files public records requests of election data. “Usually, it takes years to understand all this.”

Taken together, Florida’s expansion of recounts to include using digital ballot images, and Maricopa County’s compilation of the data and procedures to vet voters, ballots, and vote counts, reveal that there is more evidence than ever available to confirm and legitimize election participants and results.

For example, Maricopa County’s investigation found that of the 2,089,563 ballots cast in its 2020 general election, one batch of 50 ballots was counted twice, and that there were “37 instances where a voter may have unlawfully cast multiple ballots”—most likely a spouse’s ballot after the voter had died. Neither lapse affected any election result.

“We found fewer than 100 potentially questionable ballots cast out of 2.1 million,” the report said. “This is the very definition of exceptionally rare.”

When Maricopa County explained how it had accounted for all but 37 out of 2.1 million voters, it noted that the same data sets used to account for virtually every voter were also used by the political parties to get out the vote. Thus, the report’s discussion of these data sets—voter rolls and the list of people who voted—offered a template to debunk voter fraud allegations. This accusation has been a pillar of Trump’s false claims and is a longtime cliché among the far right.

It is significant that this methodology, indeed the full report, was produced under Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a conservative Republican who has repeatedly said that he had voted for Trump, and was fully endorsed by Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, which has a GOP majority and held a special hearing on January 5 to review the findings.

In other words, the report is not just a rebuttal for the Arizona Senate Republican conspiracy-laced post-2020 review. It is a road map for anyone who wants to know how modern elections are run and how to debunk disinformation, including conspiracy theories involving alleged hacking in cyberspace.

“There is not a single accurate claim contained in [Arizona Senate cybersecurity subcontractor] CyFIR’s analysis of Maricopa County’s tabulation equipment and EMS [election management system],” the reportsaid, referring to accusations that counts were altered. “This includes the allegation that county staff intentionally deleted election files and logs, which is not true.”

When you add to Maricopa County’s template the introduction of a second independent scan of every paper ballot in future Florida recounts, what emerges are concrete steps for verifying results coming from Republicans who understand how elections work and can be held accountable.

Of course, these evidence trails only matter if voters or political parties want to know the truth, as opposed to following an ex-president whose political revival is based on lying about elections. However, more moderate Republicans seem to be recognizing that Trump’s stolen election rhetoric is likely to erode their base’s turnout in 2022, as Trump keeps saying that their votes don’t matter.

“You’ve got Republican buy-in,” said Florida’s Sancho, speaking of his GOP-ruled state’s embrace of more transparent and detailed recounts. “And Republicans, more than anyone else, should be concerned about whether their votes were counted as cast and as the voter intended.”

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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