‘It has to stop’: Top Georgia election official slams Trump, senators over fraud claims

Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s election system implementation manager, gives an update on the presidential election recount on Nov. 18, 2020. (Secretary of State video)

Georgia’s top election manager ripped into President Donald Trump Tuesday, as well as U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, for not doing more to tamp down unfounded claims of voting fraud after a local election worker was threatened with a noose.

Gabriel Sterling, the state’s election implementation manager, called on the Republican president and Georgia’s GOP senators to “step up” after Trump supporters took video of a 20-year-old election-system contractor, threatened him with a noose on Twitter and tracked down home addresses for members of his family.

“I can’t begin to explain the level of anger that I have right now over this,” Sterling, who is a Republican, said of the recent threat. “And every American, every Georgian, Republican and Democrat alike, should have that same level of anger.”

Sterling also denounced threats that have been made against his supervisor, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, including “sexualized threats” sent to Raffensperger’s wife’s cell phone.

“This is our elections,” Sterling said. “This is the backbone of our democracy. And all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this. It’s too much.”

Raffensperger and his family have been threatened several times recently including when someone broke into a home owned by a family member, his office said. Caravans of Trump supporters waving flags from pickup trucks have also been cruising around and honking horns in Raffensperger’s neighborhood.

On Monday, Raffensperger said certain people are misleading Trump and his supporters with “fantastic claims” of election fraud aimed at “exploiting [their] emotions.”

A top deputy in Raffensperger’s office, Sterling has held multiple news conferences in recent weeks as state and county election officials worked through two separate recounts of the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia. The second recount is on track to wrap up by midnight Wednesday.

Certified election results show Trump lost to President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia by 12,670 votes, a margin that narrowed by around 1,500 votes after uncounted ballots were located during the state’s first recount. That margin is not likely to shrink enough to reverse the final outcome, Sterling has said.

That has not stopped Trump from taking to Twitter repeatedly in recent days to slam Raffensperger and pressure Gov. Brian Kemp to intervene in the president’s favor. Attorneys allied with Trump have filed federal lawsuits seeking to de-certify the election that contain claims echoing many of his mail-in ballot and voting-machine fraud allegations.

In an impassioned plea, Sterling on Tuesday urged Trump to back off the divisive language he’s used to spread doubt about the election results while the second recount continues and lawsuits wind through court, adding: “Mr. President, it looks like you likely lost the state of Georgia.”

“Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence,” Sterling said. “Someone’s going to get hurt. Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed. And it’s not right.”

Sterling also lashed out at Perdue and Loeffler, both staunch Trump supporters who called for Raffensperger’s resignation last month and have refused to back off that position. Their push for Raffensperger to resign prompted Trump to describe Georgia’s secretary of state as “an enemy of the people.”

On Tuesday, Sterling said those actions by the Trump, Loeffler and Perdue worked to incite violence and helped open a “floodgate of crap” related to fraud conspiracies and threats.

“We need you to step up,” Sterling said, singling out Perdue and Loeffler by name. “And if you’re going to take a position of leadership, show some. It has to stop.”

Campaign spokespersons for Loeffler and Perdue said both senators condemn violence but added they also would continue pushing for “accountability” of Georgia’s election system.

“Like many officials, as someone who has been the subject of threats, of course Senator Loeffler condemns violence of any kind. How ridiculous to even suggest otherwise,” said Loeffler campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson.

“We also condemn inaction and lack of accountability in our election system process – and won’t apologize for calling it out.”

Perdue and Loeffler are competing against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock in runoff elections set for Jan. 5.

Georgia Senate to hold hearings on 2020 election ‘processes’, ‘improprieties’

Top Republican state lawmakers announced Tuesday they plan to hold hearings later this week on the integrity of Georgia’s election system and to take testimony on alleged “elections improprieties” stemming from the 2020 general election.

Back-to-back hearings have been scheduled for Thursday by the Senate Government Oversight Committee to “evaluate the election process” and the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to field election-impropriety claims.

The two meetings come as officials in Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office continue to dismiss claims of widespread voter fraud by allies of President Donald Trump, who certified results show lost the Nov. 3 presidential election to President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia by 12,670 votes.

In particular, Trump’s allies have homed in on how Georgia verifies signatures on the roughly 1.3 million mail-in ballots cast in the presidential election and have urged Raffensperger’s office to launch an audit aimed at matching those signatures with registration information.

Raffensperger’s office has signaled it is unlikely to do so without a court order, though the secretary of state has called for the General Assembly to pass legislation that would toughen up Georgia’s voter ID laws. A handful of federal lawsuits challenging the election’s certification are still winding through the courts.

Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, have also called for passing tighter voter ID rules during the legislative session that starts next month.

State election officials have highlighted claims of individual voting fraud or irregularities as part of more than 250 ongoing investigations as well as management stumbles from a few local election boards like Fulton County. Raffensperger’s office has also launched investigations into groups allegedly attempting to register out-of-state voters ahead of the U.S. Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5.

None of those issues are likely to overturn the ultimate outcome of the presidential election, state officials have said. Raffensperger’s office expects a second recount of the more-than 5 million ballots cast in the presidential election to wrap up by midnight Wednesday.

The state Senate meetings were announced jointly by the chamber’s majority caucus leaders including President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, R-Gainesville; Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton; Majority Whip Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega; Majority Caucus Chairman John Kennedy, R-Macon; Majority Caucus Vice Chairman Larry Walker III, R-Perry; and Majority Caucus Secretary Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge.

Lt. Gov. panel pegs telehealth as long-term boon for Georgia providers

Expect state lawmakers to focus again on health-care and telehealth bills amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Georgia when the General Assembly meets next month to kick off the 2021 legislative session, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told health-care and technology administrators Tuesday.

Duncan, who led a task force on health-care access and costs in 2019, gave few details on any upcoming legislation other than possible measures to curb unnecessary emergency-room visits and “ways to create opportunities for better delivery” of Affordable Care Act-related services.

Panelists at a health care-focused summit in Rome Tuesday – including two top Georgia Senate members who also work in health care – signaled they would like to see Georgia expand its use of telehealth services that have been critical to providing primary care during the pandemic.

“I don’t think we’re just creating patterns and health habits around [COVID-19],” Duncan said. “I think long-term, we’re going to watch digital health play out [and] telehealth play out in a more formidable format.”

Georgia opened up more telehealth options in 2019 with passage of a bill sponsored by state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, which set legal definitions for telehealth services and required insurers to cover care provided via real-time, remote means.

Health-care providers have leaned more on video chats and other telehealth options to continue treating patients in the nearly nine months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Georgia, forcing new distancing habits and the need for greater care to limit viral exposure in hospital settings.

Telehealth has been a boon for hospitals and health-care providers who have needed tighter coordination between themselves and their patients at a time when close contact is challenging, said Sherrie Williams, chief operating officer for Waycross-based nonprofit Global Partnership for Telehealth.

“If anything good came out of the pandemic … it’s the collaborative piece,” Williams said Tuesday. “And telehealth has really made it an easy thing to do.”

Many providers are now eyeing telehealth and telemedicine services as essential for hospitals and health-care organizations to continue treating patients, said Dr. Kenneth Jones, chief medical officer at Floyd Medical Center.

“That’s probably a lot of the future of medicine is the ability to access your physician and get care provided in a quick, prompt way,” Jones said Tuesday. “I think it’s going to change how we provide health care of the next five to ten years.”

Health-care and insurance-related legislation was a top priority for state Senate leaders during this year’s session, which saw passage and signing of several bills to curb unexpectedly high “surprise” hospital costs, tamp down runaway prescription-drug prices and boost insurer transparency.

State Sens. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, who is an anesthetist, and hospital administrator Dr. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, both of whom brought bills on those subjects as well as co-sponsored Unterman’s 2019 bill on telehealth, said the pandemic has highlighted ongoing health-care issues like insufficient broadband internet in rural parts of the state that the legislature still needs to tackle.

“We have a lot of tools available that we haven’t had before, but they’re unfortunately not all available,” Burke said. “I think the pandemic has given us a lot of transparency on what we have been able to do well and also what some of our deficiencies are.”

The 2021 legislative session kicks off Jan. 11 at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta.

COVID-19 vaccine poised for mid-December rollout in Georgia, governor says

Coronavirus has sickened hundreds of thousands people and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Georgia is gearing up to distribute the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to health-care workers and the state’s elderly residents in the coming weeks once federal officials approve the vaccines for emergency use.

Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday he expects health-care workers and nursing home residents in the state to start receiving vaccines in the second or third week of December, noting several state agencies have been preparing to move quickly on distribution as soon as the initial vaccine shipments arrive.

“Obviously, that timeline could change, but that is what we’re shooting for right now,” Kemp said at a meeting with local nursing home administrators.

“I’m confident that when the vaccine is authorized … that we will be ready to distribute that,” he added.

Kemp also relaxed certain red-tape state rules Monday to allow nurses and pharmacists to administer the new COVID-19 vaccines and to let people receive the vaccines in their vehicles via drive-thru services.

Two vaccines from pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna showed unexpectedly good results in recent clinical trials and are now poised for emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The federal government is leaving it to governors and other state officials to hash out plans for distributing COVID-19 vaccine doses in their respective states, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention giving guidance on which populations to prioritize like health-care workers, first responders, elderly persons and those with chronic health conditions.

Between 30 million and 40 million vaccine doses could be available by January with emergency federal approval, said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a leading Emory University epidemiologist who has focused on the virus since its onset in March.

The general public should expect to have access to COVID-19 vaccines sometime between May and July of 2021 after officials have prioritized more vulnerable populations, he said.

“The most important thing is we need to allocate the vaccine in such a way that we rapidly bring down mortality and hospitalizations from this disease,” Del Rio said at a news conference Monday.

Amid high hopes for ending the pandemic, Georgia officials still need to figure out how to hand out millions of doses across the state while keeping the vaccine stored at low temperatures that may require purchasing new refrigeration equipment, Del Rio said.

Hospitals and long-term elderly care facilities also face a daunting few months ahead as outbreaks of the virus flare up in Georgia and short-handed staff who have battled the pandemic since March feel fatigue.

Several local nursing homes noted at Monday’s meeting with Kemp that while the state has helped prop up staffing levels with federal relief money, many facilities continue struggling to both fend off viral transmissions and provide everyday care for their elderly residents after losing employees early during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, I think we’re going to be dealing with it for another six months,” said Neil Pruitt, chairman and CEO of PruittHealth.

Positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 have risen in Georgia since October as officials and public-health experts worry a larger spike could come amid the winter holiday season. As of Monday, more than 422,000 Georgians had tested positive for the virus and 8,778 had died.

Kemp urged people Monday to keep up safe distancing, masking and hand-washing habits despite the temptation to let their guard down with vaccines on the horizon.

“We’ve got to remain vigilant [and] keep our foot on the gas,” Kemp said.

Georgia election officials dismiss fraud claims amid Trump attacks, lawsuits

Georgia officials continued batting back claims of election fraud Monday as a second recount of the presidential election neared completion and President Donald Trump attacked one of his biggest supporters in the state, Gov. Brian Kemp.

A federal lawsuit filed by a Trump supporter to halt the election results and re-verify absentee-ballot signatures also moved forward Monday, with a judge ordering officials in Cobb, Gwinnett and Cherokee counties not to tamper with data on voting machines before a hearing can be held later this week.

Amid legal challenges, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who has faced attacks from fellow Republicans and threats from Trump allies in recent days, on Monday denounced “dishonest actors” for spreading “massive amounts of misinformation” about Georgia’s election integrity since the Nov. 3 election.

“There are those who are exploiting the emotions of many Trump supporters with fantastic claims, half-truths [and] misinformation,” Raffensperger, a Republican, said at a news conference Monday. “And, frankly, they are misleading the president as well, apparently.”

Raffensperger’s comments came hours after Trump took to Twitter Monday to call Kemp “the hapless Governor of Georgia” and pressure him to force election officials to match mail-in voters’ signatures on the envelopes of their absentee ballots with registration signatures as part of the ongoing recount.

“Georgia Republicans are angry, all Republicans are angry,” said Trump. “Get it done!”

Trump also said over the weekend he was “ashamed” to have endorsed Kemp in the Athens Republican’s run for governor in 2018, marking a major rebuke of one of his strongest allies in the state shortly before the president is scheduled to hold a rally in Georgia on Saturday.

Kemp’s office said the governor supports scrutinizing a sample of absentee-ballot signatures for any irregularities, but that state law bars him “from interfering in elections” or taking control over oversight actions done by Raffensperger, who is an elected official.

Election officials in Georgia have repeatedly dismissed claims from Trump and his allies of widespread absentee-ballot signature fraud as unfounded, noting the push to match signatures again without a court order is unlikely since mail-in voters’ signatures were verified before the initial count on Nov. 3.

Official election results that were certified last week show Trump lost to President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia by 12,670 votes, a lead that was trimmed by around 1,500 votes earlier this month after officials conducted a hand recount of more than 5 million ballots cast in the state’s presidential contest.

Two federal lawsuits have been filed so far by Trump allies seeking to force election officials to re-verify voter signatures statewide and halt the election results from reaching the Electoral College.

One suit, filed by Atlanta attorney and vocal Trump supporter Lin Wood, was rejected by a federal judge on grounds it contained scant evidence of any election fraud and would more likely result in disenfranchising millions of Georgia voters. Wood’s attorneys have appealed the ruling.

The second suit, filed late last week by Texas attorney Sidney Powell, accuses Georgia’s new voting equipment of “ballot-stuffing” that allegedly mishandled 96,600 absentee ballots due partly to being compromised by Venezuelan and other foreign actors.

“Georgia’s election officials and poll workers exacerbated and helped, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the [voting] system to carry out massive voter manipulation by refusing to observe statutory safeguards for absentee ballots,” Powell’s lawsuit claims.

A hearing has been set for Friday to determine whether Powell’s legal team can inspect voting machines in Cobb, Gwinnett and Cherokee counties.

Georgia’s chief election manager, Gabriel Sterling, blasted many of the claims found in those lawsuits and circulating on social-media channels as “insanities, fever dreams [and] made-up Internet cabal.”

“It’s like playing a game of whack-a-mole,” Sterling said Monday. “Every time we knock down one, there’s a crazier one.”

Still, Sterling noted election officials have launched investigations in some counties stemming from specific fraud and irregularity complaints, including one claim that more absentee ballots were counted than there were envelopes in Gwinnett County.

In all, Sterling and Raffensperger said officials are working through 250 investigations into election issues opened since the start of 2020, though none so far have suggested any evidence of widespread fraud capable of changing the presidential election’s outcome in Georgia.

Raffensperger’s office is now focusing on allegations of groups attempting to register people from outside Georgia and those temporarily staying in the state like college students for the U.S. Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5.

On Monday, Raffensperger highlighted four groups under investigation for allegedly sending mail-in ballot applications to voters in New York City, encouraging out-of-state college students to swap residences for the election and trying to register a dead Alabama woman to vote in the Georgia runoffs.

“This office will continue to take steps to protect the voting rights of the legally registered voters in this state,” Raffensperger said.