Georgia election official recalls death threats after Trump refused to concede

After former president Trump's notorious call with Georgia's Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Gabriel Sterling says he and other officials received violent threats

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On January 2, 2021, four days before the deadly attack on the US Capitol, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger received a desperate call from Donald Trump, the president at the time.

In the now infamous hour-long call, which Mr Raffensperger recorded, Mr Trump not only threatened the official, but he also begged him to “find 11,780 votes” — enough for him win the state in the already concluded 2020 presidential elections.

His accusations of election malfeasance and vote tampering set off multimillion-dollar recounts in several states, including Georgia, and would ultimately lead to the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, which directly preceded the Capitol riot.

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I thought that... Secretary Raffensperger did a very good, respectful job of dealing with somebody who was not on the plane of reality
Gabriel Sterling

On the anniversary of the attack, The National sat down with Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, a lifelong Republican and one of the former president’s most vocal critics.

“At first, I was really upset not to be part of that call,” Mr Sterling said.

Speaking from the rotunda of the Georgia state capitol in Atlanta, Mr Sterling said that once he heard Mr Raffensperger’s record of the call, he changed his mind.

“I thought that [state’s attorney] Ryan Germany and Secretary Raffensperger did a very good, respectful job of dealing with somebody who was not on the plane of reality when it came to came to the election,” he said.

Mr Sterling, who has recently been questioned by the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack, said that he does not think that he would have been able to keep a cool head on the call.

“I don't know if I could have contained myself as much because I was still pretty angry about a lot of the stuff I had been going through the previous month,” he said.

A campaign of harassment that included threats of violence against both Mr Sterling and Mr Raffensperger and his wife started on November 9, 2020, after both sitting Republican senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, lost their elections to Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

After Mr Perdue and Ms Loeffler called for the secretary’s resignation and fuelled Mr Trump’s claims of a stolen election, cars circled Mr Raffensperger’s house, his son’s residence was broken into, and his wife received “sexualised threats”.

Pictures of Mr Sterling’s home along with his address were posted online and intimidating emails became a regular occurrence.

“The secretary and I, we kind of put ourselves out there … we're going to get threats like that. It's not right, but it's not to be unexpected in the world we live in,” he said.

But the tipping point for Mr Sterling was a tweet directed at an election worker.

“I saw the tweet that had the little swinging noose in it and said, ‘May God have mercy on your soul’ and named the young man,” Mr Sterling said. “They tracked down family members of his, too. I guess at that point I said, this is all gone too far. And of course, on January 6, the worst outcome of that came true.”

In December 2020, Mr Sterling, who voted for Mr Trump in 2016, held a press conference at the Georgia capitol and pleaded with Mr Trump to “just stop”, condemning fellow Republicans Mr Perdue and Ms Loeffler for their actions.

“Mr President, you have not condemned these actions or this language,” Mr Sterling said at the Georgia state Capitol.

“Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions. This has to stop. We need you to step up. And if you’re going to take a position of leadership, show some.”

While pedalling his stolen election theories, Mr Trump accused a Fulton County, Georgia, election worker, Ruby Freeman, of throwing away thousands of ballots, even showing security footage of Ms Freeman and others working during the recount at rallies across the country.

“She was terrorised … she had people coming to her house,” said Mr Sterling.

Trump backer Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, even sent a publicist to Georgia to threaten Ms Freeman and her daughter into admitting that they broke the law.

“Me even saying the words right now just sounds so ludicrous that it has to be part of a bad movie plot … but her life and her daughter's life, Shay, were both wildly affected.”

The threats of violence became so extreme that both have been forced to move several times, and one of the men arrested at the US Capitol on January 6 had Ms Freeman’s name on what prosecutors are calling a “hit list”.

Mr Sterling said that Ms Freeman and her daughter are seeking some sort of recompense following the false accusations and the consequent upheaval in their lives.

“[Mr Trump] had many people around him telling him, none of this is true, and he chose not to listen to them, because it's not what he wanted to hear; it's not what leaders are supposed to do,” Mr Sterling said.

“And he kind of, you know, for lack of a better word, crapped over his own legacy by doing what he did at the end of it, and then really damages my party in future elections in this country by undermining it.”

Fuelled by Mr Trump's claims of electoral fraud, the Georgia state legislature has introduced a law that imposes new limits on voting, including the distribution of water or food to people waiting in long queues at polling places.

Critics of the law say it disproportionately affects black and brown voters, who traditionally vote Democrat.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is a congressional bill named after a late Georgia congressman that is designed to strengthen the federal government's ability to respond to voting discrimination.

Mr Sterling expressed reservations over such legislation because he believes that it creates nationalised elections and eliminates voter identification laws from which his state has benefited.

“John Lewis was a hero … an icon and a lion of his generation. This final bill the bears his name, it does things that I think are not going to be long-term helpful to people's faith in elections because it can be nationalising elections,” said Mr Sterling.

“If you start standardising the rules across every state boundary and doing a one-size-fits-all, you're going to raise costs, you're going to actually make it more difficult for people to actually vote.”

Under Mr Raffensperger’s provision, a person who has not voted in two general elections can be declared inactive and consequently purged.

In 2019, about 309,000 names — 4 per cent of the state’s electorate — were purged from Georgia’s voter rolls. According to a report released by the ACLU of Georgia, 63 per cent of those voters were purged in error.

Mr Lewis served 17 terms as Congressman in Georgia’s fifth district, which includes the city of Atlanta and Fulton County, the largest in the state. He fought for voting rights his entire adult life, and spoke at the March on Washington in 1963.

Mr Lewis succumbed to cancer in July of 2020.

Updated: January 21, 2022, 7:20 PM
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