One day before Florida attorney Bill Price attempted to register to vote in Georgia’s upcoming Senate runoff elections, he publicly expressed deep mistrust in the electoral process and the public officials in charge of safeguarding it.
“They stole it already,” Price said at a Bay County GOP meeting that was live-streamed on Facebook shortly after President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. “Each and every one of us should’ve seen it coming. I think we all did see it coming.”
“[President] Trump said it was coming,” a woman is heard off-camera reminding others in the room.
According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, a majority of all voters surveyed — 58% — reported they don't believe there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. But a majority of Republicans surveyed — 77% — reported the opposite. And most GOP respondents said they didn’t think President-elect Joe Biden’s win was legitimate.
After attorney Bill Price encouraged his fellow local Republican Party members to register to vote in Georgia, one woman is heard off-camera asking: “Is this what Democrats has [sic] been doing all this time?”
“Yep,” Price replied.
“And we’re just now catching on to it?” She asked.
A different woman off-camera asked Price: “What county is it?”
“I don’t know. Look it up, I don’t even know what county that is,” Price answered, laughing along with others in the room.
“But anyway, I just think that it’s important that we move to Georgia and we make our voices known and heard and we fight like hell,” Price continued. “Because if we lose the Senate, we’re going to lose this country. If we lose this country, I don’t know what happens to the world. I guess — I don’t know. Look to the end of the Bible.”
After discovering the video, state elections officials launched an investigation and found that Price had actually attempted to register to vote online using his brother’s address in the Atlanta suburb of Hiram in Paulding County, Georgia.
The county's Elections Supervisor Deidre Holden says no one else had tried registering to vote using the address that Price provided to the group.
“It’s unfortunate that people are willing to go to whatever extreme it takes to make sure their candidate wins an election,” said Holden, who's also a Republican. “That’s not right. I don’t care what party you are affiliated with.”
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's office has launched investigations into several groups that officials say circulated mailers and fliers asking some people who were ineligible to vote in the Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5 to register anyway.
Investigations into fraudulent voter registration applications aren't new. Some private, third-party voter registration groups pay people based on the number of applications they submit, said Michael Morley, an elections law expert at Florida State University.
"You’ll see things like they register an entire sports team," Morley said. He says sometimes they'll write the names of celebrities and Disney characters on voter registration forms simply to meet a quota. "In other cases, mistakes could be the result of natural human error.”
Fraudulent voter registration forms almost never lead to illegal ballots cast in any given election, he said.
Voter fraud is extremely rare, and the instances in which someone has attempted to illegally cast a ballot aren't enough to swing an election. Usually, people who are ineligible to vote in a particular state never make it past the registration process, he said. “States are very rigorous in performing the necessary cross checks.”
Still, in recent years, members of both parties have cast doubt on election outcomes in different ways. Morley says their goal, however, is the same: mobilizing voters. “The message being: It’s not just enough to win, but we need to win so overwhelmingly and so convincingly as to prevent the election from being stolen from us.”
On the left, voter suppression (strict ID requirements, gerrymandering, long lines at the polls) and evidence of foreign interference have caused some to question the fairness of a given election.
After Democrat Stacey Abrams lost Georgia's 2018 gubernatorial race, for instance, she refused to concede, claiming widespread voter suppression made the election process unfair.
There was also reluctance on the left to fully accept Trump's presidency in 2016, especially because he lost the popular vote to his opponent Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton. “We’ve come through four years of hashtag 'Resistance' and 'NotMyPresident,'" Morley said.
On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Trump campaign has falsely stated the 2020 presidential election was "stolen." For the last several weeks, he's repeated unsubstantiated claims that widespread illegal ballots were cast in favor of Biden or poll workers had thrown out ballots cast in favor of him when poll watchers weren't looking or that faulty voting machine software subtracted thousands of votes cast for him and added them to Biden's total.
On Monday, Biden secured 306 electoral college votes, surpassing the necessary 270-vote threshold to win the presidency. Still, Trump continued to attribute his loss to widespread voter fraud the next day on Twitter:
"No court has found that any sort of widespread or systemic voter fraud existed," said Michael Morley, election law expert at FSU.
He says he’s concerned about “the aggressiveness with which even a fairly clear-cut election like this was contested.”
Morley says if the outcome had come down to a single state, like Florida in 2000, he'd have far less confidence "that the apparent election night results would be robust enough to withstand a historically unique level of pressure.”
When losing candidates use these issues to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome, it further erodes public trust. In a Gallup survey conducted last year, less than half of respondents — 40% — reported they had faith in the integrity of the elections. Low public trust in the country’s elections has persisted since 2012, the same survey shows.
A greater emphasis on transparency could help restore the public’s faith in elections, Morley said. For instance, elections officials should always ensure poll watchers have a clear view when officials and elections staff are counting ballots and verifying signatures.
“If they are in a position where they can observe the signature comparisons, for example, it makes it a lot harder for people to complain after the fact: ‘We had no idea what was going on. We couldn’t see anything. They could’ve been up to anything,'” Morley said. “To the extent that those types of situations can be avoided in the first place, I think that it can only improve the process.”
Morley says more press coverage about what states have been doing to safeguard their elections could also help restore public faith in the integrity of elections. “The accusations themselves get a lot of press, and then the subsequent clarification about what happened and the subsequent investigation gets a lot less press."
And though there's no legal significance to conceding, it's "symbolically important," Morley said.
Trump's refusal to concede and his subsequent extreme overstatements about election fraud have motivated some of his base supporters to refuse to recognize Biden as the rightful winner.
The Bay County GOP, for instance, passed a resolution last week stating its members would refer to President-elect Biden as “president-imposed” even after he’s inaugurated. (Mitzi Prater, the Republican Party of Florida’s state committeewoman, has stated that she opposes the local chapter’s resolution.)
"That sort of rhetoric, that sort of perspective undermines faith in the electoral process, and again could lead some misguided people into thinking that they need to engage in similar illegal conduct in order to try to even the odds or balance the scales," Morley said. "That’s not the way that a legitimate, stable, electoral process works."