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Georgia Elections Official Responds To Bills That Would Make Voting Harder

Mar 9, 2021
Originally published on March 9, 2021 10:42 am

Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling gained national attention a few months ago by pushing back against President Donald Trump's false claims of voter fraud.

But Republican state lawmakers in Georgia, inspired by those falsehoods, have introduced a handful of bills that would increase barriers to voting for some people.

Georgia is among 43 states that are considering similar legislation, according to the Brennan Center.

Sterling, a Republican who is now the chief operating officer for the Georgia secretary of state's office, says some of the measures backed by Republican Georgia state lawmakers go too far.

But he argues that many of the proposals could end up helping elections administrators.

There was no widespread fraud in Georgia, he says, but there were small numbers of double voting, out-of-state voting and voting by felons. Rules involving photo IDs could make things easier for elections workers, he says.

"In a state like Georgia, where the election is getting closer and closer, every vote's going to count," Sterling says. "And anything we can do to make the system more secure and provide confidence to everybody, that's the kind of things that we need to be focusing on."

Sterling talked with NPR's Scott Detrow on Morning Edition about the proposals under consideration and why he opposes the Democrat-backed voting rights bill that passed the U.S. House last week.


Interview Highlights

One proposal would eliminate no-excuse absentee voting and add voter ID requirements for absentee voting. This is being characterized by many voting rights groups as nothing more than a response to the fact that Democrats won Georgia Senate races and the presidential race last year and that Democrats used absentee voting more than Republicans. Are they wrong?

In part, they're probably wrong. I mean, let's face it, the voter suppression argument used by Democrats has been wildly aggressive and very useful for them for voter turnout, because you tell somebody, "Hey, they're taking something from you," you go out and do it.

Some of the things we're doing with voter ID, it really is a more secure way to vote, but also it's easier for the counties to administer. It's a lot easier to train somebody to look at an ID number [than to match signatures]. And we have driver's license numbers on 97% of our voter records here.

And one of the things we heard before was when we introduced voter ID so many years ago, it was going to disenfranchise African Americans. It didn't happen. In fact, African Americans, by and large, prefer to vote in person. Even during the middle of a pandemic, 75% of Georgians voted in person and not by absentee. And I think what we're going to see is a majority fall back into voting in person. Because that's what we historically see.

Another bill that has gotten a lot of attention would standardize early voting across counties. This would lead to more early voting days in many smaller rural counties, but it would cut back voting opportunities in bigger population centers, places with more Black voters, more Democratic voters. In your mind, does uniformity mean equal access?

I think uniformity means that if I live in a rich county and I'm an African American, I should have the same access, ability to early vote, [as if I lived in] a poor county and I'm an African American or I'm white or I'm a Republican or I'm Democrat. No county should have an advantage.

Why not leave that up to local election officials knowing what their county can handle in terms of early voting?

What we saw in many cases is these poor counties can't afford it. They're stretched right now at just the current three weeks. We have counties that are so small their elections director is a part-time employee working for 24 hours a week so that their county could avoid paying them benefits. And they're having to meet the same level as Fulton [County]. And that's just not fair.

How does the country fix a system where there are many people who think that an election they lost is by definition a corrupt election?

I think it's going to take time and people being responsible adults in the room. It used to be if you lose, you stand up and you say, "We lost, we're going to come back in two years and do it again." And I'm not sure the best way to do some of these things. I mean, I'll say one thing. HR 1 is not the way to do it, because that's basically setting the other side on fire.

This is a bill that just passed the U.S. House of Representatives. It would require automatic voter registration, restoring voter rights to people with felony sentences, a reversal of state voter ID, among other things.

It does a lot of things that are against the laws of most states. ... It basically makes the voter ID system we've had in place very nearly illegal.

And then the biggest thing to me is it nationalizes election administration. One of the big advantages we have from a security standpoint is that you have 50 different states running elections, which really diffuses the system out. By centralizing the ideas and the laws, it's going to make it easier for those who do want to game the system to attempt to do it. They didn't talk to election administrators about this. They talked to other politicians about this.

You can tell I get a little irritated because we're painted with this brush because some of us speak with heavier Southern accents than others, that this is all being done for racist intent and for political purposes. We are really, really good at voting in this state. We don't need anybody from D.C. coming to tell us to do it any more than Delaware, California, Oregon or Kansas do.

Barry Gordemer and Steve Mullis produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Democrats control the U.S. Senate and also control the White House in large part because of victories in Georgia. The state is now once again front and center in politics, this time in the battle over the future of voting rights. At least six bills dealing with voting, many of them increasing barriers and limiting access to the polls, advanced in Georgia's state senate yesterday. One person watching all of this closely is Gabriel Sterling.

GABRIEL STERLING: There's no such thing as a perfect system. And we obviously need changes to help election administration. Some of these are in response - some of these bills are never going to see the light of day. They're done. And human beings have a tendency to overcorrect for the errors they perceive that they see. There's a lot of good things in a lot of these bills that get buried in the flashpoints that people want to focus on.

DETROW: Sterling, a Republican, was Georgia's voting system implementation manager during the 2020 election. Those flashpoints he mentioned are, by and large, the false claims by President Trump and other Republicans that there was widespread voter fraud. Sterling gained national attention for refuting those falsehoods. Last December, during an emotional news conference, he directly appealed to Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STERLING: Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone's going to get hurt. Someone's going to get shot. Someone's going to get killed.

DETROW: About a month later, Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Five people died. Sterling is now the COO of Georgia's secretary of state's office. I spoke with Gabriel Sterling yesterday, and I asked him if he maintains that there was no widespread fraud, even though he agrees that there needs to be changes to the way Georgia votes.

STERLING: Well, obviously, there was never any widespread voter fraud, at least in this state. But we did have instances of things where there was double voting, out-of-state voting, felons voting in small numbers. But in a state like Georgia, where the election is getting closer and closer, every vote's going to count. And anything we can do to make the system more secure and provide confidence to everybody - that's the kind of things that we need to be focusing on.

DETROW: I'd like to talk to you about some of the proposals that are getting a lot of attention. One of them would eliminate no-excuse absentee voting and add voter ID requirements for absentee voting. This is being characterized by many voting rights groups as nothing more than a response to the fact that Democrats won Georgia Senate races and presidential race last year and that Democrats used absentee voting more than Republicans. Are they wrong?

STERLING: In part, they're probably wrong. I mean, let's face it. The voter suppression argument used by Democrats has been wildly aggressive and very useful for them for voter turnout because if you tell somebody, hey, they're taking something from you, you go out and do it. Some of the things we're doing with voter ID, it really is a more secure way to vote. But also, it's easier for the counties to administer. And we have driver's license numbers on 97% of our voter records here, one of the highest in the country - makes it more secure and easier. And it makes it binary. It is objective. So that's one of the ways to do that because you have to show an ID to vote in person. You should have some kind of identification number to vote through paper ballots and absentee.

DETROW: Let's shift to another bill that's gotten a lot of attention. It would standardize early voting across counties. This would lead to more early voting days in many smaller rural counties, but it would cut back voting opportunities in bigger population centers, places with more Black voters, more Democratic voters. In your mind, does uniformity mean equal access?

STERLING: I think uniformity means that if I live in rich county and I'm an African American, I should have the same access to a ability to early vote if I live in a poor county and I'm an African American, or I'm white, or I'm a Republican, or I'm Democrat. No county should have an advantage. Making it standard across the state means everybody have a fair and equal chance and opportunity to vote.

DETROW: Why not leave that up to local election officials, knowing what their county can handle in terms of early voting?

STERLING: Well, what we saw in many cases is these poor counties can't afford it. They're stretched right now at just the current three weeks. We have counties that are so small, their elections director is a part-time employee working for 24 hours a week so that their county can avoid paying them benefits. And they're having to meet the same level of - as Fulton. And that's just not fair.

DETROW: You've said in other interviews that you want a guiding principle to be do no harm with these changes.

STERLING: Yes.

DETROW: A lot of people all across the country - you saw NBA stars like LeBron James raise this concern in a high-profile way in recent days - are worried that a lot of these changes would specifically hurt Black voters in Georgia.

STERLING: I think the laws apply equally to everyone. And one of the things we heard before was when we introduced voter ID so many years ago, it was going to disenfranchise African Americans. It didn't happen. I mean, like I said, a lot of this stuff has nothing - in fact, African Americans, by and large, prefer to vote in-person, early or on Election Day, even in the middle of a pandemic. Seventy-five percent of Georgians voted in person and not by absentee. And I think what we're going to see is a majority of that 25% percent that did vote absentee fall back into voting. That's what we historically see. So no, I don't perceive that right now. I know that that's a good way to raise money for people like Stacey Abrams. But I think the reality is this is about better administration, increasing confidence and making a already secure system that much more secure and also give peace of mind to people on the left and the right.

DETROW: And you think that they're, as you put it, overblowing it, even when you look at this in the context of the long history of voter suppression efforts in the South across the country?

STERLING: Well, there was obviously voter suppression and flat-out Jim Crow stuff '60s through the '70s and everything. But in the modern era, the claims of voter suppression in 2018 in Georgia were false. The claim of voter fraud in 2020 were false. They're both false, and they're both being done for political gains.

DETROW: Let me ask a broad question to you from your unique viewpoint to all of this. Collectively, how does the country fix a system where there are many people who think that an election they lost is, by definition, a corrupt election?

STERLING: I think it's going to take time and people being responsible adults in the room. There - if you still poll Democrats, there is a large percentage, if not a majority, that believe that voting machines were hacked, and votes were flipped to give the election to Donald Trump by Russians. No evidence any of that happened, but there's still a strong belief that happened. 2020, you had a lot of claims of voter fraud, a lot of belief of that, no actual proof of that. It used to be if you lose, you stand up, and you say, we lost. We got our tails whipped. We're going to come back in two years and do it again. And I'm not sure the best way to do some of these things. I mean, I'll say one thing. HR 1 is not the way to do it - just basically setting the other side on fire. I mean...

DETROW: This is the bill that just passed the U.S. House of Representatives that would require automatic voter registration, restoring voter rights to people with felony sentences, a reversal of state voter IDs, among other things.

STERLING: That's not all it does, though. It does a lot of things that are against the laws of most states. I mean, like, we already restore felon rights automatically when you go about your sentence.

DETROW: So what's your biggest objection?

STERLING: It basically makes the voter ID system we've had in place very nearly illegal. And then the biggest thing to me is it nationalizes election administration. One of the big advantages we have from a security standpoint is that you have 50 different states running elections, which really diffuses the system out. By centralizing the ideas and the laws, it's going to make it easier for those who do want to game the system to attempt to do it. They didn't talk to election administrators about this. They talked to other politicians about this. You can tell I get a little irritated because we're painted with this brush because some of us speak with heavier Southern accents than others, that this is all being no racist intent and for political purposes. We are really, really good at voting in this state. We don't need anybody from D.C. coming to tell us to do it any more than Delaware, California, Oregon or Kansas do.

DETROW: Gabriel Sterling with the Georgia secretary of state's office, thanks so much.

STERLING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.