Georgia elections official weighs in on bills going through General Assembly

ATLANTA — One of Georgia’s top elections officials is explaining what voting measures he backs, and what he calls ‘egregious,’ amid Georgia’s controversial move to pass new elections laws.

Those laws would limit and change voter options to head to the polls. Opponents call it GOP-led disenfranchisement, while the authors say it heightens security and restores distrust in an election system marred by disinformation.

“The stuff that’s passed now, ain’t what it’s gonna look like at the end of the day,” said Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting systems implantation manager. “And I think cooler heads will prevail and one of the things we’ve really asked everybody to do is start out with the hypocritic oath level-’Do not harm,’ ‘cause in this state it’s easy to register, easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

Sterling played a central role on the national stage in combatting conspiracy theories born of his own party following former President Donald Trump’s November loss. The Republican leader has maintained the path to distrust and disinformation about the state’s election system was concocted by both parties over several years. But he’s spent recent months defending the office against conspiracies led by Trump supporters, making him and his colleagues the target of death threats and conspiracy theorists as prosecutors and his office opened investigations into the former President for election influence.

Officials like Sterling, independent investigators and election monitors assured the public that Georgia had run one of the safest and secure elections in the state’s history , amid the pandemic. Sterling says some of the voting proposals he backs are tied to easing pressure on the people running elections in county offices, while voting rights groups and Democrats call foul.

“I mean we’re rolling back,” said Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr, referring to several proposed measures tied to voting hours and days.

“From one point of view I’m sure it looks to people like ‘you’re rolling back,’” said Sterling. “From another point of view, you say ‘We’re making the playing field level.”

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An example, Sterling says, is the move change early voting periods. While the minimum number of days increases in the latest proposal, it cuts back weekend options, so that counties would not run both Saturday and Sunday options for voters. Sterling says that would benefit county elections offices, particularly those in rural areas, both financially and logistically as they were stretched thin with staffing.

Voting rights groups point out weekend voting is critical to working-class voters, particularly minorities. An original proposal to end Sunday voting drew ire, as those groups pointed out Black voter turnout have thrived through voting rights groups and church-led initiatives like ‘Souls to the polls.’

“It’s a balancing act with all of these things, because they are under-resourced often times,” Sterling said, acknowledging voter and smaller election office concerns. “And we want to make sure people understand where and when to vote, and have people have an equal amount of time and availability to vote, regardless of where they live in the State of Georgia.

While there now appears to be some bipartisan middle ground in making free voter ID easier to obtain through DDS, Sterling isn’t for any proposal requiring a photocopy of the ID for mail-in voting, pointing out no one reasonably carries ID in that form. He does say the state system ID number match instills public confidence that election-worker led signature match verification does not.

Prior to the January Senate runoff, the state order a signature match audit in Cobb County, led by forensics specialists. This followed a lawsuit alleging unfounded fraud tied to the county’s absentee ballots.

“You brought in the GBI in and they found little (evidence), and these were the experts,” Carr said.

“It wasn’t even little. Right,” Sterling answered “They found none. (But) It leaves the impression, potentially, if you don’t do it (an audit) for every single county there’s always gonna be that question of being subjective.”

“An objective measure (number ID match), which we used on the portal and everybody loved anyway-- going back to that for everything makes it a lot easier to execute, a lot easier for election administration and again- takes away the talking point of ‘Oh, a subjective measure could have allowed for fraud.’ It takes away that away all together and doesn’t cause any real obstacle to voting.”

“Is that caving conspiracy theories that we know are just that?” asked Carr.

“Elections administration is not caving to any kind of conspiracy theory,” Sterling answered. “It just makes it easier to train somebody and say look at this number and identify versus look at these signature swoops. It’s just an easier thing to execute.

“So at the end of the day, we’ve been in favor of that since before this election,” Sterling added.

While Sterling said there was ‘probably good intention’ behind voting rights groups that mailed Georgia voters multiple absentee ballot applications and reminders, he supported measures designed to regulate them. Sterling said the reminders confused voters who would request multiple ballots, and created more work for elections offices in the process. Those voting rights groups were at the center of controversial office investigations and criticism leading up to the runoff.

Sterling also said he believed the state would end up keeping no-excuse absentee voting, widely used by Georgians and encouraged by the state during the pandemic.

“I get it,” Sterling said. “There are some things people view as too far. There are some things people view as not far enough. I think there’s people out there that want to get rid of no-excuse all-together.”

" I think the Secretary (of State) said that’s the way to go because it does put a lot of pressure on elections officials right now,” Sterling continued.” I think at the end of the day we’ll probably get to keep no-excuse absentee.”

“Is a felony too far for passing out food and water?” Carr asked, referring to another controversial proposal. “Say we do have the long lines (in 2022).”

“That’s for someone else to figure out,” Sterling said, bouncing back to lawmakers. “That seems a little egregious to me , but I’m just a lowly government functionary.”

Regardless of what passes, Sterling says there will be competing needs between what’s best for elections offices, voters, security and trust. He said the office will work with lawmakers on the ‘best solutions.”

“We followed the law,” he said of the latest elections. “We followed the process. We told the truth.”