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Current, Former Secretaries of State Discuss Election Denial at IOP Forum

The Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics hosts Brad Raffensperger, secretary of state of Georgia, and Natalie Tennant, former secretary of state of West Virginia, for Tuesday's post-election forum.
The Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics hosts Brad Raffensperger, secretary of state of Georgia, and Natalie Tennant, former secretary of state of West Virginia, for Tuesday's post-election forum. By Claire Yuan
By Cam E. Kettles, Thomas J. Mete, and Tess C. Wayland, Contributing Writers

Following the 2022 midterm elections, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and former West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant discussed election security, former U.S. President Donald J. Trump, and the politicization of their office at an Institute of Politics forum held Tuesday evening.

Abby Phillip ’10, a senior political correspondent and weekend news anchor for CNN, moderated the panel. Tennant is a voting rights advocate and an IOP fellow, and Raffensperger gained national attention in 2020 when he resisted pressure from Trump to overturn the presidential election results in Georgia. Trump told the Republican Secretary of State he wanted to “find 11,780 votes.”

Raffensperger said he now believes Trump knew he had lost the election in Georgia.

Hours before Trump announced his third bid for the presidency, Raffensperger did not endorse any prominent 2024 Republican hopefuls — including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence — but said he is looking for a presidential candidate “that has character, integrity, honesty, ability to engage in civil discourse, that speaks kindly.”

During an audience Q & A session, Raffensperger also declined to call Trump a “fascist,” saying he tries to “stay away from labeling and using pejoratives.”

“What I will say is that encouraging violence is always wrong,” he said.

During the event, Tennant emphasized the importance of candidates conceding gracefully and setting an example, pointing to Democratic U.S. Representative Tim Ryan’s concession speech in the 2022 U.S. Senate election for Ohio.

“He said that in a positive way,” Tennant said. “This is the way that you concede elections.”

“We just have to keep showing that example,” she added.

Raffensberger said he hopes Republicans deliver conservative policy and ask what young constituents want to see from the party.

“I want your generation back because I believe in conservatism,” he said. “I believe in fiscal sanity.”

Phillip also asked the panelists about Republican pushes to discourage vote by mail and absentee voting during the Covid-19 pandemic as well as voter suppression more broadly. Raffensperger said he “got a lot of blowback” for sending out absentee ballot applications to every active registered voter in 2020.

“Our business is to encourage the voters to vote and to vote for you,” Raffensperger said. “I’ve never been afraid of voters.”

During the panel, Phillip contrasted Raffensberger’s and Tennant’s experiences as secretaries of state. Tennant, Phillip said, “became a secretary of state back when it was boring.”

“People just generally thought it’s Election Day, it’s time to have an election,” Tennant said. “That’s not the case as we know.”

Across the country, secretaries of state have faced new challenges in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. After refusing to bend to Trump’s request to “find” Georgia votes, Raffensberger and his family were threatened by far-right extremists, which he said was “very distressing.”

While Tennant said people are relieved prominent election deniers — such as Nevada secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant and Arizona governor candidate Kari Lake — were just defeated at the ballot box, she warned against complacency.

“We can’t breathe a sigh of relief like, ‘Oh man, we got this. We turned them back. We’re good,’” Tennant said. “No, it always has to be this vigilant.”

With the 2024 presidential election on the horizon, Phillip said America should “make secretaries of state boring again.”

“That’s our goal,” Raffensperger said.

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