Finally, by midafternoon Tuesday, Graham realized he had never spoken to anyone from the Silver State about its 2020 vote. “I didn’t talk to anyone in Nevada. I got briefed about what they do in Nevada. I can’t remember by who,” Graham told reporters in the Capitol.
This is the state of Graham’s solo investigation into election laws in states that President Trump narrowly lost in this month’s election.
Along the way, Graham has turned himself into a lightning rod among state officials who want nothing to do with his probe, while his Senate colleagues try to politely dismiss his stumbling effort as a one-man show that is mostly a distraction.
In an interview Monday with The Washington Post, Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, accused the senator of trying to pressure him into tossing out legally cast ballots. And Tuesday, after Graham mistakenly told reporters he had spoken with secretaries of state in Arizona and Nevada, those officials rejected that assertion.
“I have not spoken to Senator Lindsey Graham or any other members of Congress regarding the 2020 election,” Barbara Cegavske, the Nevada secretary of state, said in a statement. Cegavske and Raffensperger are Republicans.
That raised another question. In what capacity is Graham acting?
“As a United States senator who is worried about the integrity of the election process,” Graham told reporters.
Could any U.S. senator conduct his or her own investigation? “Sure,” he said.
Democrats view this as the latest drift from Graham’s onetime warning to Republicans that a Trump presidency would be “death by being shot” for their party. Instead, Democrats now see Graham as a close presidential confidant who careens from controversy to controversy, conspiracy theory to conspiracy theory, with little to show for his efforts other than attention from Trump and the media.
Old friends and colleagues issued warnings Tuesday that there is a line Graham cannot cross with state election officials.
“If all he’s trying to do is get information, people are entitled to do that. If he’s trying to influence the way they perform their duty, that becomes a bit problematic,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a former state attorney general.
“Without knowing what was said, I can’t tell which is which,” added Whitehouse, who has traveled abroad frequently with Graham on official trips.
Another Democrat put the onus on state officials to blow off Graham.
“The wonderful thing about being a state elected official, as I recall well, is you don’t have to give a hoot what a United States senator says to you,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Blumenthal, who was Connecticut’s attorney general for 20 years, said he received his share of pressure from U.S. senators, particularly when he sued the tobacco industry over its lies to Congress and false advertising campaigns.
“I received some of these calls from U.S. Senators asking me to back down and I said, ‘Well, thanks for the call, but the voters of Connecticut are the ones who hire me.’ So I think these secretaries of state have an obligation of independence,” Blumenthal said.
On Tuesday, Graham said that part of his motivation was to clarify the rules in the upcoming Jan. 5 runoff elections for Georgia’s two Senate seats, which, if both tip to Democrats, would give them the majority next year after Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) are sworn in as president and vice president.
Graham seemed particularly concerned with the signature-matching procedures used to authenticate mail-in ballots.
“Are you going to change the way you do business before these Senate runoffs? … How does it work in Georgia? Is it bipartisan?” Graham said Tuesday, outlining his line of inquiry. “Here’s my bottom line: Any signature-verification system, when it comes to mail-in balloting, needs to be bipartisan.”
Graham went on to say that he has learned that different states handle this in different ways, which has troubled Trump campaign officials.
“Apparently in Nevada, they have a machine that can verify signatures — which I’m okay with,” the senator said, explaining that the Trump campaign has complained about how the machine was set to read signatures.
But he favors Arizona’s process, he said. “They train people in forensics, they have people who look at the signatures,” Graham recounted. “If there’s a dispute, they actually try to call the voter up.”
It’s unusual, but not unheard of, for individual senators to launch their own probes into possible misconduct.
In 2008, after the New England Patriots were caught taping their opponents’ practices, then-Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) launched a solo investigation, in large part because his favorite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, had lost the 2005 Super Bowl to the Patriots and he wanted to ferret out any potential cheating.
Specter’s probe took several years and ended when he lost reelection in 2010. He died in 2012 without ever issuing a report.
In Georgia, state officials showed additional irritation Tuesday with Graham’s intrusion into their world. Gabriel Sterling, a senior staffer in the secretary of state’s office, held a news conference to explain what he heard on the call between Raffensperger and Graham.
“What I heard were discussions of absentee ballots — if there were a percentage of signatures that weren’t truly matching, is there some point where we could go to court and throw out all the ballots,” Sterling said.
Such an action would have disenfranchised many legally cast ballots.
Although Graham is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, election laws have long fallen to the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
Blunt laughed at the suggestion that Graham was interfering with his committee’s jurisdiction. He said he had read every word of The Post’s story outlining Raffensperger’s account and came away with the view that Graham was not really threatening the state officials.
“I wasn’t concerned about that as I looked through it and read it carefully,” said Blunt, a former Missouri secretary of state. “I mean, every senator can talk to anybody who will pick up the phone and talk to them, and any secretary of state should be willing to talk to any senator who calls them.”
On Tuesday, when Harris appeared on the Senate floor, Graham walked over and gave her a congratulatory fist bump.
Graham’s colleagues increasingly saw this latest version of his activities as somewhat farcical, rather than political extortion.
“I don’t know exactly what he is doing. It really depends upon what he said,” Blumenthal said. “But I’m going to certainly presume he was careful to avoid any violation of law.”