In 2016, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina praised the integrity of the nation’s elections system, criticizing claims by Donald J. Trump that the vote was “rigged.”
“Like most Americans, I have confidence in our democracy and our election system,” Mr. Graham said in a statement on Twitter. “If he loses, it will not be because the system is ‘rigged’ but because he failed as a candidate.”
What a difference four years makes.
Mr. Graham, who has transformed during that time to become one of Mr. Trump’s most loyal allies, now seems determined to reverse the election’s outcome on the president’s behalf. On Friday, he phoned Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state of Georgia and a fellow Republican, wondering about the possibility of a slight tinkering with the state’s elections outcome.
What if, Mr. Graham suggested on the call, according to Mr. Raffensperger, he had the power to toss out all of the mail-in votes from counties with high rates of questionable signatures on ballots?
In an interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Raffensperger said he was stunned that Mr. Graham had appeared to suggest that he find a way to toss legally cast ballots.
“It sure looked like he was wanting to go down that road,” Mr. Raffensperger said of the call from Mr. Graham, the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Graham seems bent on making every attempt to engineer a second term for Mr. Trump, despite President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s clear victory. The senator has suggested that this year’s vote represents the Republican Party’s last gasp, unless something is done to reverse the current state of election operations — the same system he praised in 2016.
“If Republicans don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again,” Mr. Graham said on Sunday on Fox News.
The phone call to Mr. Raffensperger was one in a string of episodes in which Mr. Graham, who won his own re-election bid this month, has tried to cast doubt on the presidential election’s outcome, demanding that Mr. Trump not concede the race to Mr. Biden despite the Democrat’s decisive Electoral College victory — 306 to 232 electoral votes.
Legal experts said it was doubtful that Mr. Graham’s actions, which were open to interpretation, could lead to criminal charges or that they represented a violation of Senate ethics. Still, it appeared that Mr. Graham had stepped over an ethical line.
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, called Mr. Graham’s overtures to state officials “deeply shocking and anti-democratic.”
“This was Senator Graham as a partisan supporter of President Trump trying to drum up votes for him, but using his position to do that,” Mr. Bookbinder said. “It does seem both unusual and deeply improper.”
A longtime advocate of states’ rights, Mr. Graham had interjected his Senate voice into a role historically delegated to states — administering elections.
In an appearance last week on Fox News, Mr. Graham claimed that Nevada’s vote-counting system had failed to verify signatures because the software was turned off, an accusation that had been refuted.
In Clark County, for example, a signature verification machine processes about 30 percent of the mail ballots and the rest were hand-checked by elections workers, according to Dan Kulin, a spokesman for Clark County, the state’s largest.
The Nevada Supreme Court had also rejected allegations by Republican lawyers who filed a variety of vague claims asserting that observers did not have sufficient access to view the vote counting process.
On Tuesday, Mr. Graham’s office said he had raised concerns about vote counting in Georgia as well as in Arizona and Nevada “as a United States senator who is worried about the integrity of the election process nationally, when it comes to vote by mail.”
Mr. Graham said on Tuesday that in addition to calling Mr. Raffensperger, he had also contacted Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, also a Republican, to discuss election issues. Mr. Graham said he could not remember whom he had spoken to in Nevada.
The vote was close in all three states but finally came down in Mr. Biden’s favor. And in all three, Republicans, picking up on Mr. Trump’s repeated false claims that elections are “rigged,” have raised various questions about election operations, in some cases even before the results arrived.
In Georgia, where Mr. Biden now leads by about 13,000 votes, Mr. Raffensperger’s office ordered an unusual statewide hand recount of the more than 4.9 million votes cast after a request from the Trump campaign. Final results of that recount are expected on Wednesday.
Georgia has also become a focal point of national politics, with two incumbent Republican senators facing runoff elections in January that will decide control of the Senate.
For his part, Mr. Graham has said the allegations that he tried to interfere in Georgia’s election process are “ridiculous.”
“What I’m trying to find out was, how do you verify signatures on mail-in ballots in these states that are the center of attention?” he said on Monday on CNN. “So, like, when you mail in a ballot, you’ve got to have some way to verify that the signature on the envelope actually matches the person who requested the ballot. It seems to me that Georgia has some protections that maybe other states don’t have, where you go into the portal to get your ballot. But I thought it was a good conversation. I’m surprised to hear him characterize it that way.”
Gabriel Sterling, a deputy to Mr. Raffensperger who sat in on part of the call with Mr. Graham, told CNN that the conversation involved a discussion of absentee ballots and whether “if there was a percentage of signatures that weren’t really truly matching, is there some point we could get to — we could say, somebody went to a courtroom could say, ‘Well, let’s throw all these ballots because we have no way of knowing because the ballots were separated.’”
Mr. Graham’s suggestion seemed to be based on the fact that, in the continuing recount, it is impossible to reverify the signatures submitted with absentee ballots.
Under Georgia’s absentee ballot procedure, which is similar to the one used in many other states, the signatures on absentee ballot envelopes are verified when they are received by election officials. Then the ballots and envelopes are separated to protect the privacy of the voter’s choice.
Those envelopes are retained for two years, but there is no way to rematch them with the ballots they contained.
An official with the Georgia secretary of state’s office said that ballots that are rejected because signatures do not match generally make up less than two-tenths of a percent of the total votes. By law, voters are contacted and notified of the problem so that they may take steps to resolve it.