A Sketchy Trump Appointee At Census Is Involved In Wacky GA Election Lawsuit

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/03/20: In this photo illustration, U.S. Census 2020 materials received in the mail with an invitation to fill out census information online since field work has been suspended because of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo Illustration by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/03/20: In this photo illustration, U.S. Census 2020 materials received in the mail with an invitation to fill out census information online since field work has been suspended because o... NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/03/20: In this photo illustration, U.S. Census 2020 materials received in the mail with an invitation to fill out census information online since field work has been suspended because of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo Illustration by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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December 3, 2020 11:08 a.m.

A top Trump-appointed Census Bureau official who was installed this summer under controversial circumstances is also serving as an expert for a Georgia lawsuit seeking to stave off the President’s defeat in the state.

Ben Overholt — who, earlier in the administration, was discussed as a potential hire for President Trump’s bogus voter fraud commission — filed an affidavit in support of the state court lawsuit, which dubiously alleges that there are enough anomalies within the ballot data to justify “decertifying” Georgia’s results.

The lawsuit, filed on Monday, echoes several unsubstantiated claims that President Trump and his allies have made about supposed discrepancies in the election. 

Overholt, the Bureau’s deputy director for data, “conducted this work on his personal time and in his capacity as a private citizen,” the Census Bureau said in a statement to TPM.

“Dr. Overholt cleared his participation with career ethics officials at the Department of Commerce Office of General Counsel. Dr. Overholt did not use Census Bureau or Department of Commerce resources to perform his work,” the Bureau said. 

Nevertheless, Overholt’s involvement in the increasingly bonkers legal campaign to try to muck up the election results will add to the scrutiny that has already arisen around his and other recent appointments to the Census Bureau. The Census Bureau, under earlier administrations, has strived to insulate itself from political influences. The Trump administration’s move to create new top roles at the Bureau and then fill them with officials with partisan entanglements has raised concerns about the pressure being placed the Bureau.

Overholt’s affidavit — which identifies him as a seven-year civil servant, but doesn’t mention his current gig at the Census Bureau — focuses on an already-debunked allegation about Georgia’s mail ballot rejection rates.

Overholt claims that thousands of mail ballots — enough to change the results of the election — should have been rejected. He bases that argument on the fact that Georgia’s rate of ballot rejections for signature issues was lower in the November election than it was in prior elections.

The affidavit takes issue with the analysis that Georgia Secretary the State’s Brad Raffensperger’s office has done to compare the election’s rejection rates to previous ones. The lawsuit uses Overholt’s assessment to claim that the drop in the rejection rate is actually more “dramatic” than what has been previously said, and argues that a court should undo the steps that have been taken to formalize the results so that claims put forward in the lawsuit can be investigated.

There are plenty of other explanations for why rejection rates went down in Georgia during the general election. Overholt’s affidavit never explains why he assumes the gap in rates means that those ballots should have been rejected. 

For one, there was a massive public education campaign, as the pandemic’s impact on voting became known, informing voters that they could fix ballots that stood to be rejected due to signature mismatch. Furthermore, political parties played a far more active role in assisting voters in this “curing” process than they had in previous Georgia elections.

Overholt’s analysis makes “a substantive leap that is wholly unsupported,” said Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law professor who was a top official in the Justice Department Civil Rights Division under President Obama.

“There’s no reason to assume that the error rate would be the same as any specific prior election, if voters actually changed their behavior in reaction to external context,” Levitt told TPM in an email. “He’s got to present a reason to believe that the error rate should have stayed the same before his conclusion has any validity at all.”

Overholt’s installation at the Census Bureau was one of four questionable appointments the administration made this year at the Bureau, part of a personnel makeover that doubled the number political appointees the agency typically has. In the months before and after these political appointees were seeded at the Bureau, the administration has made drastic changes to its plans for the survey that appeared aimed at ensuring that Trump could try to manipulate the data in a way that would boost Republicans’ electoral advantages. 

Some of the appointees came to the Bureau after having done explicitly partisan work for Republican-linked causes. Overholt was shifted over to the Bureau from the Justice Department, where he did statistical work that the Bureau touted in its August statement announced his appointment.

At the time of the announcement, the Guardian and NPR, citing emails released in the litigation around the voter fraud commission, reported on an unsuccessful effort to bring him on to the panel.

One of the panel members, Christy McCormick — a voter fraud alarmist who overlapped with Overholt at the DOJ before being appointed to her current role at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission — said in an email at the time that her conversations with Overholt made her “pretty confident he is conservative (and Christian, too).”

The commission’s vice chair, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, also sang Oberholt’s praises in an email that referenced an “analysis” Overholt performed related to Kansas after watching a Kobach television hit.

An undated letter from Overholt to Kobach, surfaced by NPR, said that Overholt had “heart-felt concerns about voter fraud” and that the commission could use “experienced and politically honest scientists” like himself. 

Overholt’s affidavit in the Georgia lawsuit said that he was offering his expertise because it was based on his “experience” and because of his “personal interest in the matter,” and that he was “qualified to do so.” It also noted his five years of experience reviewing election data for the Justice Department’s “Voting Rights Section” — flubbing the name of the section, which is called the “Voting Section.”

Read the lawsuit below:

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