Gabriel Sterling, the election manager for the state of Georgia, was the keynote speaker for the seventh edition of the Geneva Democracy Week. He spoke on Monday night in front of a full auditorium at the University of Geneva, in a lecture co-organized by the University of Geneva, Geneva’s Chancellery of State, and the Graduate Institute’s Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy.
Sterling was propelled to fame during the 2020 US elections, after a press conference in which he called out former President Donald Trump to protect the integrity of Georgia’s electoral system. As a Republican himself, he went against partisan politics to push back on the violent threats that accompanied Donald Trump’s request to “find” more Republican votes. These votes would have changed the final results in the state in Trump’s favour.
In opening remarks, Yves Flückiger, Rector of the University of Geneva, said that “to save democracy, we need to improve debates between experts and society”, and pointed at the role of expert platforms to combat disinformation and misinformation. Michèle Righetti, State Chancellor for the Geneva canton, lauded Sterling’s “braveness”, noting that “We often forget that being brave is necessary in politics. We often think democracy here to stay and take it for granted”. Marie-Laure Salles, Director of The Graduate Institute, said that democratic transition – the theme of this year’s Democracy Week – must be understood from international perspective, as it is a transborder issue. She highlighted the importance of safeguarding public trust in democracy, citing Albert O. Hirschman quote that “governments are disciplined through the exercise of voice”.
Sterling began his lecture by recounting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on voting in his state. He noted the logistical effort of moving towards absentee voting in a state where 95% of the population votes in person. This shift, he noted, however forced his team to put new rules in place to avoid cheating: “You want to make it as easy as possible for voters to vote, and as difficult as possible for everyone to cheat”, he recalled.
He then gave a poignant description of how the 2020 election unfolded in Georgia. He lamented that, in the current climate of misinformation and disinformation, the auditing system that had been put in place to prove that the voting machines counted the votes accurately were not trusted. This then prompted a hand count, which matched the voting machine’s count: “This should have killed [any story] about the machines lying or doing anything. But it didn’t.” Instead, claims that Georgia’s electoral system was not transparent grew, along with death threats, started. “Trump knew he was lying”, Sterling said, but his followers continued to believe him. “The concept of the rational voter doesn’t exist. Instead, human beings are rationalizing beings. […] That is one of the problems with democracy.”
Frédéric Esposito, Global Studies Institute, and Shalini Randeria, Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, moderated a discussion with Sterling after the lecture. This included a reflection on his own frustration with the former President as a Republican: “I should not have been in this position. No one should know who I am”. Randeria noted that the theme of “democracy in transition” pointed to transitions within democracies, such as the erosion of trust, rather than towards the western democratic model. Sterling then took questions from the audience.
Links to the interviews with Gabriel Sterling in the Swiss media:
Tribune de Genève
RTS – 19h30
RTS – Tout un monde
READ MORE for other events organised by the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy during Democracy Week.