In most typical election years, if there is a race for secretary of state in Georgia on the ballot, chances are most voters don’t have a clue about either candidate.
In fact, many voters completely skip voting on that race or just vote down political party lines because they are blankly staring at the names of two people.
Two people they know nothing about.
Two people who many voters believe have absolutely no impact on their future.
Well, this year is a little different.
Many Georgians are interested in the outcome of the Dec. 4 runoff for secretary of state between Democrat John Barrow and Republican Brad Raffensperger because they believe the future of the state’s voting system could be at stake.
Both Republicans and Democrats are closely watching to see who will be victorious.
Just this week, a television ad supporting Raffensperger, a state representative from Johns Creek and the CEO of an engineering design company, warned Georgia voters that “our elections are at risk if liberal John Barrow wins.”
The ad goes a step further by stating that Barrow’s policies would lead to “more illegal voting than ever.”
But Barrow, a former U.S. congressman and an attorney from Athens, is insisting that he wants to make sure every legitimate vote in Georgia is counted.
Specifically, he is pointing to the extremely close race for governor between Governor-elect Brian Kemp and former Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams.
After days of refusing to concede the governor’s race, Abrams finally acknowledged on Nov. 16 that Kemp had won the election with about 50.2 percent of the tally, an edge of nearly 55,000 votes.
However, she didn’t go out quietly.
Abrams, who had hoped to force a runoff with Kemp and eventually become the nation’s first female African-American governor, insisted that “democracy failed Georgia” under the watch of Kemp.
She pointed out that Kemp was the secretary of state for almost a decade and refused to resign from his position even during his race for Georgia governor until after the Nov. 6 election.
“Make no mistake, the former secretary of state was deliberate and intentional in his actions,” Abrams stated in her Nov. 16 announcement in Atlanta. “I know that eight years of systemic disenfranchisement, disinvestment and incompetence had its desired effect on the electoral process in Georgia.”
Abrams also pledged to launch a new voting rights group called “Fair Fight Georgia” because she believes the governor’s race was plagued by widespread voter suppression and voting irregularities.
“So, let’s be clear — this is not a speech of concession, because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper,” Abrams said. “As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede that. But, my assessment is the law currently allows no further viable remedy. Now, I can certainly bring a new case to keep this one contest alive, but I don’t want to hold public office if I need to scheme my way into the post. Because the title of governor isn’t nearly as important as our shared title — voters. And that is why we fight on.”
Kemp quickly responded to Abrams’ comments by thanking his opponent for conceding, but also suggesting voters should look towards the future.
“The election is over, and hardworking Georgians are ready to move forward,” Kemp said in a public statement. “We can no longer dwell on the divisive politics of the past but must focus on Georgia’s bright and promising future.”
All of these comments have caused more people to realize that there is a Dec. 4 runoff for the secretary of state position. Early voting in the election began this week and will run until 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30.
And Barrow, for one, seems appreciative of the attention.
He thanked Abrams for her hard work and dedication to voters during one of the closest elections in Georgia’s history.
“Thank you, Stacey Abrams, for making sure that every vote is counted and that every vote counts,” Barrow posted on his Facebook page on Nov. 16. “Now our job is to make sure that it is as easy for every Georgia citizen to vote as it is for any Georgia citizen. I look forward to working with the Governor-elect as your next secretary of state. Join us in that fight.”
Meanwhile, Raffensperger, whose campaign slogan is “The Conservative Who Means It,” is getting some pretty tremendous support from across the nation, including the White House.
Just this week, President Donald Trump endorsed Raffensperger for secretary of state in one of his many tweets.
“Brad Raffensperger will be a fantastic Secretary of State for Georgia,” Trump tweeted on Nov. 26. “(He) will work closely with (Governor-elect) Brian Kemp. It is really important that you get out and vote for Brad — early voting starts today, election is on December 4th. @VoteBradRaff is tough on Crime and Borders, Loves our Military and Vets. He will be great for jobs!”
DOES YOUR VOTE REALLY COUNT?
For months now, tensions have been escalating over the actions of the secretary of state’s office during this year’s race for governor.
In October, when national news outlets including the Washington Post, the Associated Press, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times began reporting that tens of thousands of voters’ registrations had been placed on a “pending” list in Georgia, people became outraged.
More than 53,000 voter applications were placed on the pending list by the secretary of state’s office and about 70 percent of those on the list were African-American voters, according to an investigation by the Associated Press.
It was revealed that the secretary of state’s office, then led by Kemp, was using a controversial method called “exact match” to verify voter applications.
This “exact match” method can allow for individuals to be purged from voting rolls if their submitted information does not precisely mirror the information contained in the state’s Department of Driver Services database or Social Security Administration information, according to the New York Times.
Kemp responded by explaining that all 53,000 voters on the pending voting lists would still be able to vote on Nov. 6, if they met all the state’s other identification requirements. “Clearly, Stacey Abrams is afraid to run on her record,” Kemp wrote in an email to his supporters. “Instead, Abrams manufactures outrage off a ‘problem’ she created. Abrams uses fear to fund-raise, and liberal billionaires continue to bankroll her corrupt enterprise.”
But this wasn’t the first time that Kemp’s methods were under fire.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also reported that the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office last year canceled 668,000 registrations of voters who hadn’t participated in elections in several years, or who had died, moved or been convicted of a felony.
During a debate by the Atlanta Press Club that was aired in October by Georgia Public Broadcasting, Raffensperger said Kemp was absolutely right to update the voter registration list.
“By keeping the voter rolls updated, we can help safeguard and keep our elections clean so we know that the person who won actually did win,” Raffensperger said in October.
However, in response to the 53,000 voters on the pending voting lists, Abrams stated that, unfortunately, she wasn’t surprised by Kemp’s actions.
“Feels like deja vu: 4 years ago, Kemp tried to keep 40k new voters off the rolls. It took a few years, but we beat him,” Abrams wrote in an Oct. 10 tweet. “A few months ago, he tried to close polling places, but we beat him there too. Now he’s at it again.”
After news spread regarding the 53,000 voters on the pending voting lists, a lawsuit was filed in October by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Campaign Legal Center.
The lawsuit alleged that this “exact match” policy violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, and the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Other civil rights organizations that joined the suit were the Georgia NAACP, the Georgia Coalition for The Peoples’ Agenda, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, New Georgia Project and ProGeorgia State Table.
“Under this ‘exact match’ protocol, the transposition of a single letter or number, deletion or addition of a hyphen or apostrophe, the accidental entry of an extra character or space, and the use of a familiar name like ‘Tom’ instead of ‘Thomas’ will cause a no match result,” attorneys for the civil rights groups wrote in the suit. “It imposes a substantial, unwarranted and disproportionate burden on Black, Latino and Asian-American voters and denies them equal opportunity to register and to vote in Georgia elections.”
Not long after, the Georgia NAACP also filed complaints with the State Board of Elections for possible voter suppression tactics regarding malfunctions of the touch-screen machines in Bartow, Cobb, Henry and Dodge counties.
“We’ve had a steady stream of reported malfunctions of voting machines and refuse to sit idly by while this election is compromised,” NAACP Georgia State President Phyllis Blake said on Oct. 24.
Specifically, the Georgia NAACP had received complaints from several voters on touch-screen irregularities when attempting to select Stacey Abrams as their choice for governor — the machines instead chose Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
In other instances, machines showed ballots being cast before the person actually voted.
The Georgia NAACP had also previously objected to the attempt by Kemp’s office to close seven of nine polling stations in Randolph County, a predominately African-American county.
By this point, the national media was closely watching Georgia, a fact that the NAACP clearly pointed out.
“The recent Rachel Maddow show on voter suppression in Georgia highlighted some of the clear conflict of interest issues surrounding Kemp and his failure to protect the integrity of the vote and democracy in Georgia,” Blake said on Oct. 24. “We just want him to know the world is watching.”
CAN GEORGIA’S VOTING SYSTEM BE HACKED?
While many people were talking about voter suppression throughout the state over the past months, Barrow said one of his biggest concerns was the possibility of hacking, especially after the evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Many experts believe Georgia’s system is hackable.
Georgia is among only five states in the country that depend on an entirely electronic system, making it one of the most vulnerable, according to several state voter advocacy groups.
The issue is, electronic-only systems do not produce a paper trail proving the voter’s choice was honored, the League of Women Voters of Coastal Georgia recently reported.
This specific problem was highlighted in April, when a University of Michigan computer science professor named Alex Halderman made a presentation at Georgia Tech demonstrating how easily someone could tamper with the touch-screen machines used in Georgia elections.
“Four audience members were asked to use one of the machines to cast a ballot in a mock election,” the League of Women Voters of Coastal Georgia reported. “By simply installing a program he had written on a memory card that fits in the side of the machine, Halderman was able to change the results of the vote from a 2-2 split to 3-1.”
Many Georgians fear the same thing could possibly happen across the state.
“A hacker could penetrate Georgia’s computer servers and install a similar malicious program that would be copied on to memory cards used for each of the state’s 27,000 voting machines,” the League of Women Voters of Coastal Georgia reported. “If the program was written to erase itself after the election, no one would know votes had been changed.”
During this year’s legislative session in Atlanta, Republican Sen. Bruce Thompson introduced Senate Bill 403, which sought to replace the state’s voting machines by 2024. But the bill failed because critics disagreed on what specific measures should be taken to safeguard elections.
There was also a dispute over which election technology should be used.
A primarily paper-based system would reportedly cost more than $35 million, while a touch-screen-and-paper system could cost skyrocket to more than $100 million.
Barrow said he is committed to decertifying Georgia’s direct-recording electronic voting machines, which don’t leave a verifiable paper trail showing voters’ intent.
He believes that Georgia’s touch-screen machines are too vulnerable, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.
“They’re not good enough for elections because they can be hacked,” Barrow reportedly said. “What we need is to decertify these machines and move to the process currently allowed by state law, which is hand-marked paper ballots using optical scanners.”
But Kemp insisted earlier this year that the state’s current voting system was “accurate and safe for continued use.”
“I am confident that the current system, which is tested by experts for every election, continues to properly capture and reflect all voters’ choices,” Kemp said in press release.
However, he said the secretary of state’s office was open to improvements in the future.
“To further increase resiliency and update an aging system, I completely support moving to a new system with a voter verifiable paper trail,” Kemp said earlier this year. “My office is on the record that Georgia should aim to have that system in place by the 2020 election cycle. We took the first steps toward this goal with last year’s successful pilot project in Conyers, and that is why I have also formed a bipartisan commission tasked with analyzing the existing options and costs for a new voting system. I look forward to presenting our findings to the General Assembly and Georgia’s next Secretary of State in 2019.”
Ironically, just days before the Nov. 6 election, the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office announced it was investigating a failed attempt to hack the state’s voter registration system by the Democratic Party of Georgia.
“We opened an investigation into the Democratic Party of Georgia after receiving information from our legal team about failed efforts to breach the online voter registration system and My Voter Page,” wrote Candice Broce, the secretary of state office’s press secretary in a November press release. “We are working with our private sector vendors and investigators to review data logs. We have contacted our federal partners and formally requested the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate these possible cyber crimes.”
Two days before the Nov. 6 election, the Democratic Party of Georgia scoffed at the allegations and denied any involvement in the alleged hacking.
“This is yet another example of abuse of power by an unethical Secretary of State. To be very clear, Brian Kemp’s scurrilous claims are 100 percent false, and this so-called investigation was unknown to the Democratic Party of Georgia until a campaign operative in Kemp’s official office released a statement this morning,” the Democratic Party of Georgia wrote in a Nov. 4 press release. “This political stunt from Kemp just days before the election is yet another example of why he cannot be trusted and should not be overseeing an election in which he is also a candidate for governor.”
SO, WHAT DOES EACH CANDIDATE REPRESENT?
With all of the controversy surrounding both the governor’s race and Georgia’s electronic voting system, it’s hard to see what the candidates for secretary of state truly represent.
About a week ago, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution printed two columns by both Barrow and Raffensperger.
It gave both candidates the opportunity to make their case to Georgia voters.
In Barrow’s Nov. 16 column, which was called, “Safeguard access, security of democracy’s sacred rite,” he talked about upholding every Georgia citizen’s right to vote.
“Not too long ago, the Supreme Court wrote, ‘No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a choice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, they must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.’ And there are many ways to undermine the right to vote,” Barrow wrote. “Anything we do that makes it harder than necessary for honest citizens to register, stay registered, or vote undermines their right to vote.”
Barrow said he had a long history of protecting people’s voting rights.
“Throughout my time in public office, I’ve worked to ensure that everyone who is eligible can exercise their right to vote. For example, I voted to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This important law protected the right to vote from small and subtle policies that would make it harder than necessary for some citizens to vote,” he wrote. “I’ve worked to make our elections safe, accessible, and fair — to increase the ease of access and reduce the chance of fraud.”
Barrow said he agreed that the voter rolls need to updated and maintained because it’s “good practice” and federal law requires it.
“But I believe we should update our voter rolls with information that is accurate, like death certificates and change-of-address notices filed by voters themselves, so that honest citizens are not purged by mistake,” he wrote. “Both of these are more reliable and fair than sending out a notice that is easily mistaken for junk mail.”
He said Georgia is long overdue for a new and improved way of casting votes.
“You can’t say that our votes are counted exactly as we cast them if they are recorded on an electronic medium that cannot be read by the voter or by those charged with counting the votes, much less recounting the votes,” Barrow said. “I was the first, and now I’m the only, candidate for secretary of state to call the decertification of our current machines in favor of hand-marked paper ballots and optical scanners in our elections. That’s the gold standard of reliability and security, that’s what other states are doing, and that’s what we should be doing. And I pledge to ensure that every vote is counted.”
In his Nov. 17 column called “Ga. needs fair, open, accurate, secure elections,” Raffensperger insisted that he would work hard to make sure Georgia’s elections are properly run.
“On July 4, 1944, Primus King, a duly registered voter, walked into the Muscogee County Courthouse to cast a ballot in the primary election. He was thrown out into the street,” Raffensperger wrote. “It took almost two years for the Supreme Court to uphold Primus King’s right to vote. What happened to Primus King was a horrible injustice. Regretfully, Georgia’s past is stained with similar injustices.”
Raffensperger said his business experience as an engineering firm’s CEO makes him the most qualified to run the secretary of state’s office.
“As I think about the role of the secretary of state as Georgia’s Chief Election Officer, I step back from the passions and overheated partisan rhetoric of a hotly contested election,” he wrote. “As an engineer, I think about the ‘machinery’ of elections. I think about the process. What can we do to make the process more transparent? What can we do to make the process more accessible? What can we do to make the process more accurate? What can we do to make the process objectively fair? At the same time, I think about whether the results yielded by the process are ones that Georgians subjectively see as trustworthy.”
For Georgians to be able to trust an election, Raffensperger said voters must be able to see for themselves that the process is fair.
“Georgians all agree that we should strive for voter rolls that are clean, up-to-date and accurate. Georgians all agree that registration should be streamlined but maintain accuracy,” he wrote. “Accuracy is not suppression when it is applied with Wisdom, Justice and Moderation. Voter protection is not discrimination when it is applied with Wisdom, Justice and Moderation. Up-to-date and accurate voter rolls are not the enemy of participation when applied with Wisdom, Justice and Moderation.”
As Georgia prepares to change over to a new voting system, the state has a historic, one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a process that is objectively fair which yields an outcome that Georgians can trust, he wrote.
“We don’t need another lifetime politician to tell us that there’s only one ‘right’ way to do something, the way that he’s already decided that it’s going to be,” he wrote. “Rather than saying that I alone have the one and only right answer, I propose to involve nonpartisan expert organizations like the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.”
If the state just jumps into a new system, Georgia could be plagued by some of same voting problems that Florida has suffered from for decades, Raffensperger wrote.
“In contrast, my view is that this election is about using this unique and historic opportunity to create a voting system that is modern, efficient, accurate, secure, safe, verifiable, fair, accessible and trustworthy,” Raffensperger wrote. “As your secretary of state, I promise to you that I will devote myself to creating a system that would be worthy of patriots like Primus King.”
Advance voting in Richmond County will be held through Friday, Nov. 30, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Advance voting locations are at the Municipal Building, Diamond Lakes, Henry Brigham and Warren Road community centers. The runoff election will be held on Dec. 4, when all voting precincts will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, visit augustaga.gov/527/Board-of-Elections.
In Columbia County, advance voting is available daily through Friday, Nov. 30, between the hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in building G3 in the Evans Government Complex Center off Ronald Reagan Drive . Absentee by mail is now available upon written request. For the Dec. 4 runoff, all voting precincts in Columbia County will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, visit columbiacountyga.gov/county/voting-and-results.