Georgia Governor’s Race Is Epic Showdown Over Voting Rights

This year's election could determine how people vote in Georgia for decades.
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In early 2014, Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D) undertook an ambitious effort to make Georgia’s voter rolls look more like its population.

The New Georgia Project aimed to register 800,000 new minority and young voters within the decade, awakening the sleeping giant of the state’s fast-growing minority communities and giving Democrats like her a chance to compete statewide.

That seemed to alarm her current opponent for governor, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R).

“The Democrats are working hard. There have been these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines. If they can do that, they can win these elections in November,” Kemp warned his fellow Republicans during a closed-door event that July. “Well, we’ve got to do the exact same thing.”

But Kemp didn’t just try to match Democrats’ get-out-the-vote efforts. He used his office to go on the attack, investigating Abrams’ group for voter fraud while slow-walking adding the voters she’d registered to the rolls. Civil rights activists say Kemp has been one of the fiercest voter suppression proponents they’ve dealt with anywhere, and a key player in power consolidation efforts undertaken by Georgia Republicans since they seized control in 2004.

Abrams’ and Kemp’s years-old fight has now hit a crescendo as they fight for the governor’s mansion.

“Kemp and Abrams had been plotting their runs for governor for nearly a decade by the time the 2018 elections rolled around.”

“Brian Kemp is the master of voter suppression, disengagement and democracy by subtraction,” said Francys Johnson, the former head of the state NAACP who’s now running for Congress. “The tension is as stark as it could have ever been in this race.”

This election, like past ones with Kemp, will be fought out in the courtroom as well as at the ballot box. Kemp is already battling a number of lawsuits.

“He has taken advantage of the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act,”Abrams told TPM. “He has used his office to undermine the right to vote for communities of color.”

Kemp’s campaign didn’t respond on-record to numerous requests for comment. The secretary of state’s office ignored multiple calls, but pointed TPM via email to a July statement from Kemp that gives a clear sense of his view of civil rights groups.

“November 6, 2018 is right around the corner, which means it’s high time for another frivolous lawsuit from liberal activist groups. They pulled the same stunt in 2014 and 2016, and it’s no surprise that they’re planning the same tactics this year,” Kemp said.

This fall, Abrams might become Georgia’s first black governor and the first black female governor in U.S. history — or Kemp could ride the wave of right-wing, racially charged populism that’s fueled his career and is animating much of the modern GOP.

Whoever wins will wield immense power, determining whether Georgia Republicans get to gerrymander themselves another decade of control in the state or whether they’ll have to compromise with Democrats on competitive maps. That will dictate whether Democrats can fairly compete in Georgia next decade — or if Republicans will keep their stranglehold on Georgia’s government.

“This is a huge election for Georgia,” said Sara Henderson, the Georgia head of the good government group Common Cause and a former Abrams staffer. “What happens this November will determine the next 20 years of policy here.”

Roots

Abrams grew up in rural Mississippi to civil rights activist parents. She describes her family as the “genteel poor” — highly educated but broke. The family moved to Atlanta when she was a teenager so her parents could attend Methodist seminary. After undergrad at Spelman College she went to Yale for law school, then returned to Atlanta to become a tax attorney for the city.

In 2006 she won a statehouse seat. She rose quickly through the ranks to become House minority leader in 2010, working across the aisle on education while leading other partisan battles.

Stacey Abrams

In 2013, Abrams launched an officially nonpartisan organization to help people sign up for Obamacare. A year later, she shifted its goals to voter registration. The New Georgia Project helped her begin to rebuild Democrats’ base in the state — and build herself a national political and fundraising network.

She credits her family for her longtime focus on voting.

“I’m running a campaign that is engaging the franchise. I learned about this from my parents. My mom and dad were very involved in civil rights and voting rights,” she told TPM.

Kemp grew up down the road from the University of Georgia in Athens, stayed there for school, and married a woman whose father had been the local state senator — a conservative Democrat, back when they still ruled the South.

After making money in agribusiness and real estate, Kemp won a state Senate seat in 2002, defeating a Democratic incumbent in a swing district. Republicans won the governorship and Senate that year and the house two years later, giving them unified control of Georgia for the first time since reconstruction.

They quickly got to work to lock in that power. In 2005, Georgia Republicans passed one of the first, and strictest, voting identification laws in the country, an early salvo in the GOP’s nationwide effort to use false claims of widespread voting fraud to push for strict ID laws that disproportionately affect minority voters.

Kemp voted for that bill, and has aggressively enforced it as secretary of state.

He was more intimately involved in another power grab.

After campaigning against gerrymandering, Georgia Republicans moved to redraw the state’s districts in 2006 to lock in their majorities. Gerrymandering is a bipartisan if unseemly tradition, but this mid-decade redistricting was novel.

Kemp was leaving to run for Agriculture Commissioner, and his brother-in-law Bill Cowsert jumped in for his old seat.

Not coincidentally, the biggest change Republicans made to the state Senate map was to dramatically redraw Kemp’s swing district, carving up his Democrat-heavy hometown of Athens to create a reliably Republican district.

“Kemp and his friends in the state legislature decided to redraw the district,” said Jason Carter, a voting rights attorney who was involved in litigation against the maps. “They did a special redistricting just to change Kemp’s district.”

Brian Kemp

Cowsert easily won the new seat, and is now the GOP’s state Senate majority leader.

Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s grandson, later served in the state Senate and ran for governor in 2014. He said the redistricting effort marked the beginning of Kemp’s years-long push to lock in GOP power in the state by any means necessary.

“His background as a gerrymandering electioneer is longstanding,” Carter said.

Kemp wasn’t out of office long. When then-Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (R) resigned from office in early 2010 to run for governor Kemp was appointed to fill the rest of her term, helping him win election that year.

Then, things got ugly.

In 2010, activists in tiny Quitman, Georgia undertook an absentee ballot push to boost black turnout. That helped African Americans win a majority of seats on the Brooks County education board for the first time in history.

The result shocked many locals — and aroused Republicans’ suspicion.

The local district attorney, whose deputy was one of the white school board members, demanded an investigation. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Kemp’s office proceeded to question hundreds of voters and arrest a dozen activists — all of them black, and three of them newly elected members of the school board.

The state failed to find evidence that the activists had coerced anyone’s vote or committed any voter impersonation. But they kept pushing, arguing that some had still violated the law by helping people fill out their ballots or by mailing in others’ sealed ballots. One woman was prosecuted because she’d helped her disabled and partially blind father fill out his ballot. Another, the sister of a women elected to the school board, faced 33 felony charges — and potentially a century of jail time. After two mistrials and four years of stress, she was acquitted in 2014, ending the investigation without a single guilty verdict.

But the damage was done. Some of those accused lost their jobs. One person died while under indictment. The three school board members were temporarily suspended from their positions. And the investigation sent a clear signal that voter registration drives better be careful.

“The Quitman story reads like something out of the 1960s,” said Rev. Raphael Warnock, the current president of the New Georgia Project and the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.’s old church.

“Civil rights activists say Kemp has been one of the fiercest voter suppression proponents they’ve dealt with anywhere, and a key player in power consolidation efforts undertaken by Georgia Republicans since they seized control in 2004.”

The case wasn’t the only case where Kemp was accused of trying to intimidate black voters. After the 2012 elections, the Georgia State Election Board, which Kemp heads as secretary of state, claimed that a local black official in Douglas County may have violated the law by showing a new voter how to use the county’s electronic voting machine. The board spent three years investigating her, and local officials spent another three trying her on felony charges. She was officially acquitted in 2018. The jury deliberated for just 20 minutes before finding her not guilty.

Gutting The Voting Rights Act

The Brooks County investigation could have been a warning sign for Kemp. Instead, he seemed to take it as a model. And he soon faced fewer constraints.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, kneecapping the federal government’s ability to enforce the law.

Since its passage, the law had forced states with an extended history of voter suppression, most of them in the Deep South, to clear every election change with the federal government, a process known as “preclearance.”

Its mid-2000s reauthorization passed by wide margins in Congress and was signed into law by President George W. Bush. But many southern Republican congressmen fought it because the preclearance formula wasn’t updated.

“214 polling places have been shuttered statewide since — 8 percent of all polling places in Georgia. They’ve been disproportionately in rural, poorer, and blacker counties.”

That opposition was led by then-Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA). He lost the battle but won the war when the Supreme Court agreed with him in a 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder that the formula for which states and localities fell under preclearance was unconstitutional because it hadn’t been updated.

Brian Robinson, Westmoreland’s spokesman at the time, called it his “proudest work ever.”

“We were mocked as racists, right? I did all of the messaging on the anti-Voting Rights Act, I did all of the anti-renewal messaging. No one stood with us, we got called racists, and when the Supreme Court found we were right my language was all over the arguments,” he told TPM.

The result removed the law’s most powerful tool — the federal government’s ability to block voting changes deemed unfair to minorities. In the past, states and localities who fell under pre-clearance had to prove that their changes weren’t discriminatory. Now, the Justice Department has to prove the changes are discriminatory. And rather than deciding internally to block the new laws, DOJ officials now have to take states and localities to court, a much slower and less predictable process. That has often allowed jurisdictions to temporarily enforce their changes while waiting to see if courts ruled against them. It also puts a greater burden on civil rights groups to pick up the DOJ’s slack with lawsuits.

Robinson scoffed at the idea that Georgia Republicans want to suppress the black vote.

“These groups that work on these voting rights issues need fundraising hooks, so when they can find a Republican to demonize they’ll demonize him,” he said. “They made Brian Kemp one of their villains. But I don’t think it reflects his record. I honestly believe that if he set out to suppress the black vote he’s failed miserably, because they’re voting just fine.”

Kemp’s office pointed out that there are now 6.7 million registered voters in the state, up from 5.8 million when he took office in 2010 — a faster increase than the state’s population growth. But it’s unclear whether that registration growth was spurred by anything he did, or renewed voter registration efforts from outside groups.

Kemp also created an online voting registration system and a voter registration phone app, which has processed 200,000 new voters in the last four years.

Republicans also expanded early mail-in voting last decade, allowing voters to cast ballots by mail without having to give a reason and making it easier to vote.

“My policies and my record are very clear that I have made it easier to vote,” Kemp recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We have made the elections process more accessible to people in Georgia, not less, despite their rhetoric.”

But many of Kemp’s other actions undercut that argument.

Shortly after the Shelby County decision, Kemp sent a letter to the counties advising them that this meant they no longer had to check in with the feds before closing down local precincts. That’s led to a rash of precinct and early voting closures.

According to an analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 214 polling places have been shuttered statewide since — 8 percent of all polling places in Georgia. They’ve been disproportionately in rural, poorer, and blacker counties.

Republicans argue those closures are simply cost-saving measures. Democrats vehemently disagree.

That fight is ongoing, and has flared up again this election. But it wasn’t the battle that drew the most attention heading into the 2014 midterms.

Midterm Mayhem And Hurricane Fights

As Abrams geared up for her big voter registration push in 2014, she says she reached out to Kemp’s office to work with them to make sure she was doing everything by the book. Kemp sent staff to help train her organizers.

After receiving a few complaints alleging misbehavior by employees of Abrams’ group, Kemp’s office met with her staff in early summer to work further on best practices.

Over the summer, as her group submitted tens of thousands of voter registrations, Republicans grew increasingly nervous that Abrams’ push would pay immediate dividends. Gov. Nathan Deal (R) and Carter were neck-and-neck in gubernatorial polls, and Abrams’ friend Michelle Nunn (D), the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA), was mounting a credible Senate bid.

In September Kemp suddenly pounced, publicly accusing Abrams’ group of “significant illegal activities” and slapping them with a subpoena. It became Georgia’s largest voter fraud investigation this decade.

“We launched a formal investigation and found significant proof of fraud,” a Kemp spokesman said as the office began its investigation that September. “We need to get to the bottom of this fraud.”

That claim turned out to be mostly bunk, and the investigation came up mostly empty. Just a few dozen voter registrations were found to be potentially fraudulent out of the tens of thousands of applications. Kemp’s own investigator found that while some low-level field staff may have screwed things up, Abrams was not at fault — and there was no conspiracy by organization leaders.

“In 2005, Georgia Republicans passed one of the first, and strictest, voting identification laws in the country, an early salvo in the GOP’s nationwide effort to use false claims of widespread voting fraud to push for strict ID laws that disproportionately affect minority voters.”

But the investigation had a chilling effect, sliming her group’s efforts just before the election and forcing them to spend time and money fighting Kemp’s investigation rather than registering voters.

Republicans think she should be held accountable. But some concede that with a sprawling new project like hers, it’s no surprise that there were issues.

“Anytime you do something like that or a canvassing effort, you’ve got to manage that project very tightly. Even if you manage that project very tightly there could be some issues with it,” said Chip Lake, a longtime Georgia GOP strategist. “I’ve done quite a bit of paid canvassing and paid door-to-door and I can tell you it’s a management nightmare.”

There may be some legitimate issues around the New Georgia Project’s efficiency. But after a major inquisition, Kemp’s office came up empty: The probe was quietly dropped in 2017. Abrams and the group were not charged with any wrongdoing, and while some independent contractors’ work was scrutinized no one was prosecuted.

The New Georgia Project isn’t the only organization Kemp has gone after: He also targeted an Asian-American voter registration group with a three-year investigation starting in 2012 that turned up almost nothing and yielded no charges.

Kemp’s second fight with Abrams had a deeper impact.

Abrams’ group took Kemp to court that fall, claiming that nearly half of the 85,000 potential voters they said they’d helped register that year weren’t on the rolls.

Kemp argued that Abrams’ group was making up that number and claimed they’d processed everyone who’d registered by the voting deadline. A GOP-appointed judge ruled against Abrams, saying the law didn’t force Kemp to process voter registrations by Election Day even if they were submitted before the state’s registration deadline.

In the year after the election, more than 18,000 of those voters were added to the rolls, showing that their applications had been slow-walked.

The problem, say voting rights advocates, lay partly in how Kemp’s office was verifying voter applications — a process known as exact match.

That system checks new registration information against driver’s license, state ID card and Social Security records to make sure the submitted information perfectly matches that in state systems. If even an accent or a hyphen is missing from a name, the application gets blocked.

People got mailed letters giving them just 30 days to figure out what was wrong with their application, without an explanation of what didn’t match. Almost 35,000 voting applications were canceled from 2013-2016 due to exact match problems, two thirds of them from African Americans and just 14 percent of them from white applicants, according to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, which sued Kemp over the process.

Devin Butler spent last summer working as an intern for his aunt Helen Butler’s voter registration group, the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda. But when the 18-year-old from Alpharetta tried to get himself registered, he ran into a problem.

The county claimed his name didn’t match their records. But the letter was addressed to Devon, not Devin.

He was lucky, as it’s often not that apparent what the issue is. And he’s luckier that his aunt is well versed in the law. She had to threaten to file a complaint and present a copy of the original form proving the mistake had been on the registrar’s end before he could get on the rolls, he said.

“If it wasn’t for my aunt it probably would have been a lot longer [fight] and there’s a chance that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to register,” Butler said.

After fighting with civil rights groups for years, Kemp finally reached a compromise that kept him from using parts of the system in 2016. Civil rights groups thought that had resolved the issue for good. But that was not to be.

Kemp also sparred with activists in 2016 over extending the deadline for voting applications for five coastal counties who’d been hit by Hurricane Matthew right before the deadline. Kemp refused, attacking “left-wing activists” for disagreeing.

A judge directed Kemp to let Chatham County, which includes Savannah, to extend its voter registration deadline because it had closed its offices during the storm — but not four other nearby counties.

And during the hotly contested special election to replace Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) in early 2017, during Democrats’ push to find new voters for Jon Ossoff, Kemp tried to shorten the voter registration window by setting the deadline 30 days before the first round of voting. A federal judge ruled that violated federal law.

[ Read more: Can black voters put Abrams over the top? (Prime access) ]

Fights For The Fall — And The Future

Kemp and Abrams had been plotting their runs for governor for nearly a decade by the time the 2018 elections rolled around. But first, they had to win their nominations.

Abrams used her years-in-the-making national fundraising network and reputation as a voting rights crusader to easily defeat Stacey Evans, a white state lawmaker.

Kemp had a tougher challenge. First, he needed to stand out as the most anti-establishment, pro-Trump candidate in a crowded field in order to make the runoff against Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R), the establishment favorite.

He did so by running hard right.

“I’ve got a big truck just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself. Yep, I just said that,” he said in one campaign ad. “If you want a politically incorrect conservative, that’s me.”

Once in the runoff, Kemp’s Trump-emulating campaign and a secretly taped conversation of Cagle disparaging the GOP base put Kemp on the path to victory. It was sealed by an endorsement from Trump, who called Kemp “tough on crime, strong on the border and illegal immigration.”

After years of sparring, Abrams and Kemp are finally facing off for the state’s most powerful position. And while they’ve slightly tempered their rhetoric for the general election, both are running campaigns largely focused on turning out their own party bases.

The court battles have continued as well.

Kemp refused to follow the example set by some past secretaries of state who resigned  to run for higher office to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

And Georgia Republicans have reopened a legal can of worms. In early 2017 the legislature passed a law that essentially codified the exact match practice Kemp had just been forced to modify.

Under the new law, people whose registrations are still pending have 26 months to correct the problem, and get one notice by mail advising them of the issue. They can still vote in-person provided they present a driver’s license or other form of photo ID, something that minorities are less likely to have, or cast a provisional vote and return within three days with valid proof of identification.

“We sued and were successful, and now we have a state legislature adopting a law that essentially puts that rule back into effect,” Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told TPM. “That’s the kind of deep voter suppression we’ve seen across Georgia. They’ve been relentless, and even when they see the writing on the wall they’re willing to face the threat of litigation because even in that interim period the damage is done.”

Other problems abound.

Experts say Georgia’s touch-screen voting system isn’t safe from hackers. Kemp and the legislature refused to adopt systems that include paper ballots in time for the 2018 elections, making it impossible to audit Georgia’s vote to make sure the state’s elections aren’t hacked. A judge recently ruled that it was too late to force Kemp to change before this election, while admonishing him for not doing so earlier.

Abrams’ team is concerned. To minimize worries about both in-person voters getting rejected and concerns about digital-only voting machines, her campaign has sent out more than 1 million absentee ballot applications to likely supporters. She often promotes the state Democratic Party’s voter protection hotline.

And Democrats are on high alert for other problems.

Earlier this year, an outside advisor recommended by Kemp quietly pushed for the black-majority Randolph County to close voting locations.

Civil rights groups found out and raised hell, shaming the county into keeping the poll locations open. Once the story was in the headlines Kemp said he opposed the closures and said he had nothing to do with suggesting them. But Democrats continue to claim he was behind this effort — and many others.

“As we saw in Randolph County a few weeks ago you can beat things back but it’s hard to catch, you don’t know where Brian Kemp has been and who he’s been talking to,” said Henderson, the Common Cause head.

Her group is also fighting Kemp’s regular voter roll purges, which the Supreme Court cleared by allowing a similar law in Ohio. Anyone who hasn’t voted for three years is placed on an inactive voter list, and permanently removed from the rolls if they don’t respond to a mail piece asking them to confirm their voting address within 30 days.

According to the Brennan Center, Kemp’s office has purged 1.5 million registered voters from the rolls since 2012. It’s unclear how many of those were legitimate removals — people who have died, moved out of the state, or are now felons — and how many were improperly removed. Civil rights groups have concerns that as many as 20 percent of those should have been left on the rolls.

In early October, a muck-racking journalist and activist launched a lawsuit against Kemp with the aim of forcing him to reveal whether he’s using a flawed and controversial program designed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) to check whether voters are registered in other states, in order to remove them. Some civil rights groups offered support to the push, though they privately said they didn’t expect it to yield much.

If past is prologue, voting rights advocates could get more October surprises. And the election’s results will have long-term impact.

Georgia’s heavily gerrymandered statehouse isn’t going to flip, meaning that a Kemp victory will give hardline conservatives unchecked power to do whatever they want for the next four years.

“After years of sparring, Abrams and Kemp are finally facing off for the state’s most powerful position.”

Deal, a business-minded moderate, led a bipartisan criminal justice reform push in the state. He’s also blocked some of Republicans’ most controversial legislation, including a push to ban transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice. Kemp supported the bathroom bill, and on the trail has talked up cracking down on gangs and crime, not helping low-level offenders get out of jail.

Redistricting also looms large. For the first time since the Voting Rights Act passed in the 1960s, Georgia won’t have to get pre-approval from the federal government for its maps. It’s unlikely the Trump DOJ will push any other lawsuits either.

That means that even if maps are are an obvious racial gerrymander, the only recourse for civil rights groups will be to sue — an unpredictable process in which the maps are often used for a number of elections before they’re forced to be redrawn, if they’re every thrown out at all.

“It’s frightening,” said Clarke, the head of the Lawyers Committee. “We’ve seen voter suppression unleashed since the Shelby County ruling and sadly I expect those efforts will intensify as we move into the 2020 redistricting cycle.”

But an Abrams win will give Democrats a clear check on that process — and a chance to block other controversial laws as they look potentially compete for control if fairer maps are put in place.

And for the first time in a long time, Georgia Democrats are hopeful that a change is going to come.

“He’s made it harder, more difficult for people to register and vote,” Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a civil rights legend and Abrams backer, told TPM. “I think she’s going to prevail in spite of everything. The people of Georgia are ready.”

 

This story was updated at 9:20 p.m. to more fully explain the state’s exact match law.

 

Cameron Joseph is TPM’s Washington, D.C.-based senior political correspondent.

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