Last updated on April 2, 2021
After an election marred by voting problems, Georgia voters will decide in Tuesday’s runoff who should fix them.
One candidate for Georgia secretary of state wants to tackle voter purges, long lines and voting rights. His opponent prefers leaving most elections management to county officials and improving training.
Democrat John Barrow, a former U.S. congressman, said he’d seek both voting fairness and accuracy if elected as the state’s top elections official. He faces Republican Brad Raffensperger, an engineering firm CEO who said he would ensure only U.S. citizens can vote and mostly maintain Georgia’s current election process.
Voting rights became a major issue during this year’s close election for governor that dragged on for nearly two weeks amid confusion over how to count ballots with missing information, voters whose registrations weren’t processed and equipment malfunctions. Georgia’s former secretary of state, Republican Brian Kemp, won the election for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams, whose allies filed a federal lawsuit this week over election irregularities.
Barrow trailed Raffensperger by less than 1 percentage point in the Nov. 6 general election, and a runoff is required because neither candidate won a majority of the votes. Libertarian Smythe DuVal, who has endorsed Barrow, received just over 2 percent of the vote.
Barrow is running as a moderate who said he believes in maintaining Georgia’s photo ID laws but making it more difficult to cancel someone’s voter registration.
And as Mother Jones points out, this is a real opportunity to undo Brian Kemp’s (R. GA) voter suppression legacy:
Barrow, 63, calls himself “the most gerrymandered member of Congress in history.” His personal experience dealing with attempts to manipulate state voting laws led him to run this year for Georgia secretary of state, in a bid to become the state’s top election official. He trailed on Election Day by just 19,000 votes to Republican state Rep. Brad Raffensperger, but because neither candidate won an outright majority, a runoff election on Tuesday will decide the race—and the fate of Georgia’s suppressive voting practices.
“For many years, most folks haven’t put much thought into the office of Secretary of State,” Barrow wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the election’s first round. “But on November 6th, all of us received a civics lesson on the importance of this office.”
He was referring to the controversial actions of Georgia’s previous secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who instituted a series of policies that made it harder to vote while overseeing his own election for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams, which he won by a slim margin. (Two days after the election, amid charges of conflicts of interest, Kemp declared victory—although the race had yet to be called—and stepped down as secretary of state.) That included purging more than 2.2 million people from the voting rolls from 2012 to 2018, putting 53,000 voter registration applications on hold, and advising counties on how to close 214 polling places since the 2012 presidential election. These efforts disproportionately hurt voters of color, and Abrams said that allowed Kemp to “tilt the playing field in his favor.”
Barrow has vowed to reverse Kemp’s voting restrictions. He called Kemp’s voter purging “plainly illegal” and wrote in the AJC, “Any thing we do that makes it harder than necessary for honest citizens to register, stay registered, or vote undermines their right to vote.” He wants to get rid of Georgia’s electronic voting machines, which are vulnerable to election hacking, and replace them with paper ballots. His other immediate priority is to implement automatic voter registration to make it easier for voters to register and stay on the rolls.
In contrast, Raffensperger, an engineer and state representative since 2015, has been endorsed by President Donald Trump and supports Kemp’s restrictive policies. He says Barrow’s election would lead to “more illegal voting than ever,” even though there’s scant evidence of noncitizens voting in US elections. He called Kemp “a man of high integrity,” said he shouldn’t have resigned as secretary of state while running for governor, and dismissed the allegations of voter suppression as “unfounded and unfair.” Despite rampant problems on Election Day, which included three-hour lines in metro Atlanta and a dramatic increase in contested provisional ballots, Raffensperger said there were “actually very few precincts” with voting problems.
Barrow will need the same energy that motivated black voters to come out for Stacey Abrams (D. GA) to help him win. He’s using this race a chance for them to get even about the election being stolen:
In a campaign office 20 miles north-east of Atlanta, he was talking like a high school American football coach in the movies, urging his team to believe in themselves.
He suggested the movies got it wrong; usually the better team won, regardless of what the coach said. “But politics is different,” he noted. “The team that wants it the most, will get it.”
Mr Barrow, a Democrat running to be Georgia’s secretary of state, is desperate to win. Last month, he and his supporters watched as Stacey Abrams and her progressive platform came close to bagging the governor’s race, despite allegations of systematic voter suppression. In a state considered strongly red, she came with one-and-half points of Republican Brian Kemp, the secretary of state, who was also overseeing the election but who refused to recuse himself.
As such, for Democrats, this week’s election for the official in charge of the state’s elections, feels like a chance to get even.
“They want our elections to have integrity, and they know integrity means doing it right without regard to party,” Mr Barrow told The Independent, of the people he had been speaking to.
“They don’t feel like they getting it now. They know they’ll get it with me. In fact, it’s our only chance to get it. They think it’s mighty important, and so do I.”
The centrist 63-year-old Mr Barrow, a former congressman, occupies a different spot on the political spectrum to Ms Abrams, 44, a former minority leader of the state legislature and a successful author of romance novels, who ran a platform that included expanding Medicaid, demanding a living wage, and stricter gun regulations. Had she won the hugely expensive and widely watched contest, she would have been the US’s first African American woman governor.
Mr Kemp, now Georgia’s governor-elect, opposed gun control, supported tougher immigration regulations and proposed introducing the most stringent abortion laws in the nation.
Despite their differences, Ms Abrams has used the power of her increasingly national profile to support Mr Barrow’s effort to give Republicans a bloody nose. In a call with reporters, she said Mr Barrow and Lindy Miller, who is running for the public service commission, were the right people for the job.
Election Day was three weeks in the past, and Kenneth Royal, a 37-year-old salesman who supported Stacey Abrams for governor, could have spent the chilly Wednesday evening at home, putting politics out of his mind.
Instead, Mr. Royal, stung by Ms. Abrams’s narrow defeat, was manning a phone bank, trying to persuade fellow Democrats that the runoff election next week for Georgia secretary of state was not some obscure postscript, but a crucial battle over minority voting rights.
The issue of whether the state’s elections are managed fairly grabbed hold of Georgia in the midterms, and has not let go. Brian Kemp, the Republican who ran for governor while still serving as secretary of state, oversaw voting roll purges, registration suspensions, and an Election Day rife with problems — all of which, critics said, were meant to suppress minority voting.
Like many Democrats around the country, Mr. Royal believes that those tactics worked, and essentially cheated Ms. Abrams out of victory in an excruciatingly close race. And he sees the coming race for secretary of state as a way to set some things right.
“Was it stolen? I think it was,” Mr. Royal said of the election. “What I’m thankful for is that we’ve been able to shed light on what’s been going on for a long time.”
Mr. Kemp and other Republicans brush aside such views as the complaints of sore losers, and say their policies protect the integrity of elections. Mr. Kemp will be sworn into office in January.
Democrats preparing for the runoff, meanwhile, may find it difficult to rekindle the passion that animated Georgian voters for the general election on Nov. 6, when some 3.9 million ballots were cast.
Even so, the party hopes to add Georgia to a string of victories in secretary of state contests this year, including three states — Arizona, Colorado and Michigan — where Democrats flipped control of the office, with promises to expand the franchise and protect voter rights.
Democrats regard those gains as crucial to their broader effort to reverse what they see as an erosion of voting rights across the country at the hands of Republicans.
The former Libertarian candidate, Smythe DuVal, has endorsed Barrow in the runoff arguing that he is the right man to protect voters from having their votes stolen. Along with DuVal, a number of other election analysts interviewed in Salon agreed that Barrow is the best man for the job. Especially when it comes to cyber-security:
Barrow and Raffensperger also disagree about how to solve cybersecurity problems with Georgia’s outdated touchscreen voting machines. Georgia is one of only five states to use these machines statewide. Nine states use them in some locations.
Multiple problems with the system have been exposed for several years, starting with two cyber researchers demonstrating, in 2016 and 2017, how easy it was for anyone to gain access to everything from voter information to poll-worker passwords. Then–secretary of state (and now governor-elect) Brian Kemp’s only response was to move the administration of the system from Kennesaw State University to his office, bringing the same person — Michael Barnes — over as director. Barnes has said publicly that he is not an expert in cybersecurity, and that the state made no effort to hire such an expert after the incidents.
The next secretary of state should remedy this, according to Duval and DeMillo. “It’s unconscionable to run a tech-based enterprise like that with so little expertise in maintaining the integrity of the system . . . [the secretary of state] should have people on staff with experience in maintaining . . . complex technical systems,” DeMillo said.
Three days before Election Day, WhoWhatWhy exposed another cyber issue: the state’s voter registration and voter information pages online could be easily manipulated by anyone with some computer savvy. After a voter had contacted the state’s Democratic party about the risks, WhoWhatWhy investigated — and confirmed the details with recognized computer experts. An hour after publishing a story on the issue, the secretary of state’s office responded by announcing an investigation into Democratic “hacks” into the system. (Nothing has become of the investigation in the weeks since.)
Barrow has publicly pledged to decertify the entire voting system and push to use paper ballots filled out by hand and then scanned in future elections.
The Democratic candidate for secretary of state has made a point of attending events where cybersecurity is discussed in detail, noted Richard DeMillo — who is a professor of computer science at Georgia Tech and has had a leading role in technology and security at Hewlett-Packard, Bell Communications Research, the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Defense. This included the October 3 Atlanta screening of “I Voted?” — a 2016 documentary that shows “millions of Americans cast unverifiable digital ballots on vulnerable voting computers.”
“[Barrow] attends technical events where such things are discussed, and asks probing questions,” DeMillo said.
Raffensperger has indicated on his website that he intends to “update all voting machines with improved paper ballot verification for ballot security.” This is different from moving to hand-marked paper ballots in at least two ways: computers would still be the main vehicle for casting a vote, and the voting machines Raffensperger is referring to actually produce ballots with barcodes — which can’t be read by voters.
Here’s how you can help get out the vote tomorrow. Click here to sign up to make calls for Barrow.
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