Brian Kemp Has Put Democracy Itself on the Ballot in Georgia

Brian Kemp
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp addresses the audience and declares victory during an election-watch party on July 24 in Athens, Georgia. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

In a few weeks, the citizens of Georgia won’t just be casting ballots for their governor; they will be deciding the fate of their democracy.

The Democratic nominee, Stacey Abrams, has pegged her campaign to progressive policy and voter mobilization, hoping to turn the state’s substantial population of white liberals, black Americans, and other nonwhite residents into a voting majority. If elected, Abrams would be the first black woman elected governor in the United States. Her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, has also turned to base mobilization, tying himself to President Trump and building his campaign around overt hostility to the political and cultural opponents of the Republican right.

The race is close. A recent survey shows Kemp ahead with 47.7 percent of the vote to Abrams’ 46.3 percent, a toss-up given the margin of error. The race is so close that Kemp, who also serves as Georgia’s Secretary of state, has taken steps to handicap Abrams’ attempt to bring more voters to the polls.

The Associated Press reports that Kemp’s office has stalled more than 53,000 applications for voter registration. And while Georgia’s population is approximately 32 percent black, 70 percent of the registrations on hold belong to black applicants, and a total of 80 percent belong to blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans. These voters ran afoul of his office’s “exact match” system, which allows the state to put applications on hold for minor discrepancies between registration forms and official state records. And while voters can still cast a ballot with a pending registration if they present identification, civil rights groups say that this process creates confusion and raises additional barriers to voting. The discrepancies in question can amount to missing punctuation or small variations in spelling, a purportedly “neutral” procedure that burdens people whose names have punctuation or nonstandard spellings, a group that would appear to include blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans. In 2016, civil rights groups filed suit against Kemp’s office for the “exact match” system, but in 2017, the Georgia Legislature passed a law codifying parts of that system.

Kemp denies discriminatory intent. But during his tenure as secretary of state, his office has canceled more than 1.4 million voter registrations. In August, Kemp was pressured to back down from a proposal by a political ally to eliminate three-fourths of voting locations in a rural county made up of predominantly black voters, but he has still been able to close polling locations in a number of majority-black areas. And before the 2014 midterm elections, Kemp warned Republicans in a closed-door session about Democratic registration efforts: “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.” Soon after declaring that minority-voter registration threatened Republican chances, his office launched a criminal investigation into Abrams’ New Georgia Project for alleged registration fraud. She, and the organization, were cleared of all charges.

Kemp, in other words, has had an intimate role in shaping the Georgia electorate, and with this attempt to stall tens of thousands of registrations, he has a significant opportunity to benefit from this work by claiming victory in an election he has attempted to rig in his own favor.

Kemp is not the only Republican election official to use his position to weigh the scale by suppressing the rights of minority voters. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is notorious for his efforts to secure “election integrity” through voter purges and other efforts to shrink the electorate, including strict voter-identification requirements for registration. President Trump chose Kobach for a since-disbanded commission meant to investigate voter fraud, which critics described as an attempt to nationalize voter-registration purges. Kobach is now the Republican nominee in a closely contested race for governor of Kansas, and, like Kemp, he may benefit from his efforts to shape the electorate to his liking.

Brian Kemp and Kris Kobach aren’t the only figures subverting democracy to their own ends; they are just the most open and egregious. Across the country, Republican politicians have used the threat of voter fraud and the promise of “election integrity” to justify new barriers to registration and voting. A voter-identification law in North Dakota, for example, effectively disenfranchises thousands of Native American voters who use a P.O. box and not a residential address to obtain ID. What’s more, the GOP has embraced partisan and racial gerrymandering to sharply reduce the influence of Democratic constituencies. And with the confirmation of the conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, they have a Supreme Court majority that will look the other way—or extend deference—to state legislatures that treat voting as a privilege for the few.

November is more than an opportunity to repudiate Brian Kemp and Kris Kobach; it is a chance to turn the tide against a larger assault on the power of the people to choose their representatives. The alternative is a continued attack on the franchise, aimed at insulating the Republican Party and its allies from accountability. It’s not just the future of democracy in Georgia that’s at stake, but American democracy, period.