voting rights

Brian Kemp Has Resigned As Secretary of State, But Nobody Got Enough Votes to Replace Him

Photo: Kevin C. Cox

Brian Kemp resigned Thursday as Georgia’s secretary of State, ending a tenure marked by widespread voter disenfranchisement and plummeting faith in the state’s electoral process. Barring a miracle, he will soon be sworn in as the next governor of Georgia. “The votes are not there for her,” Kemp said of his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, who had still not conceded defeat as of Thursday, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “[We] won the race, and we’re moving forward.”

But there is still hope for Democrats. The race to choose Kemp’s replacement as secretary appears headed for a runoff election on December 4. Neither Brad Raffensperger, the Republican candidate, nor John Barrow, his Democratic challenger, secured the 50 percent of the vote needed to claim victory, with each hovering around 49 percent. It is safe to say the immediate future of Georgia’s elections are at stake in the race’s outcome — and a chance to dramatically shift course for an office whose actions were a national embarrassment this fall.

Since he took office in 2010, Kemp has been a standard-bearer for Republicans’ nationwide efforts to make voting harder for nonwhites, young people, and poor people. The votes for Abrams were “not there” this week due in part to a process Kemp had presided over. Despite running for governor in a race he also oversaw, the Republican refused to recuse himself and only left office once he was sure he had won. “[I] wasn’t going to run from my job,” he reportedly said. Instead, Kemp oversaw an election on Tuesday marked by four-hour voting lines, malfunctioning digital-voting machines, and an electorate whose Democratic constituencies he sought to shrink through purged voter rolls, massive registration-application hold lists, and advancing a culture of intimidation that included frivolous prosecutions and lies about his opponent. Even so, Kemp snagged just 50.3 percent of the vote to Abrams’s 48.7, according to the current count. Abrams is still hoping for a runoff — assuming still-uncounted votes tilt the election in her favor — but that scenario seems unlikely.

For his part, Raffensperger has all but promised more of the same as Kemp. The Republican former state representative’s campaign website touts three issues, two of which — “[strengthening] voter ID” and “[keeping] our voter lists clean and updated” — trumpet his commitment to ensuring that only “legal citizens” cast ballots. We have seen what this means in practice. Noncitizen voter fraud is almost nonexistent in the U.S., as has been well-documented, but that did not stop Kemp from using it as a canard to justify suppression that disproportionately impacted nonwhites. The third issue on Raffensperger’s site is “paper ballot verification” — a gesture toward improving the state’s glitchy digital-voting process, which Georgia’s next secretary of State will be tasked with improving, or replacing. Kemp famously refused support from the Department of Homeland Security in 2016 to protect Georgia’s current system. Later that same month, a probe revealed a vast array of hacking vulnerabilities therein.

Barrow’s website is less explicit about the issues, but advertises a pair of telling endorsements: Representative John Lewis, who as a young activist in 1965 had his skull fractured by law enforcement while leading voting-rights marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama; and Ambassador Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor, U.S. congressman, and lieutenant for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose activism propelled the passage of the Voting Rights Act that same year. Barrow is also famous for being “the last white Democrat in the U.S. House from a Deep South state” until his defeat in 2014, a tenure marked by a relatively conservative voting record (he voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010) and having to move houses several times because Republicans kept redrawing his district. In a recent ad, Barrow vowed to protect registered voters’ right not to vote — a pretense used under Kemp to purge them from the rolls. “If you’ve got something better to do and nothing worth voting for, you’ve got a God-given right not to vote,” Barrow said.

In the meantime, Governor Nathan Deal has chosen an interim replacement for Kemp. Robyn Crittenden, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Human Services, will oversee any potential runoff or recount that arises from yet-untallied votes. Kemp’s conflicts of interest in controlling the mechanisms of his own election mean the damage may have already been done. But as New York’s Sarah Jones wrote, the Democratic Party’s future rests on expanding voting rights. With Kemp out, Barrow could be the party’s vanguard in Georgia.

Democrats Can Still Capture Brian Kemp’s Old Job