The House Oversight Committee held a hearing on Wednesday to address an issue that’s stymied Democrats for more than a decade: voter suppression. The event preceded a renaming ceremony for the room on Capitol Hill where it was held; its new namesake, the late Representative Elijah Cummings, “cared deeply” about the issue and its democratic implications, read a memorandum outlining the hearing’s key points. Findings from the committee’s recent investigations into suppression efforts in Georgia, Kansas, and Texas headlined the proceedings. Georgia in particular drew national attention when its 2018 gubernatorial race ended in a narrow victory for Republican Brian Kemp — the secretary of State and custodian of Georgia’s voting apparatus, who’d refused to recuse himself from overseeing the election. Kemp’s tenure as secretary was an especially egregious example of how varied and extensive suppression can be. Between 2010 and 2018, his efforts to make it harder for black, Latino, and poor people to vote marshaled the nation’s widest array of state-level suppression measures: voter ID laws, proof of citizenship requirements, cuts in early voting, precinct closures, polling site relocations, and most notably, massive — and often dubious — voter roll purges.
But while Kemp and his fellow Republicans are rarely subtle in their efforts, it’s uncommon that their gleeful celebrations of how confusing and inconvenient a process they’ve made voting is seen by the public. Wednesday’s hearing brought a few examples to light, culled from Kemp’s private correspondences with his 2018 campaign staffers. From the memorandum:
In September 2017, then-Secretary of State Kemp emailed with campaign advisors about a media report discussing efforts to correct a “string of problems” with county officials’ attempts to challenge the registration of hundreds of voters. The report concluded that “the errors may have violated federal law.” Mr. Kemp responded by congratulating his campaign team, writing, “Good work, this story is so complex folks will not make it all the way through it.” A top campaign staffer, David Dove, agreed that the article “won’t help draw eyeballs.”
In October 2017, after purging more than 500,000 voters from rolls, Mr. Kemp and Mr. Dove emailed on their personal accounts mocking a press release from a Democratic candidate warning that Georgia “is systematically deleting voters who have done nothing wrong” and that “Georgia is trying to make it harder to vote.” Mr. Dove forwarded the press release to Mr. Kemp, writing “us” with laughing emojis. Mr. Kemp replied, “us” with a smiling emoji.
To summarize, the first exchange finds Kemp congratulating his campaign staff for the seeming opacity of a news report that shed light on Georgia counties’ possibly illegal efforts to challenge their residents’ right to vote. The second finds Kemp and a top staffer, David Dove, exchanging messages with the word us next to smiling and laughing emoji in reference to a story about how Georgia — coordinated by Kemp and his office — was deleting voters erroneously from the rolls and making it harder for others to cast ballots. Neither exchange has quite the cartoonish clarity of purpose exhibited by, say, the private notes of the late Thomas B. Hofeller — the Republican strategist whose research, made public by his daughter after he died, argued that Republicans should try adding a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census because it “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” (The Trump administration would go on to use Hofeller’s work as a guide for its own failed efforts to include the question.) But it does suggest a level of enjoyment taken in the process that clashes with the sober defenses of election integrity that Republican officials claim to be pursuing. Few were unaware that Kemp was trying to suppress votes. But fewer still have gotten to see how much he appeared to enjoy it.
If this is an ungenerous reading — and there’s little reason to believe that it is — the acts alluded to in Kemp’s messages are still the substantive reality of what Georgia voters have endured at his behest. He’s made it harder for the GOP’s least favorable constituencies to vote here while lying that he’s merely trying to prevent fraud — a passingly rare occurrence that no credible election expert can bring themselves to treat as a real problem. And when actual election-security issues have arisen, he’s neglected them or fought efforts to solve them. In 2016, after a cybersecurity researcher found hacking vulnerabilities in Georgia’s digital voting system, a range of experts called on Kemp to return to paper ballots. Kemp not only refused to do so, he declined to fix the vulnerabilities. The same month, he spoke out against federal efforts to reclassify the American election system as “critical infrastructure” because doing so would’ve let the Department of Homeland Security offer him cybersecurity support. Kemp saw this possibility as part of a big government conspiracy — an effort to “subvert the Constitution to achieve the goal of federalizing elections under the guise of security,” in his words.
Each new revelation about Kemp’s conduct as secretary of State further exposes him as one of America’s premier subverters of the democratic process. Now that he’s achieved his main objective — continued Republican rule in Georgia, headlined by himself as the state’s governor — the broader public is becoming privy to what Georgians have long witnessed up close. It’s also spurred Democrats into action. In addition to the House Oversight Committee’s investigations, the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State launched an initiative last year aimed at flipping five secretaries’ offices from red to blue in 2020: Those in Missouri, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and West Virginia. Seats in other traditionally red states like Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi will also get the group’s attention. Republicans currently hold 25 of America’s 47 secretary of State jobs, giving them outsize control over who gets to vote and how easily. (Alaska, Hawaii, and Utah do not have secretaries of State.) The findings presented at Wednesday’s House committee hearings suggest that Kemp felt he could operate with impunity, and often mocked efforts to thwart his agenda. They also show that he was onto something whenever he proclaimed that the integrity of Georgia’s elections were under threat. He just failed, or refused, to recognize that perhaps the greatest threat was him.