Georgia gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams (D) and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) faced off in a heated debate on Tuesday night, with Kemp on the defense about his controversial record on voting rights.
“This farce about voter suppression and people being held up from being on the rolls … is absolutely not true,” Kemp said after the moderator asked whether he could “stand here tonight and say there is no attempt on your or your campaign’s part to suppress the minority vote?”
In the first debate of the competitive and potentially historic governor’s race, the issue of voting rights took center stage. Earlier this month, a report from The Associated Press found that over 53,000 voter applications in Georgia ― nearly 70 percent of which were from black people ― were on hold for verification with Kemp’s office.
As secretary of state, Kemp oversees elections in the state. After the AP report came out, civil rights groups sued Georgia in federal court over its process of verifying new voter registrations, saying it was discriminatory. Abrams has accused Kemp of voter suppression.
Kemp has denied purging the voter rolls of people of color, saying the state’s policy amounts to routine roll maintenance.
“Voter suppression isn’t only about blocking the vote. It is also about creating an atmosphere of fear, making sure their votes won’t count.”
Abrams ― who is vying to become the nation’s first black woman governor ― said Kemp “regularly purges voter rolls” and that in his time as secretary of state, “more people have lost the right to vote ― they’ve been purged, they’ve been suppressed.”
“Georgia purged twice as many voters — 1.5 million — between the 2012 and 2016 elections as it did between 2008 and 2012,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Kemp took office in 2010.
“Voter suppression isn’t only about blocking the vote,” she said during the debate, which was broadcast by Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Atlanta Press Club. “It is also about creating an atmosphere of fear, making sure their votes won’t count.”
Kemp said anybody whose registration was “pending” could simply show their identification to vote on Election Day. (The 53,000 voters on the suspense list can still vote with a regular ballot if they show up to polls with an accepted form of photo ID on Election Day. But they can’t vote absentee or by mail until they resolve the discrepancies with their voter registration.)
Kemp later claimed former President Barack Obama was the reason so many voter registrations are pending: “If you want to blame somebody, blame President Obama,” he said, noting that the Obama Justice Department had approved the “exact match” process in 2010. He didn’t mention that the DOJ had objected to an earlier version of the system in 2009.
With two weeks left until Election Day in the 2018 midterms, recent polls show the two candidates neck and neck in the race for governor. If the election were to come to a recount, Kemp said during the debate that he would not step down from his role overseeing elections as secretary of state.
“I took an oath to serve as secretary of state and that is what I will continue to do,” Kemp said, noting that if there were a recount, he was “certain there would be a lot of people watching that.”
During Tuesday’s debate, Abrams repeatedly brought up Kemp’s record on voting rights, including recent lawsuits against the state of Georgia. At one point, she said that under Kemp the state had “illegally canceled 34,000 registrations using the ‘exact match’ system under dispute right now.”
In 2017, Kemp settled a lawsuit with civil rights groups who said the state’s “exact match” system was discriminatory and that over 34,000 people had their voter registrations canceled between 2013 and 2015 because of the process. Kemp essentially agreed to end the policy, but months later, lawmakers passed a law starting it up again.
“His record causes great concern to me and to others,” Abrams said. She later added that she “grew up in a family that fought for the right to vote,” and that if she were to become governor, she would “make sure every vote that gets cast gets counted.”
Kemp also blamed Abrams for the suspended voter registrations.
“If Ms. Abrams’ folks that she’s registering had used the paper applications with the online system and were using their state-issued ID or their Georgia ID, they would not be having these problems,” he said in an apparent reference to New Georgia Project, a voter registration group Abrams started in 2014 that targets voters of color.
“The reason they’re having these problems is because her canvassers didn’t fill the form out correctly. They couldn’t get the last four digits of the Social Security right. That issue was precleared by the Obama Justice Department,” he said.
Kemp failed to mention that a 2009 Inspector General’s report from the Social Security Administration warned that the database was an unreliable way to verify voter registrations.
Danielle Lang, an attorney at Campaign Legal Center, which is representing plaintiffs suing Georgia over the “exact match” system, noted that when the Justice Department precleared the system in 2010, the state had promised there would be safeguards to prevent people from having their registration held up because of “common sense” or typographical errors. When it submitted the state policy to the Justice Department, Georgia said county registrars would review applications for these kinds of mistakes and correct them on their own if they found them.
“So far as I’m aware, Kemp has not put in place any policies or procedures to make sure this promise was kept and I don’t think this type of double-checking is happening,” Lang wrote in an email. “Further, at the time this was precleared it was untested, the clear and extreme racial disparities were not necessarily obvious or predetermined. However, at this point, Georgia is well aware of the discriminatory impact and high error rate in the policy but continues it.”
Last week, one Georgia county was facing scrutiny for rejecting an unusually high number of mail-in ballots. In August, another county, which was majority-black, had to reject a plan to close nearly all of its polling places. And earlier this month, dozens of black senior citizens in rural Georgia were ordered off a bus headed for the polls for early voting after county officials said the event constituted prohibited “political activity.”
“Voter suppression is not simply about being told no, it’s about being told it’s going to be harder for you to vote,” Abrams said in the debate. “It can be 53,000 or 5,000 people. If even five Georgians are being denied the right to vote or are afraid of the right to vote, then we are not doing our jobs.”
Nick Visser contributed reporting.