Brian Kemp is running for governor of Georgia. But he’s currently the Georgia secretary of state, charged with making sure the gubernatorial election is fair.
With a governor’s race that could be the closest in recent history — and dogged by allegations about voters being cut from the rolls — Kemp’s dual roles have become a huge campaign issue.
Democrat Stacey Abrams wants Kemp to give up his secretary of state post, charging Kemp has an obvious conflict of interest. Democrats maintain he is trying to suppress votes as the election nears.
Kemp and his backers counter that he can be impartial, pointing to a history of previous secretaries of state who have run for higher office while overseeing elections and avoiding controversy.
They accuse Abrams of stirring the ballot furor for political gain. Kemp has no intention of stepping down.
“Stacey Abrams is either intentionally misleading Georgia voters or simply does not understand how voting works in our state,” said Ryan Mahoney, a Kemp campaign spokesman. “Clearly, she is unfit to be governor.”
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor who runs the United States Elections Project, which compiles voting data and monitors voting trends in all 50 states, said Kemp should consider recusing himself from overseeing the gubernatorial election results.
“That just makes common sense that you shouldn’t be overseeing your own election,” McDonald said. “I’m not accusing him of any nefarious activity, I’m just saying as a matter of public perception and common sense you should recuse yourself from overseeing your own election.”
The Georgia Constitution does not require an elected official seeking another office to resign his current position to run for another office if his term is going to expire before taking the new office. Kemp’s secretary of state term would end in Jan. 14. If elected governor, he would take that office the same day.
At the core of the dispute are nearly 53,000 pending registrations that are being held up under the state’s “exact-match” voter registration law passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in 2017.
The voter information has be an exact-match with information on a person’s Georgia driver’s license or Social Security card. An Associated Press investigation has determined that 70 percent of the names on the pending list are racial minorities.
Civil rights groups sued Kemp in his role as secretary of state last week in U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia, claiming the methods his office is using to verify new voter registrations is discriminatory.
Kemp claims this is a manufactured crisis by the Abrams campaign.
On Oct. 15, Kemp took to Twitter to express his position, responding to a tweet from Fox News Channel host Laura Ingraham calling Abrams’ claims of voter suppression “another leftist lie.”
Kemp tweeted, “This was never about the 53,000 ‘pending’ forms...Those folks can vote on Election Day. My opponent’s plan is to force Georgia (via lawsuit) to count ballots from ‘non citizens.’ I think hard working Georgians — not illegal immigrants — should pick their next governor.”
University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said there is a path for Abrams to win the election on Nov. 6, and it involves increasing the black turnout and collecting more than anticipated of white vote.
Bullock was working off a poll that had black voter turnout at 28.7 percent of the total electorate. If that spikes to 30 percent or more — in 2008 when President Barrack Obama was on the ballot for the first time blacks cast more than 30 percent of the vote in Georgia — and Abrams gets 95 percent of that vote coupled with 28 percent of the white vote she will be the state’s next governor.
Asked if this race was that close, Bullock said, “It looks like it. Every poll that has come out has shown Kemp ahead, but just slightly ahead. ... well within the margin of error.”
Former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, D-Georgia, secretary of state from 1983 to 1996, when he ran for the Senate, criticized Kemp for not stepping down.
“When I decided to run for higher office, I stepped down from my position as secretary of state because I recognized that it would not be fair to Georgia voters if I oversaw an election in which I was a candidate for higher office,” Cleland said in a statement.
State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who leads the state chapter of the conservative Faith & Freedom Coalition, disagreed.
“If you believe there is some massive conspiracy involving elections officials all over the state to suppress minority turnout — all you have to do is look at the 2016 general election. We had record registration from ethnic minorities in Georgia. And we had record turnout. If there’s some conspiracy to stop people from voting, it is failing pretty miserably,” McKoon said.
Georgia reported a record turnout for the 2016 elections with 4.1 million votes cast among the state’s 5.4 million active registered voters, according to Kemp’s office.
The United States Elections Project’s McDonald said Georgia is on course this year for an unusually high midterm election turnout. He noted in a tweet Tuesday that African-Americans in Georgia are voting early at a rate 2.7 times higher than they did in 2014. Whites are casting early ballots at a clip 1.6 times higher than 2014.
Georgia Rep. Carolyn Hugley, who has been the Democratic House Whip for 16 years, is concerned that Kemp can properly call balls and strikes when he is also a competitor in the game.
“I am not questioning his integrity at all,” Hugley said. “I am just saying it is difficult for the general public to believe he’s going to be completely fair. when the race is this tight and his office is the one certifying the election.”