Brian Kemp’s Lead in Georgia Needs an Asterisk

If the governor’s race had taken place in another country, the State Department would have questioned its legitimacy.

Stacey Abrams
Christopher Aluka Berry / Reuters

Updated at 3:50 p.m. ET on November 12, 2018.

The Democrat Stacey Abrams, a black woman, made a valiant effort to win the governor’s race in Georgia, one of the original 13 states, whose commitment to human bondage ensured that the U.S. Constitution would treat slavery with kid gloves. A state that was part of the Confederacy. A state scorched by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War. A state that refused to accept the outcome of that war, treating its black residents as second-class citizens—if that—until the federal government forced its hand, a century later, with the Voting Rights Act. She tried to write a new narrative for this state.

Although Abrams has not yet conceded, citing uncounted ballots, it looks as though the other side has won, and the narrative is the same as ever. Abrams didn’t have to fight just an electoral campaign; she had to fight a civil-rights campaign against the forces of voter suppression.

Indeed, I can’t quite bring myself to say that Abrams “lost,” because there’s an asterisk next to her Republican opponent’s victory.

Brian Kemp, who billed himself as a “Trump conservative,” refused to step aside as Georgia’s secretary of state; he ran for governor of a state while overseeing the elections in that state. Former President Jimmy Carter, a Georgian with much experience monitoring elections abroad, stressed that this conflict of interest ran “counter to the most fundamental principle of democratic elections—that the electoral process be managed by an independent and impartial election authority.”

Kemp had no intention of relinquishing a post he has held since 2010, and often wields as a weapon to cull Georgia’s electorate. He understood that he would need every trick in the book because he was up against a woman who, in addition to serving as the minority leader of the state’s House of Representatives from 2011 to 2017, founded a formidable voter-registration organization, the New Georgia Project.

Several years ago, Abrams noticed that the state’s demographics were changing quickly, as minorities made up an increasing share of the age-eligible electorate. Abrams noticed, as well, that more than half a million black Georgians were not registered to vote. In 2013, as the executive director of the New Georgia Project, she set out to “register and civically engage the rising electorate in our state.”

When tens of thousands of voter-registration cards poured into Kemp’s office, he heard warning bells. He told the media that “we’re just not going to put up with fraud,” and launched a highly publicized investigation into Abrams’s organization. While accusations of criminality hung in the air, however, he relayed a very different story to his fellow Republicans. Kemp explained to them in 2014 that “Democrats are working hard, and all 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.”

The claim of voter fraud, it seems, was a ruse to try to intimidate the New Georgia Project, Abrams, and black voters with criminal prosecution. It didn’t work. Abrams, a Yale-educated attorney, knew the laws, knew that the New Georgia Project had not broken any, and stood her ground. Kemp was forced to walk away, unable to even charge her or the organization with any violations. (A countersuit by the New Georgia Project alleging voter suppression was thrown out.)

Under Kemp, Georgia purged more than 1.5 million voters from the rolls, eliminating 10.6 percent of voters from the state’s registered electorate from 2016 to 2018 alone. County election officials shut down 214 polling places, the bulk of them in minority and poor neighborhoods.* From 2013 to 2016, the state blocked the registration of nearly 35,000 Georgians, including newly naturalized citizens. Georgia accomplished this feat of disfranchisement based on a screening process called “exact match,” meaning the state accepted new registrations only if they matched the information in state databases precisely, including hyphens in names, accents, and even typos.

Although a judge ruled that exact match was biased and had a disparate impact on minority applicants, the Georgia legislature in 2017 scoffed at the decision and created a new exact-match program plagued by the same bias for traditional, anglicized names. Exact match is supposed to weed out attempted voter-impersonation fraud before it can begin. What it actually does is remove tens of thousands of otherwise eligible voters, overwhelmingly minorities, from the electorate.

Kemp plied his trade with purges, registration limbo, and more. He was the voter-suppression king, who now wanted to be governor. He had the state machinery on his side, and he was ready to use it.

Days before the deadline to register for the November election, the Associated Press reported that Kemp had put 53,000 applicants on hold due to exact-match problems. An analysis of Kemp’s records found that 70 percent of those applicants were black. (Georgia is roughly 32 percent black.) Separately, the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union found that some 700 absentee-ballot applications and almost 200 absentee ballots were rejected by county officials due to a law mandating that the signatures on absentee applications and ballots visually match the signatures on file. Thus, poor penmanship was added to the list of crimes that can lead to disenfranchisement in Georgia.

Abrams, however, was not without resources. Although she left the New Georgia Project before her gubernatorial run, that well-oiled machine continued to register voters throughout the state. Abrams also had an effective ground game that covered all 159 counties, well beyond the Democratic base in Atlanta. She started early and knocked on doors instead of relying on TV ads.

Abrams moved deep into rural Georgia’s “health-care deserts,” where almost 65 percent of the hospitals are financially vulnerable and on the brink of closing. She talked about disparities in health and education. She talked, as well, about transforming and diversifying the economy to include green jobs built on solar power, and about rethinking the criminal-justice system to be more restorative than punitive. As she explained her vision for “all Georgians,” her poll numbers inched up to a statistical tie with Kemp.

Kemp’s attempts to restrict the franchise ran headlong into Abrams’s attempts to enlarge it— and into Georgia’s powerful tradition of civil-rights activism. Abrams didn’t fight alone. She had alongside her the NAACP, the ACLU, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and other organizations that had worked to dismantle the architecture of Jim Crow in the 20th century. They were ready to expose Kemp’s shenanigans and repeatedly sued the secretary of state for violating the voting rights of American citizens. They won, again and again, including against a plan by a Republican contractor (who’d contributed to Kemp’s campaign) to close seven of nine polling locations in a predominantly black county.

The initial numbers for early voting in Georgia seemed like a victory—for democracy and, therefore, for Abrams, as the participation rate for those ages 19 to 28 increased by 476 percent from the 2014 midterms and as African American and Latino turnout in the state went up 165 and 571 percent, respectively.

In the end, it looks like Kemp won. It’s impossible to know if his attempts to restrict the franchise are what pushed him over the line. But if the Georgia race had taken place in another country—say, the Republic of Georgia—U.S. media and the U.S. State Department would not have hesitated to question its legitimacy, if for no other reason than Kemp’s dual roles as candidate and election overseer. Of course, there were other reasons. As of this morning, he led by about 75,000 votes; more than 650,000 registrations were canceled last year, and more than 85,000 were canceled through August 1 this year.

Kemp’s asterisk win suggests that the battle for voting rights, which many imagined was over and done with in the last century, is still very much in progress.

* This article originally stated that Georgia shut down more than 200 polling places in recent years. In fact, county election officials are charged with that responsibility. We regret the error.