Editor’s note: In light of the obvious breakdown of Georgia’s voting system, as demonstrated in the state’s June 9, 2020, primary election, we reprise this 2018 story about how it got that way.
BOBBY JENKINS KNEW something was fishy. Early in August, the former school superintendent in rural Randolph County, Georgia, was reading the local paper with his magnifying glass when a notice in the legal section caught his eye: The county elections board was about to vote on a proposal to close seven of the county’s nine polling places for the November mid-term elections. “I said, this doesn’t make any sense,” Jenkins later recalled. Randolph, which is 61 percent black and overwhelmingly poor, doesn’t have many voters—just 7,000 on the rolls—but they’re spread out widely in an area as larger than some of Atlanta’s major suburbs. And most vote Democratic; this was one of the few Georgia counties carried in 2016 by Hillary Clinton. With just two precincts, folks would have to figure out how to travel considerable distances (with no public transportation) to cast their votes.
Jenkins’ wife, Naomi, had no doubt what to make of it: another “blatant” attempt to suppress black turnout in Georgia, she said. “This is a tactic they’ve used since the ’50s,” she added. The Jenkinses figured they knew who was behind it: Georgia’s two-term Republican secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who’d recently won the Republican gubernatorial nomination to run against Democrat Stacey Abrams. As most everyone in Georgia could tell you, Kemp had already earned a reputation as the most ardent and successful voter-suppressor in modern American history.
So the Jenkinses sounded the alarm. Before long, hundreds of residents were organizing in opposition, and their protests caught the attention of national reporters and civil rights leaders. The poll closures, it turned out, had been proposed by an “election consultant,” Mike Malone, who’d been recommended by Kemp’s office when the county lost its full-time election supervisor prior to the spring primaries. Malone, a Republican donor to Kemp, had been busy all election season: He’d “consulted” for at least 10 other counties, persuading them to close polling places as cost-cutting measures. Nobody had taken much notice until now.
The hullabaloo convinced Kemp to do something that, in eight years of manipulating Georgia’s election system to disenfranchise the state’s rising non-white majority, he’d almost never done: Back down. After winning a hotly contested GOP primary with some of the rawest racial appeals in memory—in one TV ad, after showing footage of himself surrounded by shotguns, Kemp promised to use his truck to personally run “criminal illegals” out of the state—he’d begun trying to soften his image for the general election, so centrist white voters wouldn’t sit it out.
So Malone was sent packing, the county board unanimously voted down the closures, and reporters wrote about a small-but-glorious victory for civil rights down South. But plenty of folks in Georgia knew better, as did Slate columnist Mark Joseph Stern: “Kemp doesn’t need to continue shuttering polling places to disenfranchise minority voters in November,” Stern observed. “He has spent eight years purging voters from the rolls and canceling their registrations … It’s possible that he’s already suppressed enough votes to win himself four years in the governor’s mansion.”
This was no hyperbole. A subsequent investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 214 of the state’s polling places, mostly in poor counties with large black populations, had been shut down since 2013. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that had forced states like Georgia, with histories of racial discrimination, to “preclear” any changes in election laws and procedures, including precinct closings.
Suppressing Georgia’s emerging majority of blacks, Latinos, Asians, and young progressive whites has been Kemp’s singular priority in his eight years as the state’s elections chief. As suspicious as the poll closings might sound, they’re small potatoes compared to the more direct methods he’s used to keep political power in the hands of the state’s fast-eroding Republican majority. Since federal oversight of Georgia elections was lifted by the Supreme Court, Kemp has purged an estimated 1.4 million registered voters (mostly Democrats, mostly minorities) from the rolls.
An investigation by the Associated Press published on October 9 shows that Kemp’s office has placed 53,000 voter registration applications on hold, some from people whose names appear to have evaporated from the voter rolls, despite their status as regular voters. “Georgia’s population is approximately 32 percent black, according to the U.S. Census,” the AP reports, “but the list of voter registrations on hold with Kemp’s office is nearly 70 percent black.”
Kemp has refused to replace Georgia’s antiquated voting machines, preserving one of only five statewide systems in the country that produce no paper ballots or records to verify results. He’s sued, arrested, and intimidated voting-rights activists and blocked tens of thousands of new registrants on specious technicalities, while some 40,000 other new registration forms from civil rights groups allegedly and mysteriously “went missing” just weeks before the 2014 midterm elections. According to a recent study by the Brennan Center, Georgia has stricken 10.6 percent of its voters from the rolls since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act.
Carol Anderson, author, One Person, No Vote
“He’s used every trick in the book, new and old,” says Carol Anderson, an Emory University professor who wrote the best-selling 2016 history of the backlash against black political progress in America, “White Rage,” and spotlights Georgia in her new book, “One Person, No Vote.”
“Quite literally, there is nothing that Kemp will not do—has not already done—to stave off the day when black folks and brown folks gain power.”
IF MINORITY-GROUP voters are able to surmount the obstacles strewn before them by Kemp, that day could come on Nov. 6, just in time to block the secretary of state’s long-held ambition to become governor. Abrams, a working-class activist from rural Alabama who became Georgia’s first black Democratic House leader, made her own national name as Kemp’s most ardent and effective foe. In 2013, the fateful year the Voting Rights Act was gutted, Abrams founded the New Georgia Project, an ambitious effort to register 400,000 new voters (700,000 eligible Georgians, mostly members of minority groups, are unregistered) and erase the GOP’s already-shrinking margins of victory.
For Kemp, this meant war. The New Georgia Project soon faced threats, lawsuits, counter-suits—and a chief elections official who didn’t stop at simply throwing out tens of thousands of the new registrations. The newly registered voters were a threat, but so was Abrams. A once-in-a-generation combination of political savvy, limitless ambition, and larger-than-life charm, Abrams had also long set her sights on the governor’s mansion. She’s running as the kind of unapologetic liberal Georgians have never seen from a statewide candidate—ever—and banking on inspiring record turnout from the emerging majority that Kemp has worked so hard to forestall. It’s an epic battle, ripe with symbolism in a former Confederate state that’s on the verge of moving from red to blue.
It’s not a fair fight, considering that Kemp has blocked and discouraged so many Democratic-leaners from voting. Yet polls (of registered and likely voters) have shown the two candidates in a dead heat for months. The only mystery greater than who’ll prevail in November is what Kemp might do, with his unfettered control of Georgia’s elections, to attempt to sway the results in his favor and keep Georgia right and white for four more years. Unless, that is, he’s already ensured it.
KEMP HAS REFUSED persistent calls and petitions to step down as secretary of state while he runs for governor, even though he became Georgia’s elections chief when a former secretary of state resigned after launching a gubernatorial bid. Kemp’s predecessor, Karen Handel, resigned in January 2010 to run for the state’s top office, explaining, “I did not want any perceived conflicts of interest concerning my overseeing the primary or general elections, investigating complaints that arise, and certifying the results of the elections.” That created an opening for Kemp, an Athens businessman and former state legislator whose ambitions for statewide office had been thwarted when he lost a race for agriculture commissioner in 2006.
“For anyone to think there’s a way to manipulate the process because you’re secretary of state is outrageous,” Kemp said earlier this year. But his entire tenure has been devoted to gaming the playing field in favor of Republicans—and for himself, as soon as the governor’s mansion was up for grabs again.
In the spring of 2010, shortly after his appointment, the small South Georgia town of Quitman elected a black majority to the school board for the first time in its history, thanks to a get-out-the-vote campaign by local activists. Within days, armed investigators from Kemp’s office, joined by Georgia Bureau of Investigation officers, were pounding on doors in Quitman’s black neighborhoods, looking for evidence of “voter fraud.” A dozen voting-rights activists, three of whom had won seats on the board, were arrested on felony charges. Governor Nathan Deal re-appointed the whites who’d been defeated, restoring the school board’s white majority. Lacking evidence of voter fraud, the state charged the Quitman 12 with violating obscure provisions of absentee-ballot procedures; one activist, Lula Smart, was hit with 32 felony counts, mostly for carrying envelopes containing completed ballots to voters’ mailboxes for them. Another, Debra Dennard, was charged with two felonies for helping her partially blind father fill out his ballot. After three trials over the course of four years, Smart was acquitted; charges against her fellow Quitman activists were dropped in 2014.
No convictions or guilty pleas resulted. But some of the cases stretched on for years. Lives were disrupted, jobs were lost. And Kemp had delivered the intended message: Don’t go trying to register black voters in our state. Don’t try running for office. And just to be on the safe side of the law, maybe just don’t vote at all.
Weeks before the 2012 election, he sent the same message to a Georgia-based group that had worked to register newly naturalized Asian Americans in the Southeast. Helen Ho, an attorney at the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, had discovered, after early voting began, that none of the voters registered by the group had been added to the rolls. When Ho complained, Kemp launched another strong-arm investigation, citing “potential legal concerns surrounding AALAC’s photocopying and public disclosure of voter registration applications.” Once again, no illegalities were found. But the investigation dragged out for two-and-a-half years, diverting the group’s resources and energy into defending itself and helping Kemp gain further notoriety on the right as a bare-knuckles foe of “voter fraud.”
Two years later, striking strategically just two months before the 2014 elections, Kemp went after a juicy new target: Abrams’ New Georgia Voter Project, which had registered more than 100,000 new voters (or thought it had). “We’re just not going to put up with voter fraud,” Kemp told a TV reporter as he launched an investigation that would again drag on for years, derailing the project’s work, only to find no prosecutable violations. When Abrams and her “left-wing agitators” sued, Kemp lit into them for “brazen bullying, baseless accusations, and ridiculous lawsuits.” While he insisted that he was doing his darnedest to protect “the integrity of our elections,” he was more candid when he spoke in 2014 to a Republican group, caught on tape by a voting-rights activist: “Democrats are working hard, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines,” he warned. “If they can do that, they can win these elections.”
All told, Kemp has launched investigations of activists who’d registered nearly 200,000 black, Latino, and Asian voters. To block many of the new registrants, Kemp used Exact Match, a version of the infamous Interstate Crosscheck System promoted by Kansas Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach (which has a 99 percent error rate, according to a 2017 paper by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and Microsoft), instructing officials to refuse any registration that contained a typographical error (a stray comma, for instance), or in which the information did not precisely “match” the records of the state’s drivers license bureau and Social Security office. This is the means by which Kemp has placed those 53,000 registrations on hold just ahead of the November midterm elections. Two-thirds of those registrations belong to African Americans.
“Georgia has been for years considered the cesspool of election security,” says Marilyn Marks, a Republican who heads the Coalition for Good Government, a voting-integrity group. “It’s the only state in the country where one person is controlling all the programming for every machine in the state. In other states, the counties do their own ballots and voter rolls. You don’t just have one man or woman behind the curtain. It’s unverifiable, it’s unauditable, and now the guy who has the controls is running for the top office in the state. That’s why people are saying, Hey, wait a minute!”
The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder—the ruling that struck down the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act—gave Kemp an opening to strike more directly at voters’ rights by simply removing them from the rolls. According to the Associated Press, over the last six years, some 1.4 million Georgia voters have been de-registered—including almost 600,000 last year, as Kemp’s gubernatorial campaign got underway. The methods were often specious, if not downright illegal. To many people, however, Kemp’s justifications sound perfectly reasonable. “It’s an easy argument to make,” says Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. “‘Let’s clean up the rolls because we don’t want voter fraud, like dead people voting.’ Nobody wants that, right?”
“The ways in which ‘election security’ is framed is Fox News-soundbite-worthy,” says Carol Anderson. “But they cannot withstand interrogation. Who’s got time to do the research, though, and see through it? On the surface it all sounds so reasonable. Just like literacy tests once did in the Jim Crow South: ‘We don’t want people voting who can’t answer questions about the U.S. Constitution, now do we?'”
Last year, Kemp’s office sent notices to 380,000 registered voters who had recently moved. Those who failed to respond (to notices sent to their former homes) within 30 days were placed on the state’s inactive voter list—meaning they’ll be cleaned off the rolls if they’ve skipped two consecutive federal elections. The manner in which he’s gone about this purge amounts to a violation of federal law, but one that will almost certainly never be probed by the U.S. Department of Justice under President Donald Trump.
“Kemp is going to self-select his own voters,” says Henderson. Common Cause Georgia has been fielding complaints from voters who’ve discovered that—even after voting in the state and local primaries this spring, or the runoff this summer—they’d been kicked off the rolls for failing to vote for president in 2012 and 2016, even though the federal “Motor Voter” law prohibits states from striking voters for non-participation. “How did I become a non-voter when I just voted?” one woman asked Henderson. “Brian Kemp,” Henderson said.
There’s no telling how many registered voters, fired up by Abrams’ historic campaign, will be purged from the rolls between now and election night. Incredibly enough, though, that’s not the gravest concern for voting-rights advocates, who worry that Kemp may have one last great trick up his sleeve.
WHEN JASMINE CLARK, a Democrat running for state representative, went to vote in this year’s July 24 primary runoffs, election officials told her she was in the wrong polling place, although she hadn’t moved since voting there in 2016. Twenty-five minutes later, as she continued to ask questions, she was told that a mistake had been made: Gee, this was her precinct after all. “Unlike other people who were turned away that day,” she wrote later in a sworn complaint that was part of a lawsuit filed against Kemp’s office, “I had the flexibility to stay to fight for my right to vote in the right precinct.”
Dana Bowers, who works for a congressional candidate in another district, was also told—after checking the Secretary of State’s “My Voter Page” to make sure she knew where to vote—that she’d come to the wrong place. No, I didn’t, said Bowers, who’d come prepared with a printed copy of what the state elections site had told her. “Don’t worry, Ms. Bowers, this has been happening all day,” a poll worker told her. Voter-complaint hotlines reported almost 1,500 calls about long lines and mixed-up voting places, on an election day that attracted relatively few voters.
Some mix-ups were chalked up to those ancient voting machines—which had been hacked, perhaps twice, in 2016. Georgia’s outdated machines run on Windows 2000, which is no longer supported by Microsoft. The touch-screen machines don’t allow for backup paper ballots to be produced, and after a judge rejected a last-minute appeal from voting groups this fall to require paper ballots—ruling that this would cause “long lines” and confuse poll workers—it’ll stay that way. “Thing is, we already had long lines,” Henderson says. “In all the places where Kemp wants them. The machines are so old, they break down all the time. And of course local elections people don’t know how to fix them.”
By state law, any county can choose to use paper ballots to verify results. But in a letter Kemp sent to county officials on August 1, the secretary of state told them this wasn’t true, and told them to pay no heed to civil-rights and voting-integrity groups urging them to use paper, and ostensibly spreading false rumors that “these machines can’t be trusted to accurately deliver election results.” Only the state, he misinformed them, has the power to determine that its machines are “inoperable and unsafe,” and thus order paper ballots. “To this day,” Kemp assured the counties, “there is no credible evidence that our election process is anything except secure and accurate.”
The credible evidence of the machines’ vulnerabilities was already so overwhelming in 2016 that the federal government offered to pay for ramped-up cybersecurity protections. Kemp refused the money, claiming, according to a 2016 report in Nextgov, that this was yet another example of the Obama Democrats trampling states’ rights by attempting to “subvert the Constitution to achieve the goal of federalizing elections under the guise of security.” Instead, he agreed to set up a commission on buying new machines—in time for the 2020 elections. There was just no way to do it for the 2016 elections, he insisted, or for 2018. The upshot, says Marilyn Marks: “Unless the courts step in at the last minute to require paper ballots, there is no way to stop the secretary of state in Georgia from giving himself the results he needs on election night. This is a system intentionally designed for rigging.”
Marilyn Marks, Coalition for Good Governance
The voting machines, which are completely controlled by Kemp, can very easily be tampered with. The ballots for every county and municipality are produced by the Secretary of State’s office. So are the voter rolls sent to polling places. Confusing or incorrect ballots can be produced for individual precincts, causing untraceable undervotes for Democrats. Logan Lamb, an Atlanta security researcher who alerted the state in 2016 after accidentally hacking into the state’s election data while doing research, agrees with other cybersecurity experts that it would be a snap to alter the old memory-card templates to skew results, and to modify “ballot-building” files to corrupt the outcome. Voter data can easily be scrambled to change people’s precincts, or to remove them from the rolls entirely. It is the perfect set-up for unscrupulous election officials. And few in recent history have demonstrated fewer scruples about suppressing votes and rigging elections than Kemp.
In his 1965 speech calling for passage of the Voting Rights Act, President Johnson lamented the “harsh fact” that “men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right,” he said. No single elections official in the ensuing half-century has displayed quite the level of ingenuity that Brian Kemp has brought to the effort to preserve white supremacy in Georgia.
If he defeats Abrams on Nov. 6, Sara Henderson says, it won’t matter if Kemp has resisted the temptation to directly tamper with the election results. “There’s going to be a cloud of suspicion over this election, forever,” she says, “and that’s a shame.” But while that outcome would be profoundly discouraging for Georgia’s emerging majority, the movement to empower Southern voters, which Abrams will continue to champion and lead, is now a year-round organizing effort—and it’s already yielded momentum-building victories in Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, with more to come in November. “Our message since 2016 has been that an election is a comma, not a period,” says DeJuana Thompson, a get-out-the-vote organizer for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 who founded WokeVote, which is galvanizing millennials of color in Georgia and the South. “We’re reimagining black voting power, and the victories will fuel us as much as the setbacks.”