Georgia gubernatorial candidate’s huge conflict of interest

How’s this for an axiom that is especially self-evident: An elected official should not oversee an election in which he is a candidate.

Tell that to Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, who is also the Georgia secretary of state and whose major responsibility is overseeing Georgia’s elections, including maintaining voter registration lists and certifying election results.

Kemp is in a close race against Stacey Abrams, the first black woman to win a major party’s gubernatorial nomination. Kemp’s decision to continue wearing his election-overseer hat even as he runs for office created an obvious conflict of interest, which he has brazenly exploited.

Last Monday, the Associated Press reported that Kemp’s office is blocking 53,000 voter registration applications. The applications were all flagged by Georgia’s “exact match” voter verification process, which was implemented by the state legislature last year. Under exact match, the information listed on voter application must exactly match information as it is listed either in a state driver’s license database or the federal Social Security database. Even the smallest discrepancy — a typo or a missing hyphen, for instance — can result in a hold on an application.

Proponents of exact match insist that it protects the integrity of Georgia’s elections. In fact, it does the opposite. The system disproportionately burdens voters of color; nearly 70% of the blocked applications belong to African Americans, who by contrast make up only 32% of the state’s population. Far from ensuring a fair election, Kemp’s actions have effectively disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters — many of whom, not coincidentally, are likely to vote for his opponent.

That’s why while a wide range of groups and public officials — including the NAACP Georgia State Conference, former Senator Max Cleland, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, and my organization, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — have called upon Kemp to either resign as secretary of state or recuse himself from any further involvement in election oversight. Several other groups have sued to end exact match.

Kemp’s claims that exact match is a neutral election protection mechanism ring especially hollow given his long and fraught history using this device. He implemented a version of the exact match system shortly after becoming secretary of state in 2010. In 2016, a group of civil rights organizations sued Kemp after it was revealed that exact match had resulted in the rejection of nearly 35,000 voter registrations — most of them from minority applicants — between 2013 and 2015.

Kemp’s office agreed to settle the suit; as part of the agreement, exact match was retired.

Just a year later, however, the GOP-controlled state legislature passed its own version of exact match, despite the recent lawsuit and despite repeated warnings from civil rights groups. In other words, the legislature had ample warning that its proposed policy would discriminate against voters of color. It passed the policy anyway.

On one hand, the legislature’s revival of exact match — and Kemp’s zealous use of it to his own benefit — represent a shocking exercise of nakedly partisan power, one that flies in the face of both laws and norms. But on the other hand, the scene playing out in Georgia is dismayingly familiar. It is the latest offensive in the renewed campaign against minority voting rights.

That campaign began with the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which crippled the Justice Department’s ability to preemptively stop discriminatory state voting policies before they could take effect. After Shelby County, three states — Texas, Alabama and North Carolina — rushed to implement restrictive voter ID laws. (I argued against the Texas law before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and we are challenging Alabama’s photo ID law in another circuit.)

Even in jurisdictions not previously covered by the provision of the Voting Rights Act that the Shelby County decision disabled, voter-suppression tactics have run rampant. Ohio began purging tens of thousands of voters from its rolls simply for sitting out an election; after years of litigation, the Supreme Court gave this practice the green light in June.

Just last week, the Supreme Court declined to overturn North Dakota’s voter ID law, which disallows post office boxes as valid addresses, threatening the franchise of American Indians living on reservations, many of whom don’t use physical street addresses. And the list goes on.

In each of these instances, as well as in Georgia, lawmakers who support these laws and policies say that they simply want to prevent voter fraud. But — and this cannot be emphasized often enough — there is no credible evidence to support widespread voter fraud. That hasn’t stopped the likes of Brian Kemp and President Trump from repeating the voter-fraud myth.

Since 2012, Kemp’s office has cancelled over 1.4 million voter registrations. Nearly 670,000 registrations were cancelled in 2017 alone — the same year Kemp announced his candidacy. LDF and other civil rights groups have had to beat back polling site closures, limits on early voting and discriminatory voter registration maintenance in Georgia and across the country leading up to next month’s midterms.

There’s reason to hope that courts will remedy the situation in Georgia before Election Day. But that outcome, though welcome, would not end the larger assault on minority voting rights in the United States. Until the American people see that assault for what it is — a threat to our democracy as grave as any foreign meddling — the struggle to secure every American’s right to vote will continue.