Opinion

Kemp acting as secretary of state in his own election is a threat to voter confidence

Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp makes his pitch to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon in Macon in August.
Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp makes his pitch to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon in Macon in August. bcabell@macon.com

It is a fundamental tenet of democratic procedures, as well as a recognized international electoral standard, that elections should be managed by an impartial and independent authority. Georgia’s current gubernatorial election is strikingly out of sync with that norm: Secretary of State Brian Kemp is the final arbiter of an election in which he, as a candidate, has a clear personal and partisan interest.

As scholars with decades of experience teaching political science in Georgia, we feel that in light of the obvious (and quite bipartisan) concerns his dual position raises for the fairness and integrity of the democratic process, Mr. Kemp should immediately resign as secretary of state.

We should be clear: our call for his resignation does not rest on allegations of inappropriate behavior vis-à-vis his position. Whether he has intentionally acted to disenfranchise poor and minority voters — as is alleged — is not the primary issue.

The primary issue, rather, is the message that his dual position as arbiter and participant sends to voters. It raises the specter that we see regularly in non-democracies like Venezuela and Russia: vote if you like, but know that the outcome is fixed by those who are now in power and who wish to stay there.

That is clearly not a message that a secretary of state should send.

As the overseer of elections, his job is to ensure that the process works. Indeed, on that score, Mr. Kemp’s time in service is not without success. The number of voters registered today (6.8 million) is more than it was when he took office in 2010 (5.8 million), and this growth outstrips the state’s population growth during that time (742,000). He also initiated an online voter registration process.

Mr. Kemp’s job involves more basic issues, however. At the most fundamental level, it involves making sure that our elections continue to elicit public support and trust. The Secretary must instill in voters a sense of confidence that Georgia takes seriously its responsibility to defend the sanctity of their vote. A secretary who himself becomes a source of doubt has lost the ability to carry out that task.

To see the full extent of the problem, imagine what will happen to voter confidence if the election results are contested. In such an event, Mr. Kemp would be responsible for adjudicating the results. Does that instill confidence? (Would we assume that a judge could preside over a trial in which she was a plaintiff?)

What matters here is not so much the policies that Mr. Kemp has pushed for or the manner in which he has administered them. What also matters is how the process is perceived and how that perception will affect voter attitudes going forward.

A case in point is the controversy over reports about Gwinnett County’s relatively high rate of disqualified absentee ballots. Dramatically higher scrutiny in increasingly diverse counties like Gwinnett raises reasonable concerns about inequities in the application of the law. Can we really just take it for granted that Mr. Kemp, as candidate for governor, is making non-partisan, independent decisions over such cases?

Other aspects of Mr. Kemp’s record compound his perception problem. It certainly does not inspire confidence in his impartiality that his office has, based on allegations of voter fraud, put on hold (“pending”) over 50,000 registrations that didn’t precisely match information on file with the Social Security Administration or the Georgia Department of Driver Services. Nor does it help that, according to one investigation, 70 percent of the registrations put on hold are of black voters (who account for 32 percent of Georgia’s population).

Equally troubling is the fact that his office purged almost 670,000 registered voters in 2017 alone, and some 1.5 million voters between 2012 and 2016 (roughly 1 out of every 10 Georgia voters and nearly twice as many as the state cancelled between 2008 and 2012), and that an investigation has shown that a majority of those purged were not only still in the state; they had never even left their district.

Yet while these matters do not help Mr. Kemp’s case, we can perhaps overlook them. Perhaps he really believed that voter fraud was a problem (even though no studies confirm that view). Perhaps he had no knowledge of the demographics of those whose registration his office has put on hold. And perhaps he genuinely does not see how citizen engagement is threatened by the cumbersome procedures involved with getting back on the voter rolls.

What he cannot miss, however, is that his very candidacy creates at least the appearance of political manipulation, and in so doing, undermines the process his office was created to protect.

Put simply, to do his job, Mr. Kemp must now leave it.

Rick Doner, Goodrich C. White Professor of Political Science, Emory University

Peter Lindsay, Professor of Political Science and Philosophy, Georgia State University

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