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Charges of voter suppression should prompt larger discussion on Georgia elections

Donald Trump Jr. speaks to the crowd during a campaign event of Republican nominee for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, right, Oct. 9 in Athens.
Donald Trump Jr. speaks to the crowd during a campaign event of Republican nominee for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, right, Oct. 9 in Athens. AP

Back in August I wrote a column about how important the issue of Medicaid expansion might be to voters in Georgia who hadn’t made up their mind who to vote for in this year’s governor’s race between Stacey Abrams (who supports expansion) and Brian Kemp (who opposes it.) At the time I promised to write more columns on other substantive issues that came up for debate between the two candidates as a service to readers who try to select candidates based on their ideas and not just on their party affiliation and/or their sparkling personality.

I have written no such columns since then because (sadly, but predictably) there has been very little debate on substantive issues between the two candidates in the latter stages of the campaign. As usual the contest has devolved completely into a series of back-and-forth, below-the-belt charges of incompetence and malfeasance, many of which represent wild distortions of reality.

Recently, the campaign has become dominated by charges the Abrams campaign has levied against Kemp over policies implemented by his office that she says are designed to suppress black voter turnout in the coming election. The accusation has drawn national attention, and a federal lawsuit has been filed against the secretary of state’s office over the matter (just weeks after Kemp’s office had to fend off another federal lawsuit over security issues relating to the state’s all-electronic voting system.)

At issue is the implementation of an “exact matching” policy that has held up the processing of tens of thousands of voter applications over any discrepancy (such as a missing hyphen or single misplaced letter) between the application and information on file with the state for that individual. The change in policy has been shown to have a significantly disproportional negative impact on black voters. With the governor’s election being as tight as it is forecast to be, any policy implemented by Kemp’s office that negatively impacted black voters was sure to be hotly contested by his Democratic opponent.

Kemp is vehement in his denials that there was any intent to suppress black votes with the policy change and insists it was all about ensuring the integrity of the state’s voting system. I can’t look into his heart and discern what his motivations are, of course, but my gut feeling is that he wouldn’t be as much of a stickler about missing hyphens and misplaced letters if implementation of the “exact match” policy would have frozen the applications of significantly more likely Republican voters than likely Democratic ones.

The controversies that have dogged Kemp during his tenure as secretary of state should prompt us all to have a discussion about how our election system is managed and administrated that goes beyond the upcoming election in November. How much sense does it make for any single partisan elected official to have the power to oversee an election process in which he or she is running for any office in that election? The phrase “the fox guarding the henhouse” comes to mind.

There are other alternatives. In North Carolina, for example, a bipartisan commission appointed by the governor made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and one unaffiliated member has the responsibility of overseeing both elections and ethics in government.

Perhaps the controversies over Kemp’s alleged misuse of his position as secretary of state to game the election in his favor, whether they are valid or just represent overblown political mud-slinging, will prompt whoever wins the governor’s race or someone in the state legislature to propose changes to how our election system is overseen to something that is less prone to potential abuse like the one used in North Carolina.

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com.

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