Vote counts: In Georgia, questions of fairness remain week after Election Day

Why We Wrote This

Perhaps more than any other 2018 election, the Georgia governor’s race is an example of how the battle for access to voting 50 years after the civil rights movement has emerged as part of a broader struggle for constitutional rights.

Mike Stewart/AP
A Fulton County election worker counts provisional ballots, Nov. 7 in Atlanta. Malfunctioning voting machines, missing power cords, and hours-long lines at the polls are being scrutinized in Georgia. Republican Brian Kemp declared victory last week, but Democrat Stacey Abrams has vowed not to concede until every vote for governor is counted.

A week after the 2018 mid-term elections, Democratic lawyers are searching for provisional ballots that may have been lost in the mail in Georgia’s Doherty County. On Election Day, Chatham County voters said they were told that they could not cast provisional ballots because there were none left. And in Floyd and Coffee counties, county officials originally reported more early vote ballots than were actually reflected in the returns.

A federal judge on Monday delayed certification of the vote until Friday and also ordered that provisional ballots be protected. 

But as Deep South Democrats vie to locate enough uncounted votes to force a runoff in the governor’s race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp, they also point to challenges that began well before Election Day: Voter purges, 53,000 ballot disqualifications, and poor preparation for a record voter turnout that left some voters standing in line for three hours, in the rain.

“It has been an unfair process,” says Abrams spokeswoman Lauren Groh-Wargo.

For those reasons, Ms. Abrams, trailing by a third of a percentage point, has refused to concede. She insists she has a chance to force a runoff if more than 20,000 provisional ballots are located and counted. Mr. Kemp has joined other Republicans in suggesting Democrats are sore losers trying to steal an election by conjuring votes.

Complicating the affair is that Kemp, the former secretary of state, didn’t step down from his election oversight role until two days after the election. There is no law in Georgia requiring a secretary of state to step aside when running for another office. Most, however, recuse themselves to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest and to ensure there isn’t an asterisk put on democracy. Kemp is believed to be the first person in state history not to step aside, political observers say. Some 44 percent of Georgians, according to a recent WSB-TV/AJC poll, are concerned that the election could be fixed.

And perhaps more than any other 2018 election, the Georgia governor’s race is an example of how the battle for access to voting 50 years after the civil rights movement has emerged as part of a broader struggle for constitutional rights. That battle for access has only expanded since a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that erased the oversight provision of the Voting Rights Act, arguing that it was no longer necessary in modern America.

Nationally, election experts say, democracy won big on Election Day, as record numbers of voters flexed their will. Some 49 percent of all eligible voters participated – the highest number in 100 years for a midterm, according to preliminary figures by the United States Election Project.

Georgians, too, showed up in droves. An estimated 55 percent of eligible voters exercised their right to vote – 21 points higher than the state average since 1982 and the biggest change seen in any state, according to the FiveThirtyEight data website.

But many voters, especially in urban, minority-dominated districts, say their Election Day experiences weren’t exactly confidence-inspiring. Poll workers in Snellville forgot electrical cords to power the machines. Elsewhere, long lines formed as hundreds of voting machines that had been sequestered for a court case weren’t replaced. Ballots were lost in the mail after hurricane Michael smashed into southwest Georgia.

And in a state that helped shape the civil rights movement, the thorny confluence of race and power hung as a reminder of darker days over the proceedings.

Georgia, led by Kemp, has tested the bounds of voting rights with a host of restrictive measures, some of which critics say are aimed at minority voters. But the state has also come to highlight how equality through access has become increasingly focused on the profound power not just of voting itself, but of individual votes.

“It is a paradox,” says Gilda Daniels, a former deputy chief at Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “We encourage voter participation but we have a system that almost crumbles when people participate. On top of that, you have this situation ... where you have Republican candidates saying that to count every vote is voter fraud, which is absurd. The democratic process is supposed to ensure that every vote counts, and if every vote counts then we should count every vote.”

Two years after President Trump declared the presidential election rigged even after winning, the state of voting in America has come under deep scrutiny across the US. Worries about fraud versus voter suppression hew neatly to America’s partisan divides.

Aging voting machines – Georgia’s machines still use Windows 2000 – came to the forefront as Congress has underfunded election infrastructure. More disturbingly, US officials have concluded that Russian agents tried to infiltrate election systems in six states while stealing personal information from 500,000 voters. Nevertheless, a May report from the Senate Intelligence Committee called the “US election infrastructure ... fundamentally resilient.”

Such attacks on democracy itself became a driving force for turnout across the US. And wherever it was on the ballot, the right to vote won.

  • Michigan voters approved automatic voter registrations and overwhelmingly demanded redistricting reform to curb extreme gerrymandering.
  • North Carolina voters, buffeted by what courts found to be racial gerrymandering in their state, elected a staunch voting rights attorney to its Supreme Court.
  • And Floridians agreed by 63 percent to restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences.

“These results are really about, is our system working?” says Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist. “Do we have legitimate government?”

The question is a particularly vexing one in Georgia.

Fewer than 26,000 votes separate Abrams and Kemp from a runoff on Dec. 4. Abrams, a Yale educated former Georgia House minority leader, spent five years through her New Georgia Project registering voters. The effort paid off. Black participation more than doubled.

Meanwhile, Kemp led the country in voter purges. He sidelined 53,000 votes under an “exact match” provision shot down by courts, in part because 70 percent of those pulled were from African-American voters, who make up only 30 percent of the state’s electorate.

“We have been at these kinds of crossroads before,” former President Obama said at an Abrams rally in the days before the election.

For his part, Kemp has argued that minority registration has skyrocketed under his watch. “The election integrity is beyond doubt,” he told reporters last week.

Culturally, election integrity has been an issue in both Georgia and Florida, the two most hotly contested states. Georgia was the site of the largest vote-buying scandal in US history, in 1997, when one FBI agent noted to The New York Times that many rural Georgians “couldn’t wait to turn 18 so they could get paid to vote.”

But equally salient to the debate is Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court case that removed federal oversight over Georgia and other jurisdictions in the South, where voter suppression had been rife before the Civil Rights Act.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that “the country has changed” and that laws that remedy voter discrimination must be based on “current conditions.”

The decision unleashed a series of voting restriction laws in states like Georgia and North Carolina. And it likely empowered Kemp’s campaign to shape the election – as well as oversee his own, says Ms. Daniels. 

“Voter ID [in Georgia] was the first in a movement to use a restriction or tightening of the law for partisan purposes,” says Seth McKee, a political scientist at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock. Understanding that, “then the narrative becomes about stopping fraud or expanding the electorate, and it's become a partisan issue that has filtered down to the mass electorate. So when [Mr.] Trump says, as he has done, that, ‘Hey, this thing is rigged,’ he is playing that card. Republicans believe the system isn’t safe, even though the evidence for that is like finding Bigfoot. But it has been effective as a partisan tool.”

Ironically, however, attempts to suppress the vote ultimately may have galvanized people to cast their ballot, experts say.

“People see the hypocrisy,” says Daniels, now a professor at the University of Baltimore. “But the good news is that it ... has encouraged people to turn out.”

No law prevents Kemp from overseeing his election. While his legitimacy could remain intact, his credibility may have taken a hit should he prevail, election observers say.

“Did [Kemp] put his thumb on the scale? I don’t think so, and I don’t think that he could have, because elections are run at the local level,” says Professor Bullock. “But a lot of this would have gone away if he had stepped down [before the election].”

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