This piece published on April 11, 2017
The wide-open race for Georgia governor seems likely to resurface a long-running feud between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams over voter rights.
Kemp, who as secretary of state is Georgia’s top elections official, and Abrams, the House minority leader and head of a voter registration group, have long sparred over election policy. With both eyeing the state’s top job – Kemp is in the race and Abrams is widely expected to run – the debate is likely to sharpen.
The two have long been on opposite sides of the debate over elections issues, with Kemp advocating for stricter voter ID laws to prevent what he called the threat of illegal voters casting ballots and Abrams contending those new rules could disenfranchise minorities, the disabled and the elderly.
But they clashed the sharpest during the 2014 campaign after Abrams' new voter registration group, the New Georgia Project, announced ambitious goals to register 800,000 minority voters within a decade.
The group said it submitted 86,000 voter registration forms during the 2014 cycle, but Kemp’s office argued that tens of thousands of applications were either missing or had not been properly submitted.
Abrams’ group and other advocates filed a lawsuit that sought to force Kemp to process about 40,000 of the files, triggering an escalating legal battle in the final days of the 2014 election.
That lawsuit was later dismissed; a judge ruled that there was no evidence that local officials were not processing eligible applications.
Kemp trumpeted the ruling as proof that the lawsuit was “frivolous” and “ridiculous” and evidence that left-leaning groups were trying to abuse the system. Abrams, meanwhile, vowed to continue to seek help from the courts.
Since that 2014 case, Abrams has racked up several victories. About 18,000 additional forms submitted by the New Georgia Project in 2014 were added and matched to the voter file in 2015.
And her voter group supported a coalition that sued Kemp’s office again in 2016 over the cancellation of nearly 35,000 registration applications from 2013 to 2016 due to mismatched information.
That lawsuit was settled in February 2017, with the state agreeing to no longer reject applications that don’t exactly match identification information in state and federal databases.
The voter rights issues are likely to play a prominent role in both campaigns.
At Kemp’s kickoff earlier this month, he told cheering supporters that he fought “Georgia Democrats trying to undermine the integrity of the ballot and won.” And he cast himself as a defender of Georgia’s ballot from fraudsters seeking to vote.
And Abrams, too, appears likely to make voting rights a cornerstone of her campaign. She opposed legislation approved this session that she said could disenfranchise minority voters. And the New Georgia Project said it has thus far registered 200,000 minority voters – about one-quarter of its goal.