John Barrow's promise to protect your right not to vote

John Barrow, the Democratic nominee for secretary of state, in a May debate. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
John Barrow, the Democratic nominee for secretary of state, in a May debate. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM



John Barrow thinks you have a sacred right not to vote for him, or for anyone else. And that the government ought not be allowed to erase you, should you decide to exercise that right.

“There’s no need to be purging lists of voters who choose not to vote for any one of a thousand and one reasons,” said Barrow, a former congressman who’s now a Democratic candidate for secretary of state. “If you’ve got something better to do and nothing worth voting for, you’ve got a God-given right not to vote.”

You don’t normally hear this kind of talk during an election season, especially given that Georgia’s secretary of state is in charge of balloting.

But there is a political and legal logic to Barrow’s remarks, which were sparked by last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold an Ohio law that allows election officials to remove “inactive” voters from its registration rolls.

Notices are sent out to anyone who fails to cast a ballot during a two-year period in Ohio. If you don’t respond, and don’t vote within the next four years, then – zap! – you’re gone. You can’t vote in the next hot race, unless you renew that registration.

Georgia has a similar but slightly more elaborate law. After three years of “no contact,” you’re sent a notice. If that notice (postage pre-paid) is not returned in 30 days, you’re declared “inactive.” If you fail to cast a ballot in the next two federal election cycles, then – zap! – you’re gone.

As with everything else, there is a partisan cast to this practice. Republicans say such laws are necessary to maintain accurate rolls and ensure that those who shouldn’t be allowed to vote, aren’t.

Democrats suspect that such laws unfairly target minority voters. Only last February, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, now a Republican candidate for governor, settled a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Georgia – which alleged that Kemp’s office had improperly sent “inactive” notices to 160,000 legitimate Georgia voters who had done nothing more than change addresses within their counties of residency.

Which brings us back to John Barrow of Athens. Upon hearing of last week's 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Barrow responded with this Twitter message:

"Just because the Supreme Court allows you to discriminate doesn't mean you must discriminate. As your next Secretary of State, I'll protect citizens who choose not to vote and keep them from being purged from voter rolls."

As mentioned, Barrow cleared the Democratic primary last month. His November opponent will be decided in next month’s GOP primary runoff between David Belle Isle, the former mayor of Alpharetta, and state Rep. Brad Raffensperger, R-Johns Creek.

Barrow was first elected to Congress in 2004. By the time he was defeated in 2014, he had been twice drawn out of his 12th District by Republicans, and was the last white Democrat from the Deep South in the U.S. House.

In those several fights for survival, Barrow developed a talent for campaign messages that appealed to conservative white and more moderate black voters alike. In a 2012 TV ad, Barrow produced a bolt-action rifle to brag about his endorsement by the National Rifle Association. But in that same spot, he also drew out a "little Smith & Wesson" revolver used by his grandfather "to help stop a lynching."

In his first statewide contest, Barrow hasn’t lost that touch. The first half of that post-SCOTUS Twitter message was aimed at black Democrats. The second was aimed at white, libertarian-minded conservatives like the ones he successfully courted in east Georgia.

“I think the right to vote is important. And I think the right not to vote is important. And I think one should not be burdened -- having to run sort of a gauntlet when you do decide not to vote, or finding oneself kicked off the list without adequate notice,” Barrow said in a Monday interview.

“Of course, you have to maintain the list,” he said. But death certificates can be used. As can change-of-address notices filed by voters themselves. And then there’s Georgia’s voter ID law, which Republicans insisted was necessary to stop rampant voter fraud. All of those are more reliable than sending out a notice that could easily be mistaken for junk mail, Barrow said.

“When 1.5 million postcards get sent out, and 1.2 million don’t come back, you know good and well that those 1.2 million people have not moved. That’s what happened in Ohio,” he said.

And while acknowledging the right not to vote may sound contrary to good social order, Barrow said that the polarized condition of the country, and the gerrymandering issue just ducked by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, combine to make skipping the ballot box a logical decision for many.

“In all of your congressional and local races, people not only have a right, but they have a pretty good incentive not to vote. That vote may be counted, but it don’t count,” Barrow said.

His Republican rivals aren’t buying it. “Clean, up-to-date and accurate voting rolls don’t discriminate,” said Raffensperger in a statement issued by his campaign. “Everybody, including the Supreme Court, gets this common-sense principle except John Barrow, who doesn’t seem to understand the difference between choosing not to vote and not responding to a notice letter.”

Belle Isle likewise rejected Barrow’s point of view. “Each year, Georgians die, and each year, Georgians move within the state and out of the state,” he said. “Given that every fraudulent vote steals the vote of a valid Georgia voter, diligence is imperative.”

It was only a Twitter message, but this and other appeals by Barrow to white, libertarian skeptics could be crucial to Democrats. In long-term importance, many consider the race second only to the contest for governor in importance.

Like our next governor, the next secretary of state will be in office during the 2020 census and the redrawing of congressional and state legislative lines that follow.

Should Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor, win her race in November, she would have a seat at the redistricting table – opposite Republican lawmakers, who are sure to maintain control of the Legislature this year.

Absent that victory, the next-best scenario for Democrats is to win back the secretary of state’s office. Lawsuits are virtually assured, and as secretary of state, Barrow would at least have a seat in the courtroom.

About the Author