Voters waited over an hour to vote at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta on Tuesday. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

The ballot-by-ballot fight for Georgia begins anew on Wednesday

Newspaper deadlines are rather like sharks. They do not blink, they do not stop, they do not bargain. They just feed and move, feed and move.

An unalterable deadline demanded that these words, intended to tell you what the world might look like after Election Day, be polished and handed in for inspection by 5 p.m. Tuesday, two hours before the first polling station in Georgia closed.

Which means the best I can do for the Wednesday reader is address the most important political issue that will remain the same, regardless of who – if anyone – won last night’s race for governor. Regardless of what party gained or retained control of Congress.

That issue is voter security – and the very different ways that Republicans and Democrats have come to define it.

The past few months have guaranteed that, from Wednesday until the close of the next presidential campaign in 2020, we’ll be talking about the ballot: Who is allowed to cast it, what must be done to protect it, and how do you and I keep tabs on the people we assign to answer those first two questions?

The foundational theme of this year’s gubernatorial contest was established by years of legal fights over voter registration between Stacey Abrams, then the leader of state House Democrats, and Secretary of State Brian Kemp. One would become the Democratic nominee for governor, the other would win the Republican nod.

Two years of debate over Russian hacking and data breaches contributed more tinder. By October, “voter purges” and “exact match” were trending phrases on social media, and federal judges were every bit as important to campaigns as pollsters. Maybe more so.

A crescendo was reached on Sunday, when Secretary of State Kemp announced that his office would investigate the Democratic Party of Georgia for “possible cyber crimes” – revolving around the manner in which the party backing his gubernatorial rival handled a tip about vulnerabilities in the state’s voter registration data system.

Kemp provided no evidence to back up his charge. But cybersecurity is a complicated issue, and so the weekend’s contretemps likely had a minimal impact on Tuesday’s outcome.

Rather, it has put to bed any lingering image of a secretary of state, our top election official, as a figure who operates in a realm beyond mere politics.

The wide partisan chasm over voter security will continue, in large part, because of two other things that didn’t change Tuesday. Love him or loathe him, President Donald Trump is still in the White House today, and will no doubt continue to rally his supporters with an emphasis on illegal immigration – and the insinuation that people who shouldn’t be allowed to vote are in fact doing so.

Another thing that still holds true: Republicans are still in charge of the state Legislature. Georgia was one of the first states to require photo IDs at the polls – a law premised on the assumption that illegal ballots were being cast. This was long before Mr. Trump made the scene.

Last month, we told you that in February 2017, as secretary of state, Kemp settled a federal lawsuit challenging his office’s “exact match” practice of putting on hold voter registration forms that didn’t precisely conform with information on one of two government data bases.

By the next month, the Legislature had passed a measure that reinstated “exact match” – which is yet again in litigation. A federal judge ruled last week that more than 3,000 newly naturalized citizens swept up in the filter should be allowed to cast their ballots without having to prove their citizenship time after time.

A parallel may be already building. We know that in January, the General Assembly will take up the expensive issue of replacing all of Georgia’s voting machines. They were scarce in some polling stations on Tuesday – counties are loath to invest in machines they know are on their way out.

But beyond that debate is one over voter database security, touched off by Secretary of State Kemp’s weekend allegations.

The background: Last week, someone inspecting the inside protocols of the state’s My Voter Page website found vulnerabilities that could allow hackers access to private voter information. That person passed detailed information to a volunteer at the state Democratic party, who passed it on to technology experts for evaluation.

A lawyer involved in litigation over a 2017 database breach by the secretary of state’s office was brought in. He called the FBI. The agency called Kemp.

Last May, Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed Senate Bill 315, a cyber security bill passed by the Legislature. It would have criminalized the intentional act of accessing a computer or computer network without proper authority.

Cybersecurity experts persuaded the governor that friendly “white-hat” hackers help networks assess their vulnerability to hostile hackers. That fight may now have an ideological cast – or at least a public information concern. If the keepers of government data bases are the only ones allowed to discuss vulnerabilities, then only the keepers will know if they’re doing their job.

State Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, author of the vetoed bill, said Monday that he’s all but certain to introduce another version of the measure come January, according to the Cartersville Daily Tribune News.

If Republicans define voter security as making sure only the right people cast ballots, Democrats define the phrase as making sure that every eligible person is allowed to exercise that right.

The 2018 campaign for governor saw Democrats scouring the countryside for new voters, and flooding county election offices with paper registration forms. Republicans complained that Democrats were purposely avoiding a smart phone app that allowed easy online registration. But Democrats weren’t necessarily after people who could use that app.

That was Step One.

Step Two was inundating the state with absentee ballot forms, mailed to new or infrequent voters. Consider that leaked Kemp audio from a private fundraiser, in which the Republican candidate expressed concern about the Democratic emphasis on absentee ballots.

“They have just an unprecedented number of that,” Kemp was heard saying, “which is something that continues to concern us, especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote — which they absolutely can — and mail those ballots in, we’ve got to have heavy turnout to offset that.”

It was that flood of absentee ballots that Kemp was referencing. And which caused the sudden federal court case over Gwinnett County rejections of hundreds of absentee ballots rejected because the signature on the ballot didn’t exactly match signatures on the registration.

Clearly, the tactic worked well enough that Democrats are likely to try it again in 2020. And that very likely will be incentive enough for Republicans in the General Assembly to curb it – for voter security reasons.

The ballot-by-ballot fight for control of Georgia didn’t end Tuesday. It’s just begun. I can tell you that without even seeing Wednesday.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.