Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s struggles over election security have rekindled a rivalry with one of the state’s most prominent Democrats. Except now his feud with Stacey Abrams is playing out against the backdrop of the race for governor.
Kemp, the state’s top elections official, and Abrams, a state legislator who launched a voter registration group, are the only two in a broader field of candidates putting election security and voting rights at the heart of their campaigns to succeed a term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal.
And they each have eagerly used the other as a foil, drawing on their long-running antagonism as fundraising fodder on the campaign trail. Kemp’s decision last week to cut ties with an elections center at Kennesaw State University after a series of embarrassing security lapses has only heightened the tension.
Abrams has pummeled Kemp over his decision to share publicly available data with a commission appointed by President Donald Trump to investigate voter fraud. At campaign appearances, the Democrat earns cascades of applause for claiming that “voter suppression is a way of life” for Kemp.
The Republican has struck back with zeal. He casts Abrams and her supporters — he calls them a band of “left-wing agitators” — as threats to the integrity of the ballot box. And Kemp vows to fight the “brazen bullying, baseless accusations and ridiculous lawsuits” that he said Abrams is marshaling.
The animosity between the two is deep-seated, certainly, but it also comes at a mutually beneficial time. Both are trying to gain early traction in the race even as their rivals maintain relative silence. And a now-familiar fight over voting rights offers both a partisan-friendly message to invigorate their bases nearly a year before the primary.
The feud has deep ideological roots: Kemp supports strict voter ID laws to prevent what he called the threat of illegal voters casting ballots, though his office has repeatedly said there are no instances of “illegal votes” in Georgia.
Abrams says laws requiring that people show photo identification at polling places could disenfranchise minorities, the disabled and the elderly, though the requirements have not appeared to cause a drop among minority voters.
But their back-and-forth took on a sharper edge in 2014 after Abrams’ nascent 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 said tens of thousands of applications were either missing or had not been properly submitted.
An escalating legal battle that dominated the final days of the 2014 election ensued, and each side has since claimed legal and moral victories. Abrams’ group now claims to have registered more than 200,000 minority voters — about one-quarter of its goal of 800,000 by 2024.
The latest flash point came last week, with Kemp’s decision to move his office’s elections work in-house for the first time in 15 years. Since 2002, Georgia outsourced oversight of the state’s elections operations and voting machines to the KSU center through one of the more unusual election partnerships in the nation.
The move was prompted by private cybersecurity researcher Logan Lamb, who revealed last year that a misconfigured server left 6.5 million voter records and other sensitive data exposed. The problem persisted for months even after Lamb warned officials about the vulnerability.
Kemp said he only learned about the lapses in March, which he called “inexcusable,” and said he was certain the work could be transitioned to his office within a year.
It’s the second time a trove of sensitive data was left exposed on his watch: His office in 2015 inadvertently released the personal information of more than 6.2 million voters to a dozen organizations, including political parties and news outlets. The state agreed to pay for credit and identity theft monitoring for those voters at an expected cost of $1.2 million.
A ‘forward-looking’ solution
Even as Abrams and Kemp have made election security a focal point of their campaigns, their main rivals have not.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the presumptive GOP front-runner, has largely steered clear of mentions of voter security at stops, though his campaign called on Kemp to develop a plan — which could involve paper backups — to ensure voter details remain confidential.
“He wants to see forward-looking solutions to potential hacks, not reactionary responses to problems after they arise,” said Scott Binkley, Cagle’s campaign manager.
Two other GOP candidates — state Sens. Hunter Hill and Michael Williams — have not seized on voter security in the campaign’s opening months. A Williams spokesman said he would back extensive updates to the election system to allow each voter paper receipts of their ballots. Hill’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
State Rep. Stacey Evans, the other leading Democrat in the race, has talked mostly about her plan to bolster the HOPE scholarship, though she sent a dispatch to donors urging them to oppose Kemp’s decision to share data with Trump’s voter-fraud commission.
For Abrams, the issue never seems far from the surface. At stops, she emphasizes the need for a paper trail of recorded votes — something the state eliminated when it committed to touch-screen voting machines — and an overhaul of aging equipment.
“No one uses a phone from 2002,” she said at an Athens rally. “Why are we voting on machines that were built then?”
Cybersecurity experts say Georgia could ease concerns about the security of the voter networks with paper backup, and Kemp has said he’s open to the idea. But he and his office have said the current system is secure and they point to an array of measures, supplemented by private contractors, that they say have prevented malicious breaches.
At his rallies, Kemp has positioned himself as a happy defender of Georgia’s ballot from fraudsters. He’s told cheering supporters that he battled “Georgia Democrats trying to undermine the integrity of the ballot” and painted lawsuits against his office as politically motivated attacks brought by elitists.
“Liberals tried everything they could to stop me,” he said at one campaign stop. “I fought them every single step of the way. And I’ll do the same as your governor.”