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Kemp resigns as secretary of state, Abrams readies legal action

Kemp: 'We won the race and we’re moving forward’ 

Republican Brian Kemp on Thursday resigned as Georgia’s secretary of state as he sought to position himself as the “clear and convincing” winner of the race for governor. 

But Democrat Stacey Abrams is not conceding anything yet, hopeful that a trove of provisional ballots and other votes not yet recorded could be enough to force the tight race into a runoff. 

Her campaign unveiled a litigation team poised to take the fight to the courts as it continues a hunt for an additional 25,632 Abrams votes that will push the race into runoff territory.

Kemp’s office has said there are roughly 25,000 outstanding provisional and absentee ballots — making his lead virtually insurmountable — and on Thursday he released for the first time a detailed accounting of where each was cast. 

“The votes are not there for her,” Kemp said. “I respect the hard-fought race she ran. But we won the race, and we’re moving forward.”

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At a press conference shortly afterward, Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo demanded that Kemp release more elections data and said other ballots could still be outstanding, mentioning a batch of votes in Cobb County that were recently tallied. 

“He owes voters an explanation,” she said. “We need to see lists, we need to see counts of every single vote. We need to see all the military provisional numbers. They all need to be counted. We do not believe any of these numbers are credible.”

A November resignation

Kemp’s resignation as secretary of state came as a federal judge held a hearing over a lawsuit seeking to block him from directing a potential recount or playing any other role in resolving an election in which he’s a candidate. 

The timing of his resignation was infuriating to Democrats, who long questioned how he could oversee the state’s election process even as he ran for Georgia’s highest office. 

Asked about why he stepped down after the election and not before it, Kemp said he “wasn’t going to run from my job” and wasn’t concerned about criticism that he brought a partisan mind-set to the role. 

But he said a new elections chief will “give the public confidence in the certification process” that’s expected to be completed next week. 

Gov. Nathan Deal appointed longtime ally Robyn Crittenden, the commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, to serve out Kemp’s term. She is the first African-American woman to serve as a statewide constitutional officer in Georgia history. 

The post-election saga marks a new phase in a nationally watched race between bitter rivals that’s involved dueling press conferences, crowds of protesters that massed outside Deal’s office and a legal battle that’s well underway.

RELATED: How voting issues became a big issue in Georgia’s governor race

The state chapter of the NAACP filed a pair of lawsuits claiming that students at Spelman College and Morehouse College were improperly forced to vote with a provisional ballot -- or dissuaded from voting at all -- because their names didn’t show up on voter registration lists.

Brian Kemp, 55, is the Georgia Secretary of State and Republican candidate for governor. He worked on a farm outside Athens while growing up before majoring in agriculture in college. Kemp graduated from Athens Academy and the University of Georgia. He worked as a home builder and made real estate investments. Kemp served as a Georgia state senator until he was appointed to Secretary of State in 2010. He was endorsed for governor by President Donald Trump, who campaigned in Georgia for him.

And the second seeks to preserve the right of voters in the Pittman Park Recreation Center area to cast ballots. That was the Atlanta precinct where massive lines formed because of too few polling machines.

The Abrams campaign also waded into the legal battle on Thursday, announcing a lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party that seeks extensions for absentee ballots in Dougherty County that were delayed after Hurricane Michael struck parts of southwest Georgia. 

A path to a runoff?

Abrams has urged supporters to prepare for a Dec. 4 runoff, which would be required if neither candidate holds a majority of the vote when the counting ends. A Libertarian, Ted Metz, got about 1 percent of the vote.

But she faces a steep vote deficit. With few remaining ballots uncounted, Kemp was nearly 63,000 votes ahead of Abrams — and her campaign was scrambling to find the votes it needed to bring him below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

Lauren Groh-Wargo and other members of Stacey Abrams campaign team hold a press conference. AJC/Bob Andres

The Secretary of State’s Office said about 3,000 absentee ballots are still pending, and it also gave an estimate of 21,358 provisional ballots that have yet to be counted. In 2016, with a slightly larger turnout, 7,592 of 16,739 provisional ballots were counted.

Most of the provisional ballots came from Democratic-leaning counties, including roughly 12,000 in areas of metro Atlanta where Abrams won by big margins. But thousands of other votes were scattered in rural Georgia, where Kemp dominated.

As some of the final returns trickled in, Kemp and his allies painted the scenario as mathematically impossible for Abrams to overcome.

“Simply put: Abrams’ campaign is trying to create new votes because they know it’s their only remaining hope,” Kemp spokesman Ryan Mahoney said.

To reinforce that message, a string of Republican officials rushed to congratulate “Governor-elect” Kemp, including Deal, state House Speaker David Ralston, and U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue.

Kemp also moved quickly to set up his transition team, announcing campaign manager Tim Fleming would serve as his chief of staff and that David Dove, his office’s former legal counsel, would head up his transition team. 

Wary of losing the media battle, Abrams has also orchestrated a flurry of events to counter Kemp’s narrative.

In a vast garage behind her Atlanta campaign headquarters, dozens of reporters were introduced to a litigation team of veteran elections attorneys, including many who worked on the tangle of lawsuits that followed the recount of the presidential vote in 2000 in Florida.

Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, a lawyer and chairwoman of Abrams’ campaign, said attorneys are poised to file litigation seizing on “irregularities” in some counties, though she didn’t provide details. 

“We have been flooded with concerns,” she said. "We are in this race until we are convinced that every vote is counted. We’re prepared for this fight until every vote is counted.”

The Democratic frustration with Kemp spilled over to a protest at the Georgia Capitol that attracted dozens of people, including several prominent Abrams allies, who lashed out at Kemp for declaring victory before all ballots were tabulated. 

“The entire election process has been a total sham,” said Matt Wolfsen, a college student in Atlanta. “A person running their own election would be declared illegitimate in Venezuela.”

Post-election saga

The legal fight caps a tense race for governor that attracted national attention because of Abrams’ quest to become the nation’s first black female governor, clashes over voter suppression and the vast ideological divide between the candidates. 

Abrams achieved the highest vote total for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia history, falling just short of 49 percent. Kemp shattered records of his own, and his nearly 2 million vote tally far exceeded previous Republican governors. 

Kemp built his lead by staking a claim on rural Georgia, where he got a higher vote share than even Donald Trump in some deep-red bastions. He relentlessly appealed to social conservatives and Trump supporters, closing his campaign with a raucous rally with the president in Macon.

It paid off. The 1.97 million votes he earned was the highest a gubernatorial candidate in Georgia has ever achieved, part of soaring turnout that was closer to presidential levels than normally more sedate midterms. And it fell just behind Trump’s vote total in 2016.

Just as conservative parts of Georgia got redder, liberal bastions of the state turned bluer. Hillary Clinton won DeKalb County — the state’s biggest Democratic stronghold — with 79 percent in 2016. Abrams’ support there tops 83 percent.

Abrams also led a surge through Atlanta’s suburbs to carry Cobb and Gwinnett counties — two former GOP bastions that turned blue for the first time in decades in 2016. And she narrowly won Henry County, another suburban county that’s gone from reliably red to perpetually purple.

That buoyed down-ticket candidates who clobbered Republicans in the suburbs, where Democrats picked up about a dozen legislative seats. A string of powerful GOP incumbents in the city’s northern stretches were ousted, including U.S. Rep. Karen Handel.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/politics.

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