Secretary of State Brian Kemp has had two roles this year: Running Georgia’s elections and running for governor of the state.
Democrats, including former President Jimmy Carter, have called on him to step aside, warning repeatedly of potential conflicts of interest.
Kemp is now facing renewed scrutiny after his office announced Sunday — without providing evidence and doing so just hours before Election Day — that it is investigating the Georgia Democratic Party for an alleged hack of the state’s voter registration system.
The move to publicly disclose the probe appeared to break with tradition in the office, which oversees voting integrity, as it differed from how Kemp’s team handled an earlier cyber breach at Kennesaw State University.
‘It all just sounds very strange’
Edgardo Cortés, Virginia’s former elections commissioner, called Sunday’s announcement “bizarre” and said the timing of it is “problematic,” adding he wouldn’t have done it had he been in Kemp’s shoes. Such public statements, Cortés said, could depress voter turnout by making people question the reliability of the election system.
“It all just sounds very strange,” said Cortés, an election security advisor for the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit institute at New York University’s School of Law. “You suddenly open an investigation without giving any sort of details about what happened? In Virginia, we would never have done something like that because I think it would have created a lot of concern among voters.”
Further, Cortés questioned why Kemp’s office said Sunday that no personal data was breached and that the system remains secure despite the attempted hack.
“It is kind of hard to make that determination without actually going through and doing a thorough investigation,” he said.
Kemp’s office said the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security had been alerted. The FBI declined to comment Sunday. And a federal Homeland Security official referred questions to Kemp’s office.
On Sunday, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution filed a request with Kemp’s office under Georgia’s Open Records Act for documents about the probe as well as correspondence between his staff, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Kemp declined to comment but a spokesperson defended the probe.
This isn’t the first time Kemp’s office has dealt with a cyber breach. In 2017, the FBI investigated accusations that millions of Georgia voters may have had their personal information compromised. The allegations involved Kennesaw State University’s Center for Election Systems, which oversaw the state’s election operations and voting machines through an agreement with the Secretary of State’s Office. That arrangement has since been terminated.
In that case, state elections officials did not publicly disclose the breach but provided details only after reporters began asking questions. The same was true in an earlier state breach by Kemp’s office in 2015. That raises questions for some observers about why this instance was treated differently. The Secretary of State’s office does not keep a complete archive of its press releases online so it was not possible to learn Sunday whether there were other times when the office announced investigations.
Cathy Cox, a former Democratic nominee for Georgia governor, said she could not recall making a similar announcement about an investigation during the two terms she served as Georgia’s secretary of state.
“For the sake of getting the best information you can in an investigation, you just don’t typically put those matters out on the street,” said Cox, dean of Mercer University’s School of Law. “And it is just not fair, I think, to anybody involved in it to try it in the public when you are trying to conduct a bona fide and fair investigation.”
Republican U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, also a former secretary of state and former GOP nominee for governor, could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Cox added it would be appropriate to turn the matter over to state law enforcement authorities, taking it out of Kemp’s hands.
“It is hard to say whether there is a contention that it is a violation of election law or whether it is a criminal matter,” she said. “And in either case, given the context we are dealing with, it sort of jumps off the page at me as being something that probably should have been turned over to the GBI or to an appropriate district attorney to investigate. And then those entities could have decided whether or not a public comment was warranted at the start of an investigation.”
“If it involves your own election,” she added, “I just cannot imagine the candidate remaining involved in the investigation of something that might relate so directly to their own race. It doesn’t meet the smell test under anything I could measure.”
Recusal at Issue
There’s no law requiring a secretary of state running for office to resign. But certain statutes say the chairman of the state elections board — currently Kemp — should not participate in procedures that could impact the enforcement of elections rules.
In 2010, Handel ran as the Republican nominee for Georgia governor and stepped down as secretary of state. When Cox ran for governor in 2006 she remained in her job but recused herself from involvement with the elections board.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.