Voting rights, security key issues in Georgia secretary of state race

Three candidates for Georgia secretary of state will face off in the Nov. 6, 2018. From left: Democrat John Barrow, Libertarian Smythe DuVal and Republican Brad Raffensperger. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Three candidates for Georgia secretary of state will face off in the Nov. 6, 2018. From left: Democrat John Barrow, Libertarian Smythe DuVal and Republican Brad Raffensperger. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Whoever replaces Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp will have a major job ahead of him, overseeing replacement of the state’s electronic voting machines, preventing tampering and protecting voters’ rights.

The candidates for the position disagree on how to ensure Georgians are able to vote and what’s needed to safeguard elections.

Republican Brad Raffensperger would follow in Kemp's footsteps, backing strict photo ID requirements and regular cancellation of inactive voters' registrations.

Democrat John Barrow would curtail the purging of voters for inactivity and immediately discontinue Georgia's touchscreen voting machines because of potential vulnerabilities to hacking.

Libertarian Smythe DuVal is a political newcomer who supports same-day voter registration, ranked-choice voting and paper ballots.

Election integrity rose to the forefront of the race to succeed Kemp as he runs as the Republican nominee for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams. Their debates over voting brought attention to the Secretary of State's Office, which is responsible for the fundamental oversight of democratic processes in Georgia.

Barrow, who served in the U.S. House for a decade, said he opposes government efforts to take away the right to vote from those who choose not to use that right. Kemp's office canceled more than 668,000 voter registrations last year, many because they hadn't participated in elections for at least six years.

“It shouldn’t be easier to get kicked off the rolls if you’re a registered voter, a citizen entitled to vote, than it is to have your water turned off,” Barrow said. “It’s just as bad to kick somebody off the rolls who has a right to participate and has done nothing wrong as it is to let somebody in who has no business voting.”

Raffensperger, a state House member since 2015 and the CEO of an engineering design company, said routine cancellations of voter registrations helps ensure elections are free from fraud by removing ineligible voters.

“I’m the only person that will make sure that we keep voter integrity with photo ID and keep the voter list clean,” Raffensperger said. “We all want to know that the elections have been clean, fair and accurate.”

DuVal, a former information technology director for a medical company, said he’s the choice for “a genuine change” to safeguard elections without sacrificing access. Since Georgia already requires photo ID for in-person voting, he said he supports same-day voter registration at voting locations.

“It would allow for more accurate voter rolls. Voters, when they show up to the polls, could make changes in real time,” DuVal said. “It’s a hedge against abusive practices like purging, particularly notification requirements” that allow voter registration cancellations after six or seven years of inactivity.”

Voting machines

Georgia's next secretary of state will be in charge of the state's planned switch from direct-recording electronic voting machines, which are 16 years old and lack a verifiable paper trail that could help detect tampering in elections.

The candidates for Georgia secretary of state shake hands after they held a debate at GPB in Atlanta. The candidates are, from left, Democrat John Barrow, Libertarian Smythe DuVal and Republican Brad Raffensperger. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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All three candidates want an election system that includes a paper ballot, but they differ on how much they're willing to rely on technology. The General Assembly will consider legislation next year to buy a statewide voting system, which could cost anywhere from $20 million to well over $100 million.

Barrow and DuVal want voters to fill out paper ballots by hand and then feed them into optical scanning machines for tabulation. Raffensperger prefers using touchscreens that would print a paper ballot for voters to review and then feed into an optical scanner.

Hand-marked paper ballots would be less expensive than touchscreens and contain a human-created record of votes. But they could also lead to spoiled ballots if voters don’t bubble them in correctly. The solution favored by Raffensperger, called ballot-marking devices, would be more expensive than hand-marked paper ballots and help prevent human errors, but it also would put another computer between voters and their ballots.

A federal judge in September ruled against a motion seeking to change the state to paper ballots this year, but she said state election officials "had buried their heads in the sand" by failing to safeguard Georgia's voting systems. Georgia is one of five states nationwide that rely entirely on electronic voting machines that lack a verifiable paper backup.


The Secretary of State’s Office is the closest interaction many Georgians have with their state government because it handles elections, business registrations and professional licensing.

Raffensperger said his business experience gives him a background in running a large organization like the Secretary of State’s Office. His specialty contracting and engineering design firm, Tendon Systems, has about 175 employees and manufacturing plants in Columbus and Forsyth County.

“I want to make it easy to do business in the state of Georgia,” Raffensperger said. “I understand it first-hand. I’ve touched those offices and accessed it myself” by licensing and registering his businesses with the Secretary of State’s Office.

Barrow isn’t a businessman, but he said his extensive work in local and federal governments makes him knowledgeable about customer service and budgeting. Barrow was a member of the Athens-Clarke County Commission before serving in Congress.

“No one running for this office has more experience in helping constituents deal with an unresponsive or hostile bureaucracy,” Barrow said. “This is a public office we’re talking about, where you need a lot of business experience but you also need to be able to work with people that you’ll find on both sides of the political divide.”

DuVal, a graduate student studying for his master’s degree in information technology, said Georgians need an outsider such as him who knows the cyber-risks to election infrastructure and won’t be beholden to lobbyists pushing their brands of voting systems.

“I offer Georgia voters a chance for genuine change. Every vote for me is going to get the attention of Georgia politicians,” DuVal said. “Democrats and Republicans are taking the country off a cliff, and neither party is willing to address the problems of our country.”


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates up and down the ballot in a busy election year. Look for more at as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.