Georgia’s secretary of state runoff highlights voting obstacles for minorities

ATLANTA — After a gubernatorial election that made national headlines for allegations of voter suppression, the people of Georgia had a chance Tuesday to cast their ballots in a runoff for a new secretary of state, the very seat in government that oversees voting.

The runoff was triggered after the outgoing secretary of state, Republican Brian Kemp, defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams to become Georgia’s next governor. Democrat John Barrow ran for the secretary of state position on promises to address issues of voter suppression during Kemp’s tenure, but lost to Republican Brad Raffensperger, who was backed by Kemp as well as President Donald Trump.

“GA had chance to elect secretary of state who would reverse Brian Kemp’s voter suppression policies. Instead they elected another Brian Kemp,” tweeted Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.

Under Kemp, the Georgia secretary of state’s office purged about 1.4 million voters from the rolls since 2010. Abrams demanded that Kemp resign as secretary of state ahead of the election but he declined to do so. Her voting rights organization Fair Fight Action filed a lawsuit last week alleging her race against Kemp was “plagued with irregularities that disproportionately affected voters of color.”

In Tuesday’s special election, voter turnout was low, but not unexpected, with about one third the number of voters as last month’s record-setting vote.

“It’s likely fewer than 37% of Stacey Abrams voters bothered to vote in yesterday’s GA Secretary of State runoff. Had even 40% showed up, Dems would’ve probably won the office,” tweeted Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.  

But part of the debate around elections in Georgia is that working class voters including many voters of color cannot afford to repeatedly take time from work to vote. And some voters expressed a distrust and a frustration with the current voting laws they say work to unjustly suppress the vote.

“Judging from the election that just happened, we don’t know if we operate in a space where that election was fair and balanced,” said Van Jensen of Dunwoody.

Like Jensen, many citizens state that the governor’s election between Kemp and Abrams has caused them to view the runoff  through a different and more scrutinizing lens.

Tamieka Atkins of ProGeorgia pointed to the systemic nature of voter suppression in the state of Georgia, including absentee ballots mailed out late by the Secretary of State’s Office.

“This is a systemic problem because it requires the communication and right set up to let everyone know ‘Hey, here’s this change,’ and that’s virtually impossible in such a short amount of time.”

The Fair Fight Action lawsuit outlined an “an obstacle course for voters” which included as Yahoo News reported:

  • The “exact match” system that placed voters in a “pending” status based on minor discrepancies between their registration forms and state records.
  • Long lines at polling places due to lack of sufficient voting machines, or because machines malfunctioned.
  • Reports of voters being told incorrectly that they were not registered, or that they were registered in other counties.
  • No paper receipts for votes tallied by electronic machines, making it impossible to check the results. (Georgia is one of 14 states without a paper trail.)
  • The closure or relocation of over 300 polling locations since 2012, often in majority-black counties.
  • Shoddy training by the state for local officials, who gave some voters inaccurate information about whether they could vote.
  • Insufficient numbers of provisional ballots, leaving some voters without any recourse.
  • Absentee ballots mailed to voters too late for them to use them.
  • Absentee ballots thrown out over minor typographical errors in Gwinnett County, which is 60 percent minority, at a higher rate than the rest of the state.

However, some citizens throughout the state feel that voting laws should continue to be strict as it curbs illegal activity.  Ken Webb of Dunwoody said, “We do have to make sure that the right people are allowed to vote and that they are indeed a citizen.”