By Mark Niesse
As Georgia's next top elections official, Republican Brad Raffensperger promises to defend broad voter-registration cancellations and strict voting requirements that have fueled accusations of widespread disenfranchisement.
Raffensperger, the winner of Tuesday's runoff for Georgia secretary of state, will continue the work of his predecessor, Gov.-elect Brian Kemp. Democrat John Barrow conceded to Raffensperger on Wednesday.
While voter fraud is rare in Georgia, Raffensperger emphasizes election integrity over easy access to voting. He plans to cancel registrations of inactive voters, as Kemp did when more than 1.4 million people were removed from the state's voting list since 2012.
"Making sure we keep the voter list up to date so it's clean, fresh and accurate, it's very important," Raffensperger said. "Ten to 15 percent of Georgians move every year. Just in four short years, your list could really start becoming dirty, and I think this is a recipe for open doors for voter fraud."
Georgia laws already prevent fraud by making voters show photo ID at their polling places, officials said. Raffensperger said he will uphold high identification standards before Georgians can cast a ballot.
But he'll also likely face prolonged legal battles over Georgia's elections.
At least 12 lawsuits over voting rights, voting machines and registration processes are pending in federal and superior courts. Over the last few weeks, several judges have issued orders to count more absentee and provisional ballots, and to extend vote-counting deadlines to ensure legitimate ballots aren't discarded.
The most sweeping court challenge will attempt to overhaul the state's elections after thousands of voters reported obstacles such as purged registrations, canceled ballots and long lines.
"Yesterday's election proved once again why Georgians deserve a fair fight. From precincts with no voting cards to voters who just yesterday received their absentee ballot, we know that this runoff was also subject to our state's gross mismanagement of our elections," said Fair Fight Action CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo, who was Democrat Stacey Abrams' campaign manager in her run for governor. "Fair Fight will continue to push Georgia to fulfill the most fundamental promise of democracy -- the right for voters to have their voice heard and their vote counted."
Raffensperger's supporters said they're disgusted by court fights over an election system that works well for most Georgians.
"These questions have been real late to come up," said Lynne Byrd outside the Dunwoody Library precinct on Tuesday. "It's a lot of nonsense."
Another Dunwoody voter, Joe Thibadeau, said he wants to maintain strong photo ID requirements so that only U.S. citizens can vote, which was a theme of Raffensperger's campaign.
"I think there's fraud. I've always felt that," Thibadeau said. "Every vote should count, but we should follow the rules."
Barrow accepted defeat Wednesday, saying Raffensperger's 57,000-vote lead was too large to overcome even though thousands of absentee, provisional and overseas ballots could still be counted before election results are finalized. A federal judge last week ordered that absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by Friday must be counted.
"Though the outcome was not what we had wanted, what we're working for is more important than ever: elections that are as fair and as accurate as they are secure," Barrow said. "In these polarized times, that may seem like a never ending struggle, but it's a struggle that's always worth the fight."
Barrow's backers said they want fair elections that make it easy for all eligible voters to participate in democracy, without encountering government hurdles such canceled registrations and closed precincts. County election officials have closed 214 precincts across the state since 2012, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"Those kinds of things are systematic, to make it as difficult to vote as possible," said Patrick Blackburne, a Dunwoody voter who supported Barrow.
Raffensperger said he wants to ensure legitimate voters can cast their ballots. And while he supports regular voter registration cancellations, he has said he supports sending emails or text messages to inactive voters before they're removed from voting lists.
His first priority will be replacing the state's 16-year-old electronic voting machines with a system that leaves a paper trail to ensure accurate results. The Georgia General Assembly will consider bills next year to buy a statewide voting system at a cost of $20 million to more than $100 million.
"We'll have up to date, cyber-secure voting machines with a verifiable paper audit trail," Raffensperger said. "What are the good systems out there that are cyber-secure, move voters through the line, very efficient and very accurate?"
Raffensperger said he won't decide which voting technology is best until each is fully vetted, but he likes a system called ballot-marking devices, which use touchscreen machines to print paper ballots and prevent human errors. Another option is hand-marked paper ballots, which more directly reflect voters' intent.
(c)2018 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)