When the stakes are high, the temptation is always there to bend the rules to give your own side an advantage. Civil rights groups argue that Georgia GOP Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is running for governor, is doing just that.
Kemp, who oversees the state's election process, faces legal accusations of voter suppression -- particularly among minorities -- as he battles Democrat Stacey Abrams, who would be the nation's first black woman to be governor.
Kemp denies any wrongdoing, but the controversy echoes questions raised about whether secretaries of state who oversee elections have irreconcilable conflicts as candidates.
"It is a problem that we have partisan-elected secretaries of state as the chief election officers," says Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine. "It creates an inevitable conflict of interest when the person's allegiance is partly to their own political party. But the problem is of a different magnitude when the elected official is supervising an election where the secretary himself or herself is on the ballot."
Kemp is one of several secretaries of state who have come under fire recently for allegedly abusing their power.
After complaints, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, now the GOP nominee for governor, recused himself from the recount for his own primary race in August. His rival, Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer, accused Kobach of giving improper counting instructions to county election officials.
In Kentucky, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, is under investigation by an independent counsel amid accusations that she misused voter data. The executive director of the state board of elections accused Grimes of improperly accessing voter information and using it to check the partisan affiliations of job applicants. Grimes denies the allegations. (Last month, her father, a former state Democratic Party chair, pleaded not guilty to charges that he made illegal campaign contributions.)
Meanwhile, Arizona GOP Secretary of State Michele Reagan is being sued for allegedly failing to update voter registration information as required under the federal motor-voter law, potentially disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters.
Last week, journalist Greg Palast published allegations that Indiana's secretary of state's office has illegally removed at least 20,000 voters from the rolls using a method that was blocked in June by a federal judge.
The cases are all different, but the possibility that secretaries of state might be putting their thumbs down on the scale for partisan advantage encourages suspicions about their ability to be fair and impartial.
"There is a fundamental conflict of interest for an official to administer an election at the same time that he is running for office," says David Kimball, a voting expert at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "The tension around this conflict is raised because issues around election laws and voting rights have become more divided and partisan."
In most countries, Kimball notes, elections are overseen by independent bodies. The role of secretary of state in overseeing elections was once viewed as purely technical, much like their other responsibilities, such as issuing business licenses. That's changed.
"We see partisanship shaping the performance of jobs that in an earlier, less polarized age, would have been seen as more functional, more practical and outside of party politics," says Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky.
Secretaries of state have started serving as campaign cochairs for their parties' presidential nominees, while super PACs and other outside groups have sprung up specifically to give partisan secretary of states a boost in elections.
"There seems to be renewed interest on secretaries' races with all these new PACs. It's a political race, and this year will be no different," said the chair of the Republican Secretaries of State Committee, back in 2014.
That person was Brian Kemp.
What Are the Controversies Surrounding Brian Kemp?
A pair of lawsuits have been filed over the past week challenging Georgia's "exact match" law, which requires voter registration forms to precisely match information on file with Georgia's Department of Driver Services or the federal Social Security Administration. A missing hyphen, an extra space or the use of a nickname can make an application suspect.
As a result of the policy, Kemp's office has put more than 50,000 voter registration forms on hold, the vast majority of them filled out by members of minority groups. Voters whose registrations are now "pending" can cast provisional ballots and then seek to rectify their records, or vote by presenting photo IDs that reflect the information on their voter registration forms. But Democrats argue that the policy will lead many potential voters to stay home out of confusion or fail to have their votes counted.
“It’s part of a pattern of behavior where [Kemp] tries to tilt the playing field in his favor or in the favor of his party,” said Abrams on NBC’s “Meet the Press" on Sunday.
Separately, Kemp and the Gwinett County elections board are facing two lawsuits over a high rate of absentee ballot rejections. Through Sunday, 8.5 percent of absentee ballots have been rejected in Gwinnett, which is a majority-minority county, compared to the statewide average of less than 2 percent.
"Gwinnett County is rejecting absentee ballots at an astounding rate, accounting for virtually 40 percent of all rejected absentee ballots statewide," Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement. "Our analysis shows the impact is particularly stark on communities of color, with ballots cast by African-Americans rejected at more than three times the rate of ballots cast by white voters."
These latest lawsuits aren't the first allegations of racial bias that Kemp has faced.
In August, he was accused of encouraging a plan to close seven out of nine voting precincts in majority-black Randolph County. The plan was proposed by consultant Mike Malone, who had made a modest donation to Kemp's campaign and was on a list of consultants recommended by the secretary of state's office. Malone said Kemp had recommended "polling consolidation" in the county, a suggestion emp said he could not recall. The plan was ultimately rejected, and Malone was fired by the county.
Last year, Kemp settled a lawsuit challenging an earlier version of the state's exact match requirement. The legislature almost immediately passed legislation offering the secretary renewed authority to implement similar requirements.
Since 2012, Kemp's office has rejected or canceled more than 1.4 million voter registrations, including nearly 670,000 in 2017 alone.
Kemp says he is merely keeping the voter rolls clean and taking steps to ensure that non-citizens do not vote. His office has said that the New Georgia Project, a voter registration group started by Abrams, has been sloppy in its work and turned in forms that are not legible or complete.
"I think hard-working Georgians should decide who their governor is, not people here illegally, like my opponent wants," said Kemp, alluding to a comment Abrams made last week at a rally, suggesting that "those who are ... undocumented" would be part of a Democratic blue wave in November.
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