The American midterm elections on November 6, 2018 transformed what is normally a relatively sleepy affair that receives little coverage into a bitter, heavily-tracked series of races around the country punctuated by scandals, violence, and unexpected twists and turns.
Georgia’s gubernatorial election attracted particular attention because its Republican candidate, Brian Kemp, was serving as its secretary of state as he ran, refusing to step down or acknowledge glaring cybersecurity flaws in vulnerable voting machines even as he continued campaigning, prompting calls for oversight:
His Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Stacey Abrams, and voting rights advocacy groups charge that Kemp is systematically using his office to suppress votes and tilt the election, and that his policies disproportionately affect black and minority voters.
Kemp denies it vehemently.
But through a process that Kemp calls voter roll maintenance and his opponents call voter roll purges, Kemp’s office has cancelled over 1.4 million voter registrations since 2012. Nearly 670,000 registrations were cancelled in 2017 alone.
Kemp also set off a political firestorm by accusing Abrams of unspecified hacking attempts just days before the election:
It was a controversial move that is already generating concerns regarding conflicts of interest. Kemp’s office has yet to provide any evidence in support of these claims, and with mere hours left before the final votes are cast, it’s unclear what his motives are in announcing the investigation.
It now seems like Kemp’s accusation may have referred to a legitimate cybersecurity investigation by Georgia Democrats, which uncovered real and significant flaws in the state’s voter registration system. If that research was the source of Kemp’s claim, it would be the latest in a long line of incidents where legitimate researchers are cast as criminal hackers in order to cover up serious security flaws.
Kemp finally was forced to leave his post as secretary of state the day after the midterms, when a group of Georgia voters filed an emergency lawsuit to stop him from overseeing his own election results:
The move came moments after a hearing was about to commence in Federal Court in Atlanta on a lawsuit seeking to force Kemp’s removal from any role in overseeing a governor’s race that is still too close to call and has not yet been decided. Kemp claimed the move was to allow him to begin working on a transition to the governor’s role, but the timing made clear that his move was prompted by the lawsuit.
Larry Schwartztol, Counsel for Protect Democracy, the nonpartisan nonprofit that brought the suit on behalf of five Georgia voters said:
“This is a huge victory for democracy and the rule of law. It is a basic constitutional principle that a person may not be a judge in their own case and that’s what Brian Kemp was attempting to be here. It was manifestly unfair and it is a credit to the voters who stepped forward: LaTosha Brown, Candace Fowler, Jennifer Ide, Chalis Montgomery and Katharine Wilkinson whose bold stand in defense of democracy forced Secretary Kemp’s hand.”
The high-profile race brought out unprecedented numbers of voters on election night, some of whom waited in line for hours because of a shortage of electronic voting machines:
Ontaria Woods arrived at a polling place in Snellville, just northeast of Atlanta, about 7 a.m. Tuesday to vote. More than three hours later, she was still waiting, with roughly 75 to 100 people in line.
“That’s the majority of people in this line, African-Americans,” she said. “We’re begging them, ‘Please, stay.’”
Some of the longest lines on Election Day formed at polling places near historically black colleges in Atlanta.
“We have a lot of college students over there, and they like to vote out of precinct,” said Richard Barron, director of registration and elections in Fulton County, which includes most of Atlanta.
“When you vote out of your precinct, you have to vote a provisional ballot,” he said. “And provisional ballots create lines because they take longer to process.”
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, hundreds of wrapped electronic voting machines sat in warehouses as lines wrapped around the block at some polling places:
There were about 1,050 voting machines in Cobb precincts Tuesday while about 550 were sequestered. The county could have deployed a total of about 1,400 voting machines if they had been available, Eveler said.
Another 700 direct-recording electronic voting machines were out of service in Fulton, along with 585 in DeKalb.
This is true, and it is a result of a ruling by a federal judge in September 2018 after a group of election officials and voters filed a lawsuit requesting that electronic voting machines be replaced with paper ballots:
Georgia is one of 14 states that use electronic voting machines that do not leave a paper trail that can be audited after an election and is one of five states that exclusively use the machines. Cybersecurity experts along with the Senate Intelligence Committee say the machines can leave elections vulnerable to hacking. In a worst case scenario, hackers could manipulate vote totals without detection.
The judge ruled that the machines were unsafe and vulnerable to hacking, but denied a request to replace the touchscreen devices with paper ballots after state officials — including Kemp — said in August that there would be no way to swap out electronic polls for paper ballots just three months before the election:
“With this ruling behind us, we will continue our preparations for a secure, orderly election in November and move forward with [a bipartisan commission’s] work to responsibly upgrade Georgia’s secure — but aging — voting system,” Kemp said in a statement Tuesday. “As I have said many times over, our state needs a verifiable paper trail, but we cannot make such a dramatic change this election cycle.”
As a result of this lawsuit, local officials ordered that hundreds of voting machines in Cobb, DeKalb, and Fulton counties be sequestered at the behest of the Georgia secretary of state — who was running for governor at the time:
April Majors, a spokesperson for Fulton County, confirmed that the decision not to use those machines was made and that the machines in question had been “sequestered.” Majors also said she was not the one with the relevant “expertise” to answer exactly how and why that decision had been made.
When asked whether Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp‘s office was involved in the decision she said that was a “legitimate question,” but when pressed as to her knowledge of Kemp’s potential involvement, Majors said she had no comment.
As Kemp is also party to the litigation and previously enacted joint agreements, however, his office is directly implicated in the decision. Brown hammered this point home when asked about Kemp’s involvement.
“Yes,” he said, “Here’s why. The buck stops with him. He is in charge of elections statewide. It is his office that’s responsible for making sure the counties have the resources they need. The buck stops with Kemp.”
Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams, who would be the first black woman elected governor in the United States if she wins, has vowed to make certain that every vote matters, no matter the outcome:
Her team said tens of thousands of absentee and provisional ballots could mean Kemp would not take the required 50% to claim victory outright.
“Democracy only works when we work for it. When we fight for it. When we demand it,” Abrams said. “And apparently, today, when we stand in lines for hours to meet it at the ballot box.”
She has refused to concede until all the ballots are counted.