Amid a fight over ballots, a runoff to decide who should count them

Posted November 14, 2018 2:41 p.m. EST

ATLANTA -- In a curious homage to the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, Georgia's race for governor has devolved into a form of trench warfare.

Armies of lawyers dispatched by Democrat Stacey Abrams and her allies have clambered over the top, bayonets fixed, to pin down votes. One at a time if need be.

Likewise entrenched, Republican Brian Kemp has repeatedly demanded Abrams' surrender, but federal judges have postponed any possibility of a peace treaty until Friday at the earliest -- 10 days after nearly 4 million votes were pronounced ready for counting.

However distant it might be, a Dec. 4 runoff with Kemp is the lowest bar within Abrams' reach. Yet two other statewide runoff campaigns have already begun. One is for a seat on the state Public Service Commission. The other will determine who will be the next secretary of state -- the position Kemp resigned from last week.

That's right. Amid a heated debate over whose votes should be counted, we have a runoff campaign to elect the next person who will be in charge of deciding whose votes will be counted.

Both Republican Brad Raffensperger and Democrat John Barrow came in under the 50 percent mark last week, with Raffensperger ahead by some 19,000 votes as of this writing.

You would think two candidates for secretary of state would appreciate an unblinking spotlight on the ballot and its importance in society. But a governor's race that has yet to be officially called has complicated life for both.

Raffensperger, a former state lawmaker from north Fulton County, is a Kemp ally -- but is unwilling to follow Kemp in his condemnations of Abrams' resort to the courtroom.

"I think it's clear that Brian Kemp is our governor-elect, but the other side is attempting to pursue challenges. That's their right as Americans," Raffensperger said Tuesday.

Barrow, who represented much of east Georgia during his 10 years in Congress, is also pursuing a middle path. He's staying away from the anger being generated by his fellow Democrats in their ballot fights -- over voter purges, discounted absentee and provisional ballots, and aging voting machines.

"All of these issues have been cast in stark relief by the closeness of the election, but they were still issues that would have been out there even if the vote had not been close," Barrow said in a Tuesday interview.

There is no question that Georgia has made it harder for some people to vote than others, Barrow said. But he works both sides of the "voter security" debate.

"We don't have to make it harder for people to vote in order to make it harder for people to cheat. That is a false choice," he said.

Since they became a feature of Georgia elections, statewide runoffs have been gimme putts for Republicans. Older voters tend to turn out in heavier numbers than younger ones. The racial divide sharpens.

But the Nov. 6 election showed shifts in Georgia's political order that could extend to December. Kemp's campaign for governor focused on exurban and rural white voters, largely ignoring metro Atlanta's suburbs. Raffensperger's vacated state House seat -- he's a resident of Johns Creek -- was won by Democrat Angelika Kausche.

"They just had a very strong ground game," Raffensperger said. His worry has to be whether that Democratic ground game returns on Dec. 4.

In a way, so does Barrow. The former congressman survived five terms in Washington as a dedicated centrist, and didn't change his stripes in his first statewide campaign -- serving as a counterpoint to Abrams' unabashed liberalism. In his sole TV ad of the first phase of the general election campaign, Barrow acknowledged that he was a Democrat. "But I won't bite ya," he quipped.

The opposite wing of the Democratic party didn't crack a smile.

I asked Barrow if the newly minted Abrams turnout machine would commit itself to his election.

"You would have to ask her that question. I'm sure the focus right now is on her own election. What she would regard as the most important thing to do after that is really for her to say," he said.

If you want to find out where Raffensperger and Barrow are in relatively close agreement, ask them about Georgia's decrepit voting machines, and the long lines of voters who waited to use them. Both want machines with paper trails, as does the rest of humanity.

If you want to find out where the two disagree, ask them about Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who on the Sunday before Tuesday's election announced that he had placed the Democratic Party of Georgia under investigation for "potential cyber crimes."

Kemp provided no evidence, but Democrats quickly came up with detailed emails that indicated they had attempted to evaluate potential vulnerabilities of the state's voter registration database -- and that parties brought into the conversation had alerted federal authorities to the weaknesses, who had notified Kemp.

One week later, Democrats on Monday reported that no law enforcement authorities, federal or state, had contacted them in the eight days following Kemp's announcement.

I asked Raffensperger, the Republican, if Kemp or his state office had filled him in on any details. He said no. "I saw what I read in the paper, but because it's an ongoing investigation, I don't think I should comment on it," the candidate said.

I asked Raffensperger if Kemp had done the right thing by going public with his announcement fewer than 72 hours before the last ballot was cast. He again demurred.

Kemp resigned as secretary of state last week, after a first lawsuit was filed challenging the candidate's right to officiate over an election that could put him in the Governor's Mansion. I asked Raffensperger if Kemp should have recused himself earlier.

"That's an interesting question," he said in our phone interview. But rather than giving a direct answer, Raffensperger told me that he was talking to me from the state Capitol, where he was participating in this week's special session of the Legislature. He was determined to finish out his House term, and thought that Kemp felt it important to do the same.

"I respect his willingness to stay in that position and finish the job," Raffensperger said.

Barrow was critical of Kemp, but not unkind. I asked him about the secretary of state's November surprise.

The Democrat said Kemp ought not to have gone public. "That's the rule in the federal government. It's a good rule. I would certainly follow it," Barrow said.

On the issue of a secretary of state's obligation to recuse himself or herself, Barrow cited his late father, a Superior Court jurist.

"My daddy taught me when I was a little boy that no man can be judge of his own case, and I guess it's even more obvious that no politician can be judge of his own election," Barrow said.

Raffensperger is an engineer by background. He spoke of bringing more efficiency to the voting process. Of encouraging the hiring of more poll workers. Of machines that could move voters through lines at a faster pace. "If we can get more efficient voting machines, that's one thing that I think would help the process," Raffensperger said.

Barrow's background makes him more attuned to the political situation. Boiled down, his message is at once centrist, and a gentle reminder to Democrats that, if Abrams falls short, they will need him at the table in the hard years to come.

"If we don't have bipartisanship in the design and conduct of our elections -- not the outcome of the elections, but the way in which we conduct them -- we're going to have arguments about how we do our elections 'til the cows come home," he said.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

For Use By Clients of the New York Times News Service

Capitol Broadcasting Company's Opinion Section seeks a broad range of comments and letters to the editor. Our Comments beside each opinion column offer the opportunity to engage in a dialogue about this article.

In addition, we invite you to write a letter to the editor about this or any other opinion articles. Here are some tips on submissions >> SUBMIT A LETTER TO THE EDITOR