Former President Jimmy Carter has weighed in on the race for an office he once held, the governor of Georgia. Carter is joining other Democrats in calling for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Brian Kemp, to resign his position as secretary of state.
“In Georgia’s upcoming gubernatorial election, popular confidence is threatened not only by the undeniable racial discrimination of the past and the serious questions that the federal courts have raised about the security of Georgia’s voting machines, but also because you are now overseeing the election in which you are a candidate,” Carter writes in a letter to Kemp published by the Associated Press. “This runs counter to the most fundamental principle of democratic elections — that the electoral process be managed by an independent and impartial election authority. Other secretaries of state have stepped down while running for election within their jurisdiction, to ensure that officials without a direct stake in the process can take charge and eliminate concerns about a conflict of interest.”
There’s a lot to unpack in Carter’s letter—including the hints at the unfair charges of voter suppression against black voters—but it’s worth considering the charge that as secretary of state and Georgia’s chief elections officer, Kemp is too compromised to oversee an election in which he’s campaigning.
First, the idea that the secretary of state “oversees” elections actually overstates the role that official plays. In Georgia, nearly everything concerning the administration of elections—mainly, voter registration and operating polling locations—is conducted at the county level. Each county appoints its own board of elections or office of voting, with members selected by the two major parties, to govern this process. It’s often these county boards who make complaints to the state about election-law violations.
The role that the elections division of the secretary of state’s office plays, meanwhile,, includes certifying the results of elections, preparing ballots, and maintaining the voter registration database. The Georgia state elections board, similar to its counterparts in the counties, is bipartisan in its makeup and is charged with initiating investigations into elections-law violations based on complaints. The state board is chaired by the secretary of state, who also enforces Georgia’s election laws. This seems to be the point of contention Democrats have with Kemp’s ongoing tenure at state.
But while there’s plenty of room for debate about whether Georgia’s voter registration laws are the right policy, there’s been no credible evidence Kemp has been using his position to unfairly disenfranchise supporters of his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams. Furthermore, if there is a fundamental conflict of interest in a secretary of state overseeing his own election, there seems to be a flaw in the system, since secretaries have done so in the past. Kemp, who was appointed to the position in 2010 while he was running for the job, was the chief elections officer for both that election and his 2014 re-election bid.
Others who held the position have also done so. Democrat Cathy Cox was secretary of state when she ran for re-election in 2002. Her predecessor, Democrat Lewis Massey, was like Kemp appointed secretary of state during an election year in which he was running for the position. Max Cleland, who would go on to be a Democratic U.S. senator, was first elected secretary of state in 1982 and was reelected three times—all while “overseeing” elections of his own.
What’s unusual about Kemp’s situation is he’s a sitting secretary of state overseeing his general election to a different, higher office. Cleland, for instance, resigned in 1996 in order to run for the Senate. Karen Handel, Kemp’s immediate predecessor as secretary of state and a Republican, resigned in 2010 as she ran in the gubernatorial primary. Cox and Massey did not resign when they each ran for governor, but both lost their Democratic primaries. But there’s no rule, de facto no de jure, that says the only elections in which Georgia secretaries of state are conflicted are for when they are running for higher office.
There may be good reasons for Kemp to resign, including the opposite of the claim from Carter and other Democrats—that he isn’t actually doing the job of secretary of state since he’s been campaigning for governor. But Jimmy Carter’s concern about “voter confidence” in the elections process, as well as the larger argument that Kemp’s execution of state and federal laws is a form of voter suppression, risks becoming self-fulfilling without being backed up by facts.