Editor’s Note: Norman Eisen was President Barack Obama’s ethics czar and is the editor of “Overcoming Trumpery: How to Restore Ethics, the Rule of Law, and Democracy.” Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Some are welcoming the fact that former President Donald Trump’s standard-bearer for governor and for his “Big Lie” campaign in Georgia, former US Senator David Perdue, got thumped in that state’s Republican primary. Incumbent Brian Kemp appears to have prevailed by over 600,000 votes and more than 50 percentage points.
But make no mistake. Perdue’s defeat may have been good for democracy, but the winning candidate is hardly its friend.
Perdue was willing to completely debase himself in service to Trump and his “election denier” claims. Perdue flatly declared that the 2020 election was “rigged and stolen.” He announced that he would not, like Kemp, have certified Joe Biden’s Georgia election victory.
So yes, the rejection of a candidate whom Trump embraced is good news. Voters also appear to have spurned another so-called “election denier,” Jody Hice, whom Trump endorsed against Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s incumbent secretary of state. Raffensperger, who seems to have dodged a runoff with Hice by about two percentage points in a 52% to 33% victory, was the subject of Trump’s January 2, 2021, demands to “find 11,780 votes.” That was one more than Biden got and so the exact amount Trump needed to win.
Any exuberance must be tempered, however, by the fact that Georgia’s Republican voters also selected US senatorial candidate Herschel Walker, a Trump political creation who has yet to acknowledge Biden’s election victory. Walker was not as big a promoter as Perdue of the “Big Lie,” although Walker has reiterated claims of “serious Election Fraud” and called for a “total cleansing” of America led by Trump and his supporters. Most recently, when an Atlanta-based news outlet’s interviewer confronted Walker about these claims, he insisted that he never heard Trump make such a claim. As the interviewer pointed out, embracing the “Big Lie” is a key step in currying the former president’s favor.
More ill tidings for democracy come with a closer look at Kemp’s record. The fact that he, like Raffensperger, withstood Trump’s pressure campaign and bowed to reality in 2020 does not make Kemp a hero. He simply did the bare minimum required in the end to uphold Georgians’ votes.
Significantly, that came only as Kemp, like a demagogue, simultaneously amplified false election claims. When he formally certified Biden’s win in the state in November 2020, he also called on Raffensperger to conduct an additional audit comparing the signatures on absentee applications to those on ballot envelopes.
He continued to press for such an audit in December 2020, telling Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that a video of workers in Fulton County taking “suitcases of ballots” from under a table raised additional questions. That claim has been thoroughly debunked.
But the dangerous behavior doesn’t stop there.
In March 2021, sitting in front of a portrait of a plantation, he signed into law Senate Bill 202. It suppresses Black votes by capping the number of drop boxes in a county and eliminates the mobile voting trucks that Fulton County used in the last election. The legislation also gives the state Election Board, controlled by the Republican legislature, the power to “reorganize” nonpartisan county election boards by replacing current members to assure GOP majorities on them, as the board has already done in at least six counties.
They include Spalding County, where Black members of the board have been replaced. While SB 202’s GOP advocates claim that it will work to restore trust and “election integrity” moving into this year’s midterms, this restructuring could significantly impact voter access given county election boards’ power over processes such as early-voting plans, polling venues and provisional post-election counts.
Shamefully, SB 202 also prohibits most individuals from giving food or water to would-be voters standing in line for hours to vote. Long lines happened mainly in counties with minority voters in 2020.
It is true, of course, that despite all these hurdles, voters are turning out in strong numbers to vote in person in the primary. But the fact that they are overcoming so many stumbling blocks and still making it to the polls is sign of their tenacity. It says nothing positive about the man who helped erect the barriers.
Black Americans should not have to shoulder disproportionate, race-based burdens to exercise the franchise. As a nation, we have seen enough of that for all time.
Kemp’s appalling anti-democracy conduct long precedes this election. Back in December 2016, when Kemp was Georgia’s secretary of state, he accused the Department of Homeland Security of hacking his office’s computers, which contained the “personal information of over 6.5 million Georgians, 800,000 corporate entities and over 500,000 licensed or registered professionals.” An independent investigation, which Kemp acknowledged as valid, debunked the accusation. That August, Georgia had been one of two states to refuse federal assistance to bolster election security after FBI cyber analysts warned of potential breaches.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York University School of Law nonpartisan law and policy institute, between 2012 and 2016, Georgia, with Kemp its secretary of state, removed 1.5 million registered voters from the state’s rolls. Then in 2018, as he was running for governor from his secretarial perch against Stacey Abrams, he suspended more than 53,000 voter registration applications – almost 70% from Black Georgians – for containing information that was not an “exact match” to what Georgia’s Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration had on file. He was (in our view, rightly) condemned by independent observers.
No need to “work the refs,” as coaches in the sports world do from the sidelines, when you are the ref.
The Abrams campaign accused Kemp of “wielding the power of his office to suppress the vote for political gain.” Kemp responded with a dog whistle reminiscent of segregationist officials from the Jim Crow South during the civil rights struggles in the 1960s, stating that “outside agitators” were now disparaging his office.
Then just two days before the November 6 election, Kemp with great fanfare announced that he was investigating the state Democratic party for an alleged “failed” effort to “hack into the state’s voter registration system.” He did not provide evidence of wrongdoing, the party denied any, and the Abrams campaign again called this out as a transparent pre-election ploy. The state ultimately found there was no evidence of his hacking claim and media review of the law enforcement files discredited his account.
Still, as bad as he is, Kemp’s victory is preferable to that of Trump’s “Big Lie” candidate, Perdue. Hard as it is to see the glass as half full, it’s not half empty either. Let’s take small victories where we can find them.