Republican Brian Kemp on Tuesday was leading Democrat Stacey Abrams in a bitter contest to become Georgia’s next governor.
Abrams was seeking to become the first African-American woman elected governor in American history, but trailed by three points with 97 percent of the vote counted.
In an impassioned speech to supporters at 1:30 a.m., Abrams refused to concede, suggesting that the race might go to a runoff. Voters will get a “do-over,” she promised.
Under Georgia law, a candidate must win an outright majority to be elected. With a third-party candidate pulling just under 1 percent of the vote, there was at least a mathematical possibility that uncounted absentee and provisional ballots could bring Kemp below the 50 percent threshold.
Kemp was aided down the stretch by President Trump, who campaigned with him on Sunday afternoon. Trump amplified Kemp’s message, which was centered on telling Republican voters — who are overwhelmingly white — that they should fear Abrams.
The race between Kemp and Abrams was steeped in history. Georgia has a troubled past with regard to race relations that goes back to slavery and extends through Jim Crow. But even into the modern political era, white Georgians have retained the majority of political and economic power in the state, often with the help of some of the strictest regulations governing voting in the country. To many experts and historians, the evidence is clear that Georgia’s political class has long engaged in systematic suppression of the black vote.
There was a history of animosity between Abrams and Kemp, who have jousted over voting rights for the past several years. Abrams, who was minority leader of the state House of Representatives, started an organization called the New Georgia Project to register minority voters, and clashed with Kemp over his policy of removing voters from the rolls who did not vote and of suspending voter registrations over minor discrepancies.
Since taking office in 2010, Kemp has removed more than 2 million voters for inactivity. Just this year, the Associated Press found that Kemp’s “exact match” policy had placed more than 50,000 voters in limbo, and that most of them were voters of color.
Multiple investigations and court rulings have found that Kemp’s policies have disproportionately affected African-American voters in Georgia. Kemp came under widespread criticism this year for not stepping down, but refused to do so.
Kemp’s strategy was to warn his supporters that Abrams was “radical” — and an “extremist” whom they should fear. He based these arguments in policy disagreements, but it was the overarching message that Abrams was dangerous that mattered most.
Abrams kept her message positive for much of the race, but in the final weeks, began to hit back at Kemp more aggressively.
Two days before Election Day, Kemp announced he had opened an investigation into the Georgia Democratic Party for potential “cyber crimes,” after uncovering an attempted hack into the state’s voter database.
Democrats said they had been warned by someone not affiliated with the party about dangerous vulnerabilities in the state’s voter registration system, and that they had passed this information to cyber experts and attorneys. They denied that they had made any effort to hack into the database.
Abrams used some of her strongest language of the campaign to criticize Kemp’s handling of the reports about the voter system.
“Brian Kemp is not only an architect of voter suppression but he’s a bald-faced liar,” Abrams said Monday. “I have worked hard … to be as careful as possible with my language.”
Experts had already found Georgia’s election bureaucracy to be among the weakest and most vulnerable in the country, in part because it is one of 14 states that do not have a paper trail for its electronic voting machines. In light of Kemp’s aggressive purging of the rolls, a loss by Abrams could cast a lingering shadow over this year’s results.
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