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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why Dems Lost Run-off to Flip Georgia Secretary of State

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Democrat John Barrow has lost his bid for Georgia Secretary of State to Republican state Rep. Brad Raffenberger by a margin of 52-48 percent. With a total 1,454,786 votes counted out of about 7 million registered voters, it appears that less than 21 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the contest. That would be an even smaller percentage of “eligible” voters who showed up and voted in the run-off.

In recent years, elections for Secretary of State have gotten more attention, in the wake of rising awareness of voter suppression, based primarilly on race, but also against Latinos and young voters. In most states, the Secretary of State supervises voting and counts the ballotts. When the office gets heavilly-politicized, as has clearly happened in Georgia, voters lose faith in the integrity of their elections.

As Ari Berman writes in Mother Jones, “Democrats flipped secretary-of-state offices in Arizona, Colorado, and Michigan in 2018. These victories will help reshape voting laws in key swing states. But given the voter suppression we saw in Georgia in 2018—and with Kemp now governor—a victory for Barrow would be the most significant of the bunch.”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Greg Bluestein has an insightful report on the Georgia run-off, which notes:

The suburban wave that nearly swept Democrat Stacey Abrams to Georgia’s highest office last month all but evaporated in Tuesday’s runoff for secretary of state and Public Service Commission.

Democrats only narrowly held Gwinnett County after winning it by about 15 percentage points in November’s general election. And Cobb County, the long-time Republican stronghold that Democrats easily carried four weeks ago, appeared to have flipped back to the red column.

The struggles in the close-in suburbs contributed to stinging defeats for John Barrow, a former U.S. House member running for secretary of state, and Lindy Miller, the businesswoman seeking a PSC seat. So did tepid Democratic turnout on the heels of a record-shattering race for governor.

The result was an election as polarizing as the general election – with the same conclusion: A GOP sweep.

Republican Brad Raffensperger outdid Brian Kemp’s margins in a spate of counties, from Clinch to Coweta, on his way to a 52-48 victory over Barrow. And Barrow narrowly topped Abrams’ 84 percent margin in all-important DeKalb County.

But the big margins in DeKalb and next-door Fulton weren’t nearly enough for Democrats to break the GOP grip on every statewide office.

Bluestein adds that “Raffensperger waged a low-key campaign focusing on rural Georgia,” while “Barrow tried to drive out turnout in the east Georgia district he long represented in the U.S. House. He flipped two sparsely-populated counties that voted GOP in November – Burke and Washington – but it wasn’t enough.”

“Republicans have long dominated fall general election runoffs,” notes Bluestein.  Yet, “Democrats hoped that swirl of voting rights issues that dogged the November vote would energize liberal voters still seething from Kemp’s victory and eager to prevent another Republican from overseeing state elections.” Barrow just fell short.

Democrats did flip more than a dozen state legislative districts, but Republicans still control both houses of the state legislature, along with the governorship, a majority of the U.S. House delegation and both U.S. Senators.

At ABC News, Adam Kelsey said that the runoff was “widely viewed as a referendum on allegations of voter suppression and disenfranchisement that marred Georgia’s midterm races this year.” Kelsey notes, further,

On Election Day last month, Raffensperger received 49.09 percent to Barrow’s 48.67 percent, a difference of just over 16,000 votes. Voting that night, and early voting in the weeks prior, overseen by the secretary of state’s office, featured scores of complaints across Georgia about voter registration purging and difficulties in obtaining absentee ballots and confirming their receipt and legitimacy.

Kemp, who defeated Abrams with 50.22 percent of the vote, narrowly avoiding a runoff himself, served as secretary of state until Nov. 8, two days after Election Day, leading to accusations of a conflict of interest by Abrams and others who believe his office’s efforts affected his own race. Kemp stepped aside from the position before Abrams conceded the race, as her campaign fought for a runoff by arguing for the inclusion of some additional provisional and absentee ballots.

But it was the contentious gubernatorial election that brought the office to the national spotlight. Last week, a group affiliated with Abrams brought a federal lawsuit against the interim secretary of state, Robyn Crittenden, seeking reforms that included halting voter purging practices, requiring the use of voting machines that provide paper confirmations and taking steps to reduce lines at polling places.

Kelsey adds that “Abrams said Saturday that no matter the winner, the lawsuit will proceed.” No doubt the same level of voter suppression that likely cost Abrams the election also hurt Barrow’s campaign this year. But, when the percentage of eligible voters who actually cast ballots sinks below 20 percent, Dems can’t blame it all on voter suppression. In Georgia, and in nearly all other states, voter participation is lagging badly in non-presidential election years — and it’s not all that great, even in presidential years compared to other democracies. The state and local Democratic parties and allied groups in all of the states must do a better job of mobilizing voters, if they want to put an end to widespread gerrymandering and voter suppression. If anyone has some fresh ideas about how to go about it, now would be a good time to share them.

In terms of demographics, Georgia is a good bet to become the next blue state. Abrams showed how closely divided the Georgia electorate has become. In addition, African Americans are a about a third of Georgia voters, the third highest percentage among the states after Mississippi and Louisiana. Only New York and Florida have more African Americans in the population. Latinos are about 9 percent of Georgia, but the percentage who are eligible to vote is in the low single digits. Georgia has one of the highest rates of increase of undocumented workers of all the states. In terms of generational voting patterns, Georgia has one of the lowest percentages of citizens over age 65.

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