By Humayra Bramblett
When defining democracy, the right to vote can be considered one of its key features. Yet in the past decade, the right to vote has become a privilege rather than an inherent citizen’s right, leaving some with the ability to vote at ease and others unable to exercise this freedom. A perfect case of this can be found in Georgia, where the actions of now Governor Brian Kemp (previously Georgia Secretary of State) undermined the rights of countless voters. Kemp’s abuse of power, leading to the disenfranchisement of many Georgia voters, exemplifies how seamlessly stealth authoritarian mechanisms erode some of democracy’s prized processes.
In 2010, Brian Kemp was appointed Secretary of State by former governor Sonny Perdue. The duties of the Georgia Secretary of State include registering voters, tracking annual corporate filings, granting professional licenses, and overseeing the state’s securities’ market, among other responsibilities. Throughout his time as Secretary of State, Kemp’s management of elections and voting procedures proved to be far from democratic and ultimately, led to his personal political gain.
Between 2012 and 2018, during Kemp’s tenure as Secretary of State, 214 polling sites closed throughout the state of Georgia. These polling site closings spread throughout 53 counties, leaving one-third of the state’s total counties affected. In three counties, Lumpkin, Stephens, and Warren, 83-89% of polling sites vanished. Although local election officials closed these polls, Kemp oversaw the entire process. Many civil rights groups and nongovernmental organizations argued that these poll closings targeted communities of color to suppress their votes. Officials, including Kemp, denied these allegations, yet most poll closings occurred in rural and impoverished communities as well as areas with large minority populations. Consequently, voting became increasingly difficult and inaccessible to certain populations unable to afford to travel to the polls. Those who did travel waited in lines for hours.
In addition to poll closings, Kemp also authorized the cancellation of over 1.4 million voter registrations between 2012 and 2018 due to inactivity, with over 500,000 between 2016 and 2017. Of those removed from the rolls between 2016 and 2017, the Palast Investigative Fund found that over 330,000 of them were still legally eligible to vote. Additionally, Kemp blocked the registrations of over 50,000 voters, 80% of whom were Black, Hispanic, or Asian, for small discrepancies such as name spellings and spacing issues. This surge in voter purging conveniently occurred right before and during Kemp’s gubernatorial candidacy.
In March 2017, Kemp announced his Republican candidacy for the 2018 gubernatorial elections, yet he refused to resign from his position as Secretary of State and maintained his position throughout the race. At the surface level, his decision to remain the Secretary of State provoked concerns regarding his ability to fulfill his current duties while campaigning. A closer look reveals a much larger issue, however: maintaining his Secretary of State role provided an opportunity for him to preside over all election matters in an election in which he was a candidate, arguably a major conflict of interest.
The actions of Brian Kemp appear incredibly unjust and anti-democratic, yet they were all bafflingly legal. In the 2013 Supreme Court case, Shelby County v. Holder, the court found Section 4 of the Voter Rights Act unconstitutional and outdated, allowing states to make changes to their voting procedures without being subject to federal review. When questioned about the massive poll closings throughout the state, Kemp cited this decision in his defense, arguing that the decision allowed him to make changes to state voting procedures without preclearance from the federal government. According to Georgia voting procedure, Kemp’s voter purge also failed to violate any laws. Voting registration procedure states that citizens who have not voted in three years must be sent a form to confirm their residence. If they fail to return the form and miss the next two general elections, their registrations are cancelled. Regardless of the Palast Investigative Fund’s findings, Kemp’s voter registration cancellations do, in fact, align with this procedure. Finally, while Kemp’s refusal to resign from his position as Secretary of State while running for governor displays a lack of integrity, no laws prevented him from remaining in office while running for governor. Despite the viral Facebook thread highlighting a line in the Georgia Constitution that seemingly made Kemp’s actions illegal, the entire line reads that a person must resign, “if the term of the office for which such official is qualifying for begins more than 30 days prior to the expiration of such official’s present term of office,” which was not the case for Kemp.
The true villain in this saga seems difficult to pinpoint because while Kemp’s actions were anti-democratic, they were also legal, leading to a questioning of the institutions that allow such anti-democratic behavior. Stealth authoritarianism, however, offers an explanation as to how this episode of democratic backsliding was not the result of anti-democratic institutions, but solely of anti-democratic leadership.
Author and law professor Ozan Varol defines stealth authoritarianism as a way for leaders to protect and entrench power when direct repression is not a viable option. Stealth authoritarians use legal mechanisms in democracies for anti-democratic ends. In practice, many mechanisms of stealth authoritarianism exist, including manipulating electoral laws to gain or maintain power. Kemp’s actions, although legal, manipulated voting procedures to his benefit, and some argue that this secured his win in the gubernatorial election. For example, the elimination of polling sites disproportionately affected people of color who historically vote for Democratic candidates. Additionally, preventing over 50,000 citizens from voting because of discrepancies in the spelling and spacing of their names also worked to his advantage, once again disenfranchising a large group of mostly people of color who would have likely voted for his opponent, Stacey Abrams. Furthermore, Kemp chose to use the voting procedure power vested in him and the state of Georgia free of federal oversight to close polls, but he chose not to use this power to challenge old voter registration laws and instead cancelled hundreds of thousands of voter registrations.
One may ruminate on whether the election would have ended differently for Abrams, who lost by only 55,000 votes, if not for these stealth authoritarian mechanisms. Moving forward, however, safeguards against stealth authoritarianism must be applied to prevent further democratic backsliding in the state of Georgia, the rest of the United States, and democracies worldwide. Nongovernmental organizations serve as entities that perform checks and balances on a plethora of government institutions, but they are not always effective because of their lack of legal authority. A more effective way to monitor leaders for anti-democratic practices by use of stealth authoritarian mechanisms may be to form a nonpartisan election oversight committee in each state composed of political and legal scholars. Stealth authoritarianism poses a threat to democracy because of how easily it can be overlooked, given that its mechanisms are mostly legal. Therefore, a body of experts in interpreting laws and political procedures could help prevent the use of democratic processes for anti-democratic ends by monitoring exactly how government officials interpret and use these voting laws and procedures. Democratic backsliding must be prevented even at the most subtle degree.