The letter that the House Committee on Oversight and Reform sent to Georgia’s new governor dated March 6th had a quite a few footnotes. All of them, save one, cited a media report covering various problems with voting in Georgia during this last election season: voter purges and suspensions, malfunctioning and hackable machines, and efforts to close precincts and polling places. Every one of those issues contributed to the climate of voter suppression that overtook Georgia even as its top elections official, the now-former Secretary of State Brian Kemp, ultimately ascended to the governor’s office in November’s election with a close victory over former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams. To recap: Kemp won a contest of which he was in charge, all while refusing federal help as the state’s voting systems appeared to be crumbling around him.
Was that due to Kemp’s incompetence, intentions, or both? We may soon know quite a bit more, now that he is officially under Congressional investigation. Thanks to all that media attention — and, of course, the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives — Kemp received that letter Wednesday from Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the chair of the subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Abrams’ Fair Fight Action had already filed a big lawsuit that threatens to place Georgia elections under federal supervision for up to a decade, and now Kemp is being compelled to turn over documents related to damn near every possible nook and cranny of his Secretary of State operation.
Hours after news of the letter broke, Raskin spoke to Rolling Stone about why voting rights are at the forefront of their oversight agenda, and why Georgia became an immediate priority for their committee.
What, precisely, prompted this letter?
It was a massive assault on voting rights in a bunch of different states. In North Dakota, in Georgia, in Texas. We have a constitutional duty to render oversight about the integrity of our elections. We’re not going to be able to delve into every single state, but we want to take at least a few of them and examine what happened in the 2018 election.
Georgia jumped out for me because potentially hundreds of thousands of people were falsely disenfranchised through these voter purges.
But all we’re going on, of course, is media reports and the statements of Stacey Abrams, which seem credible. But we want to actually get to the facts directly to find out what happened and in order to determine how to make sure there’s no repeat in the next cycle.
How did you first learn about all this?
Following what was taking place around the country, I was startled to learn that there were these gigantic voter purges taking place in Georgia. And, you know, this is not some kind of ex post facto, sour-grapes complaint by a losing candidate. I mean, there were people raising all of these issues during the campaign.
Do you think that Secretaries of State should not be allowed to run for governor?
Well, that’s one of the thing we asked about. Obviously there’s an inherent conflict of interest built into this situation, and so we want to know to what extent the Secretary of State, who was a gubernatorial candidate, was making suspicious decisions himself affecting the conduct of the election. That’s certainly one thing that we want to look at. But we’re generally looking for evidence of anti-voter policies that may be part of a national pattern.
One of the things I saw on your list had to deal with equipment vendors, and that deals with something that I know that Stacey Abrams and her Fair Fight Action [group] have raised a lot of hell about right now — specifically, the voting machines that Brian Kemp has been pushing for, which she claims will open the state up to more hacking. Are you looking to address problems that may be or are speculated to be occurring in the future?
I’ve been interested in this problem of the election vendors and vulnerable technology for a long time. In fact, I introduced legislation in the last Congress about preventing foreign ownership interests in election vendors in state elections. In my state, in Maryland, it turned out that a Russian oligarch, very tight with Vladimir Putin, owned an interest in Maryland’s election vendor.
Not the kind of guy you want owning a piece of your election equipment.
Yeah. I’ve been concerned about this for a long time.
And, you know, here’s the thing. America does not have an explicit Constitutional right to vote, which is why we still have millions of people who are disenfranchised in different ways including former prisoners and people who live in Washington, D.C. and the territories and so on. And we need more of a national electoral commission. The closest thing we have is the Federal Election Commission — but that has very limited jurisdiction to serve campaign finance, and it’s completely dysfunctional.
So, other than the Election Assistance Commission, which has been channeling money to the states for the first time in American history to try to make federal money available for election improvement, we really don’t have any kind of coherent national election protocols and procedures.
We’re talking about thousands of electoral jurisdictions, if you think of the counties as the basic building blocks of it. That gives us a system that’s really vulnerable to different kinds of strategic mischief.
Do you expect full compliance by Governor Kemp and his Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger? And if not, is there any recourse on the part of the Oversight and Reform committee to force them to be compliant?
Well, in the first instance, we assume absolute good faith of every public official we deal with. A Secretary of State is someone who is charged in a very serious way with upholding the law, and I would be shocked if he doesn’t comply. But if he doesn’t, we’ll have ways of dealing with that.
Do you expect Republicans to make hay of this? If so, how do you expect to combat that?
I mean, there’s some people who will be forever disappointed that we don’t conduct all hearings on the subject of the Benghazi investigation. But to the extent people have gotten over their loss in the election, then surely you can’t think of that many things more important than election integrity.
Obviously you have an extraordinarily strong black electorate in your party, one that made its voice heard in Georgia and nationwide. Are actions like this not just important to take for the sake of doing your duty but also to show your base that you’re doing right by them?
Look, voting rights are the fundamental condition of democracy. If voting rights are attacked, we’ve got a responsibility to act. If we don’t act, then people should demand why we’re not doing anything. There were scandalous allegations emerging from Georgia about what was taking place on the campaign. I don’t see how we have any choice.
One of those allegations was something that we reported in October: an audio clip of Kemp at one of his private campaign events in which he said of the Abrams campaign’s effort to turn out the absentee vote, “They have just an unprecedented number of that,” he said, “which is something that continues to concern us, especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote — which they absolutely can — and mail those ballots in, we gotta have heavy turnout to offset that.” Do you have any thoughts about how somebody, now that he’s won a race, is now charged with governing?
Well, look, he obviously has a First Amendment right as a political candidate to say that he’s disappointed that there’s such heavy turnout. But as Secretary of State, his job is to guarantee everybody’s right to vote and to make it as easy as possible for all qualified citizens to vote. If he followed up a statement like that with, “As a Republican candidate, I’m disappointed that there’s such high mobilization for this state, but as Secretary of State, it is my role to guarantee everybody’s right to vote,” well, that would underscore the inherent conflict of interest in his roles. At least you could respect his consciousness of the double responsibilities that he has. But if he’s quoted as just saying he’s disappointed about how many people are turning out, that’s a tragedy.
We should do everything in our power to make sure that this is the last election where a candidate is also in charge of the election. I mean, that sounds like a banana republic, not the world’s greatest democracy. But having said that, I’m going to reserve final judgment until we get all the facts. Maybe he did a great job administrating the election? Maybe it was a nightmare?
I look forward to, uh, the conclusion of your investigation.
I’ll look for you at the hearings.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)