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Editorial: Time to clarify voting process for Georgians
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Alto residents Carolyn and Keith Garrison cast their ballots Thursday, July 19, 2018, at the Hall County Government Center in Gainesville during the penultimate day of early voting for the primary runoff. - photo by David Barnes

The 2018 Georgia election season, which continues Nov. 26 when early voting begins for statewide runoffs for Secretary of State and a seat on the Public Service Commission, has had more twists and turns than Ga. 60 north of Dahlonega.

While the governor’s race is finally, thankfully, over, it and other competitive campaigns have spawned the threat of litigation that will challenge how the state conducts elections in the future if promised lawsuits come to fruition.

At the heart of these potential challenges is a philosophical divide as deep as any other issue separating the Democratic and Republican parties — how to define what constitutes a legitimate voter and what rules should govern exercising the right to vote.

To listen to the great hue and cry from Democrats, their candidate only lost her bid for governor because voting rolls were manipulated by Republicans to prevent voters from supporting her. Fueled in part by elections determined by razor-thin margins in many states, similar complaints are being made across the nation.

The issue at this point isn’t the security of the elections, which was much discussed prior to the voting when the fear of computerized hacking was atop the worry list, but rather the composition of qualified voter lists and the discretion granted election officials in deciding who can cast ballots.

On one far side of the political spectrum are those who think the polls should be open to just about anyone, regardless of the niceties and requirements of voter registration laws. They oppose the idea of requiring identification for voters to vote, oppose the concept of purging from the voter rolls those who go years without voting, oppose the idea that voter registration rules and regulations should dictate which votes are counted.

On the other end of the political fence are those who believe only those who meet the requirements set by the state should have their ballots counted, that there need to be precise rules about who is and who isn’t qualified to cast a ballot, that asking voters for a state-issued ID is not unreasonable when conducting elections.

The gap between the two extremes is huge, and at this point litigation seems inevitable. Legislation to eliminate purging voters who haven’t voted in recent elections already has been introduced in the state House, and more legislative changes to election laws are likely.

While supporters of Stacey Abrams want to lay blame for the election outcome on Brian Kemp and his refusal to step aside as secretary of state to run for governor, the truth is the election laws with which they have such problems predate any campaign by Kemp for governor.

The law requiring purging of names from voting rolls for people who have not recently voted, for example, has been in place since 1997 and was approved when a Democrat, Zell Miller, was governor of the state. Under that law, it takes six years to remove someone from the voter rolls who doesn’t respond to a mailed notice asking for verification of voter information.

In the aftermath of the governor’s race, Abrams and others who ended up losing close elections freely used words like corruption and malfeasance to describe the state’s electoral system, accusations they almost certainly would not have made had they won.

It is important to note that in Georgia, each individual county is responsible for staging elections. They do so under the umbrella supervision of the Secretary of State’s office, but each county has its own elections organization complete with local oversight. To spin conspiracies of a statewide effort to work against certain candidates is to ignore the realities of the thousands of people involved in running elections across the state.

The rules of use for provisional and absentee ballots, the focal point of so much attention this year, are always part of elections. The microscopic attention they received this year was the result of the closeness of the votes in many elections.

It isn’t hard to make the argument that better technology could be used in conducting elections. The issue in that regard often comes down to money; how much will the state and local governments spend to be on the cutting edge of election technology?

One area demanding to be addressed is better security of existing voter data. That digital security lapses have made voter information accessible that should not have been is inexcusable, as has been the state’s cavalier attitude toward solving such problems when they are discovered. 

Securing voter data needs to be a top priority for whomever is elected to replace Kemp as secretary of state in next month’s runoff.

But despite all the talk about voting systems and better communications through technology and what is and isn’t possible with a big enough checkbook, there is still a basic philosophical issue to resolve: Is it an abuse of government power to require minimal standards of registration compliance by voters, or should the assumption be that everyone is eligible to vote until someone proves they are not?

That is the battle to be fought in the courts, and under the Gold Dome of the state Capitol.

There is also a racial component to the complaints about handling of elections. This is the South, where Jim Crow policies written to prevent blacks from voting are unfortunately still part of our electoral past, so that any controversy over balloting slides easily into an allegation of racial impropriety.

It wasn’t that long ago that Georgia was infamous for having ballots cast in the names of dead people. Registrations standards and purging of voting lists were efforts to stop abuses like that from happening again.

At a time when we are willing provide proof of identification to use a credit card, write a check or purchase an adult beverage, we do not think it is unreasonable to ask voters to prove their identity in order to vote. We do not think it is unreasonable to require voters to be American citizens. We do not think it is unreasonable to have in place some methodology to periodically purge voting rolls, if for no other reason than to eliminate the graveyard votes of yesteryear.

There likely are legislative tweaks that can improve the system, but we don’t think the process benefits from allowing anybody who shows up on Election Day to cast a ballot then trying to decide later what’s legitimate and what’s not.

Ours is a constitutional Republic, not a pure democracy where every hand raised in the crowd gets counted. We are a nation of laws — and some of those laws have to govern the voting process.

At the same time, no legitimate potential voter should ever feel disenfranchised by the system, as some obviously did this year. If changes can be made to state law to alleviate those concerns, without opening the doors to polling place chaos, then those changes are worthy of serious debate and discussion.