ATLANTA (CN) — The most important race in Georgia could be the one no one is paying attention to.
While the national spotlight continues to shine on Georgia's contentious gubernatorial race, which still hasn't come to a definitive end nearly two weeks out from Election Day, the contest to replace Republican Brian Kemp as Georgia's top elections official is already headed to a December runoff.
The candidate who takes over Kemp's post as secretary of state will immediately step into a position of enormous power over the state's electoral systems. The new secretary of state will control Georgia's voter registration database, oversee any voter purges that take place, and assume responsibility for replacing the state's outdated voting machines.
The stakes are remarkably high in a state where accusations of voter suppression have been levied against the secretary of state's office in multiple federal lawsuits over the last month. The decision between Republican Brad Raffensperger and Democrat John Barrow could represent a turning point for voting integrity in Georgia.
"Deciding who gets to vote unfortunately goes a long way in deciding who wins [elections] these days," Dr. Michael Kang, a voting rights expert and election law professor at Northwestern University's law school, told Courthouse News.
"You have questions about what voter registrations get accepted or placed in pending status, how aggressively you apply voter ID requirements, how many resources get assigned to voting and where, deciding what [voting] machinery gets chosen and how it's distributed... All of that stuff would fall to an important degree under the secretary of state's discretion," Kang explained.
Right now, it's impossible to say which candidate has a better chance of winning. The race between Raffensperger, a former state lawmaker, and Barrow, who represented Georgia's 12th congressional district for a decade, has even closer margins than the contest between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Kemp.
Raffensperger and Barrow came within less than half a point of each other in the Nov. 6 election, with Raffensperger maintaining a razor thin lead of just 19,000 votes.
Barrow received 48.64 percent of the vote, Raffensperger received 49.13 percent, and Libertarian candidate Smythe Duval trailed behind with 2.23 percent of the vote.
Raffensperger identified himself early in the race as an ally of Kemp. During an Oct. 2 debate, he said he was committed to cancelling the registrations of ineligible voters to ensure election integrity.
"By keeping the voter rolls updated, we can help safeguard and keep our elections clean so we know that the person who won actually did win," Raffensperger said during the debate, which was aired on television by Georgia Public Broadcasting.
During Kemp's tenure, the secretary of state's office removed more than 1.4 million voters from the registration rolls. In 2017, Kemp's office canceled more than 668,000 registrations alone.
The high number of voter registration cancelations in Georgia and the state's controversial voter ID laws, particularly the "exact match" law which allows elections officials to reject ballots and registrations when information contained in them doesn't match information in the government's databases, has prompted multiple lawsuits from voting rights advocates and caused federal judges to intervene repeatedly in the secretary of state's operations.
Raffensperger said in the debate that he supports purging voters from the rolls if they haven't voted in past elections. Barrow has said he opposes such purges, promising on Twitter in a Jun. 11 tweet to "protect citizens who choose not to vote."
But for all the controversies concerning voter purges and voter registration freezes, arguably the most consequential burden on the secretary of state's office is the overhaul of the state's voting machines.
In September, a federal judge denied an emergency injunction filed by the Coalition for Good Governance against Kemp's office that sought to force the state to switch to paper ballots ahead of the 2018 general election. But the judge also ruled that state officials should be prepared replace Georgia's outdated voting machines by 2020.
Georgia is one of five states still using electronic voting machines without a physical paper trail backup. Without a paper trail, cyber security experts say that the machines could be hacked and election results could be manipulated without election officials' knowledge.
The state has been using the paperless machines since 2002.
The new secretary of state will have discretion over what machines will replace the old models.
"That updated machinery is something that's going to affect Georgia voters for a generation," Kang said.
Raffensperger has said that he intends to update Georgia's voting machines with "improved paper ballot verification for ballot security."
Barrow said in the debate that he has concerns about the threat of hacking and foreign interference into Georgia's voting machines. He has said he would decertify Georgia's controversial direct-recording electronic voting machines, forcing counties to use paper ballots until replacement machines are chosen.
Barrow said that he prefers voter-marked paper ballots over ballot-marking devices.
"They're not good enough for elections because they can be hacked," Barrow said during the debate. "What we need is to decertify these machines and move to the process currently allowed by state law, which is hand-marked paper ballots using optical scanners."
Although Republicans tend to fare better than Democrats in statewide runoff races in Georgia–often because older votes turn out in higher numbers than younger ones–the Nov. 6 election featured a slight shift in Georgia's political leaning that might carry over into the runoff race.
Raffensperger's empty state House seat, for example, was won by Democrat Angelika Kausche. Democrats were also able to flip three seats in the House of Representatives that were previously held by Republicans.
And Barrow's choice to market himself as a staunch centrist might help push him to a win in December.
In his only television ad during the general election campaign, Barrow promised viewers that he would "work across party lines" and acknowledged that even though he's a Democrat, "I won't bite ya."
Early voting in the Dec. 4 runoff race begins on Nov. 26 and ends on Nov. 30.Follow @KaylaGoggin_CNS
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