ATLANTA (CN) - The first debate between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp in the race for Georgia governor was dominated by charges of voter suppression and counterclaims of encouraging illegal voting.
Disputes over voting access took center stage Tuesday night, highlighting Abrams' historic bid to become the first black female governor in American history and the legacy of racial discrimination in the Deep South.
Kemp, who is white, responded by seeking to fend off accusations that he's using his position as Georgia secretary of state to make it harder for minority voters to cast ballots.
Ted Metz, the Libertarian candidate, also took part in the debate, which was aired live on Georgia Public Broadcasting stations.
But almost all of the attention focused on Abrams and Kemp, who recent polls show are locked in a dead heat in the wanning days of the campaign.
A recent investigation by the Associated Press revealed that Kemp's office froze 53,000 voter registrations under Georgia's "exact match" law, claiming that the forms contained small errors that prevented them from being processed. Approximately 70 percent of those registration applications belong to black voters.
"The right to vote is a right," said Abrams, who served as the minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives from 2011 until 2017. "My father was arrested helping people register so I take the right to vote very seriously."
"Under Secretary Kemp more people have lost the right to vote in the state of Georgia . They've been purged, they've been suppressed and they've been scared," Abrams said.
"The reality is, voter suppression is not simply about being told no. It's about being told it's going to be hard to cast a ballot. That's the deeper concern I have. Under his eight years of leadership, Mr. Kemp has created an atmosphere of fear around the right to vote in the state of Georgia," she added.
But Kemp, who has held office as Georgia's Secretary of State since 2010, called allegations of voter suppression leveled against him "a farce" and touted record-breaking registration numbers and high early voting turnout as evidence of his success.
"No one is being denied the right to vote. It's never been easier to register in our state," Kemp responded.
When asked by the moderator whether he or his campaign was engaging in an attempt to "suppress the minority vote that would likely benefit a minority candidate," Kemp responded, "Absolutely not."
"Voters should look at the numbers and know that this is all a distraction to take away from Ms. Abrams' extreme agenda she has for a government takeover of healthcare, wanting to give the HOPE scholarship to those that are here illegally, and many, many other radical positions," Kemp said.
"If you look at the numbers, minority participation in Georgia is up 23 percent. We have a million more people on our voter rolls today than we had when I took office. We've had record turnouts in our last presidential election and we're having record turnout right now," Kemp argued.
Early in the debate, Kemp was also asked about his decision not to resign from his position as Georgia's top election official during his campaign.