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.
“I took an oath of office to serve as Secretary of State and that’s exactly what I’m gonna continue to do. As anyone that knows about elections in Georgia [will know], it’s our county election officials that are currently holding the election which is going on right now. Their local bipartisan election boards tally the votes in the election and they’re certified at the local level and then hand-delivered to our office,” Kemp explained.
Kemp claimed he’s simply following the footsteps of Cathy Cox, a Democrat who ran for governor while serving as Secretary of State in 2006.
Abrams also took time to cast light on her commitment to expanding Medicaid in Georgia under the Affordable Care Act, pointing out that the initiative could receive bipartisan support.
“Rural Georgia has been losing hospitals at an alarming rate. Because of that loss we have companies leaving, we have people without access to healthcare and we aren’t doing the kind of economic work we can do. With the expansion of Medicaid, we can save rural hospitals, cover more than half a million Georgians, and invest in all those communities to the tune of $3 billion, including the creation of 56,000 jobs, 60 percent of which are outside the metro Atlanta area,” Abrams explained, pointing out that Governor Mike Pence successfully expanded Medicaid while he was governor of Indiana.
“Expanding a broken government program is no answer to solving the problem,” Kemp said.
Kemp also argued that Abrams can’t be trusted to properly manage state funds as governor because she has racked up personal debts.
“I have paid my taxes, unlike Ms. Abrams, when they were due,” he said.
According to personal financial disclosure documents released by Abrams earlier this year, Abrams owes more than $50,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and has approximately $170,000 in student loan and credit card debt.
In a Forbes magazine essay published in April titled “My $200,000 Debt Should Not Disqualify Me For Governor of Georgia,” Abrams says she accumulated debt while caring for her parents, who suffered losses due to Hurricane Katrina and then battled cancer.
“You can defer tax payments,” she said. “You cannot defer cancer treatment.”
Abrams hit back, saying it’s hypocritical of Kemp to criticize her financial issues when he has debts of his own.
Kemp is currently fighting a lawsuit over a half-million dollar loan he guaranteed in 2016 but never repaid. Kemp has defended himself, claiming that the money is not owed by him personally but by a company in which he is an investor.
Kemp didn’t bring up his opponent’s participation in a flag-burning protest, but a journalist on the debate panel did. Elwyn Lopez, a TV reporter for Atlanta’s 11Alive News, asked Abrams whether she stood by her decision to burn a Georgia state flag that contained a Confederate emblem in a 1992 protest.
“Twenty-six years ago as a college freshman, I along with many other Georgians, including the governor of Georgia, were deeply disturbed by the racial divisiveness that was embedded in the state flag with that Confederate symbol. I took an action of peaceful protest, I said that that was wrong and ten years later my opponent Brian Kemp actually voted to remove that symbol,” Abrams said.
But Kemp did accuse Abrams of seeking illegal votes, bringing up a video that he said “clearly” shows Abrams “asking for undocumented and documented folks to be part of your winning strategy.”
“Why are you encouraging people to break the law for you in this election?” Kemp asked.
Kemp was referring to a clip of Abrams talking about a “blue wave” that will help propel Democrats to victory in the November election. Abrams said that the movement includes “those who are told they’re not worthy of being here. It’s comprised of the documented and undocumented.”
“I have never in my life asked for anyone who is not legally eligible to vote to be able to cast a ballot. What I’ve asked for is that you allow those who are legally eligible to vote to be able to cast a ballot,” Abrams said.
“This is outrageous,” Kemp said. He encouraged voters to “Google the clip,” saying that they will know “[she’s] talking about illegals voting for her in this election.”
“If you watch the videos you’ll see it first hand,” he said.
A second debate is scheduled for November 4, two days before Election Day.