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Georgia, Stacey Abrams, and the Lie of “Voter Fraud” Are at the Center of the Most Competitive Race of the Midterms

And Brian Kemp is making the fight for the governor’s office in Georgia into an election about elections

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Eight days ago, former president Jimmy Carter sent an urgent letter to Georgia’s secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who also happens to be that state’s Republican nominee for governor. On Monday morning, the Associated Press first reported the full text.

In his letter to Kemp, Carter expressed grave concerns about the gubernatorial election in his home state — an election that Kemp, as secretary of state, oversees. Carter has spent much of his post-presidential career leading election monitoring efforts in developing countries. “I have officially observed scores of doubtful elections in many countries, and one of the key requirements for a fair and trusted process is that there be non-biased supervision of the electoral process,” Carter wrote. “In Georgia’s upcoming gubernatorial election, popular confidence is threatened not only by the undeniable racial discrimination of the past and the serious questions that the federal courts have raised about the security of Georgia’s voting machines, but also because you are now overseeing the election in which you are a candidate.” So Carter asked Kemp to resign as secretary of state. “This would not address every concern,” Carter concluded, “but it would be a sign that you recognize the importance of this key democratic principle and want to ensure the confidence of our citizens in the outcome.” Publicly, Kemp has yet to answer Carter, though he’s tried — and failed — to answer concerns about the integrity and fairness of the upcoming election for several weeks now.

Kemp is running against Stacey Abrams, a state legislative leader who, if elected, would be the first black governor of Georgia as well as the first woman to hold the position. She’s also the first black woman to win a major-party nomination for governor anywhere in the U.S. In August — shortly after Abrams and Kemp won their respective party nominations — Kemp and the Georgia GOP criticized Abrams for her $200,000 in credit card debt and back taxes. Abrams spun the criticism of her personal finances into a cautionary tale about income inequality and the student loan crisis. “I am in debt,” Abrams wrote in an essay for Fortune, “but I am not alone.”

If anything, the controversy surrounding Abrams elevated the Georgia gubernatorial race to national prominence. On Friday, Barack Obama will join Abrams to address a campaign rally at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Georgia is a red state; it’s also a black state. For Democrats, it’s far more competitive than its Deep South standing might suggest. In the past 146 years, Georgia has elected only two Republican governors — the state’s two most recent governors, Sonny Perdue and the outgoing Nathan Deal. The latest statewide polls barely favor Kemp, and the national trend lines seem to favor Abrams. In any case, Abrams’s campaign has turned the election into the most competitive gubernatorial midterms race in the country.

It’s also become an election about elections. In recent years, Democrats have only begun to counteract gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and ballot security — policies determined by governors and their state legislatures (with sporadic intervention from the courts). In Georgia, Kemp stalled 53,000 voter registrations a month before the election, subjecting the applications to “exact match” standards that proved several times more likely to disqualify nonwhite applicants, most frequently black applicants. Under Kemp, Georgia pioneered the “exact match” standards, which flags applications for discrepancies, however minor, such as hyphenation. Supposedly, the “exact match” is designed to detect and discourage voter fraud — a problem that exists far more prominently in the conservative imagination than it does in real life. Practically, “voter fraud” isn’t a concern about fraud so much as it’s a concern about partisanship and demographics. Hence policies such as exact match are implemented despite clear, disproportionate effects among legitimate voters. Kemp has defended the policy even as a federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order against its implementation in Georgia.

But Kemp has found his most persistent foe in Abrams. In 2013, she founded the New Georgia Project, an organization dedicated to registering new voters and championing voter protections. For four years, Kemp has clashed with the New Georgia Project. In her campaign’s final weeks, Abrams has made exact match the Georgia election’s most urgent concern.

Kemp is, of course, unlikely to step down from his oversight role two weeks before the election. He isn’t even the only Republican secretary of state in this position — Kris Kobach is resisting similar scrutiny as he runs for governor of Kansas. But Georgia’s gubernatorial race has come to represent so many anxieties about modern voting. The campaign’s early stage was a petty argument about personal finances; the late stage is a referendum on “voter fraud” and voter suppression. On Friday, Obama will likely treat the Abrams campaign rally to his favorite election year imperative: Don’t boo! Vote! But it’s easier said than done.