Voting rights and illegal immigration dominated a tense gubernatorial debate in Georgia Tuesday night, as Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams clashed over their visions for the state’s future.
The debate came as Kemp, the secretary of state, defends himself against accusations of voter suppression from Abrams and Georgia Democrats, who have latched onto a report that 53,000 voter registrations, mostly by African-Americans, have been held up by Kemp’s office ahead of the election. Abrams, the first black woman to win a gubernatorial nomination, has made new voter registration a key part of her campaign and career.
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“If you look at the numbers, minority participation is up 23 percent,” Kemp said at the debate. “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’ve had record turnouts right now. This farce about voter suppression and being held up on the rolls and not being able to vote is absolutely not true.”
Abrams shot back that “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 has called for Kemp to resign as the state’s top election official while running for governor. He was asked if he could impartially serve as secretary of state while running for governor and whether he would recuse himself in the case of a recount. Kemp said he was staying put.
“I’m doing the same thing that Democrat Kathy Cox was doing when she was running for governor. If we have the instance of a recount, that’s automatic by state law if lower than one percent [separates the candidates],” Kemp said. “I have staked my integrity of my whole career on the duty that I have as Secretary of State. I’ve always fulfilled and followed the laws of the state and I’ll continue to do that through the tenure of my service to this great state.”
The debate, which also featured Libertarian candidate Ted Metz, often veered back to voting rights and immigration even when the questions turned to topics like health care or access to state colleges. Asked whether DACA recipients who are paying their taxes should be allowed to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges, Kemp charged that Abrams would radically transform the state.
“I’ve been running my whole campaign about putting Georgians first,” Kemp said. “I think we need to continue to do that. Unlike Ms. Abrams who wants to give the HOPE scholarship and free college tuition to those that are here illegally, I think that is the wrong position to go.”
Abrams quickly responded: “I stand by believing that every Georgian who graduates from our high schools should be allowed to attend our colleges and if they’re eligible, receive the hope scholarship.
Kemp also accused Abrams of seeking illegal votes, bringing up a video that he said “clearly” showed that Abrams was asking for “undocumented and documented folks to be part of your winning strategy. So why are you encouraging people to break the law for you in this election?”
“Mr. Kemp, you are very aware that I know the laws of Georgia when it comes to voting,” Abrams said. “I have never in my life asked for anyone in my life asked for anyone ineligible to vote to cast a ballot. What I have asked for is that you allow those who are legally eligible to vote to allow them to cast their ballot.”
Kemp responded that Georgians should “google the clip” and see that Abrams was clearly talking about urging illegal immigrants to vote for her.
“That is outrageous,” Kemp said. “She knows that if you watch the video yourself you will see it first-hand.”