Politics

Election Law Experts Decry Brian Kemp’s Hacking Allegation in Georgia

‘An appalling abuse of power’ that could affect down-ballot races

Georgia Secretary of State and Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp celebrates his victory in the GOP primary in July. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images file photo)

Republican Brian Kemp lobbed an allegation of hacking at Georgia Democrats Sunday, roiling the state’s competitive contents in what election law experts say amounts to an abuse of power and a last-minute partisan ploy.

Kemp has simultaneously overseen the election process as secretary of state and run a gubernatorial race against Democrat Stacey Abrams. Kemp has resisted calls to resign that post. 

In a news release, Kemp's office said the Democratic Party is under investigation for “possible cyber crimes,” and that it had alerted the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Though the release offered few details, the hacking allegation reportedly hinges on an email sent by an election security whistleblower to a volunteer for the state Democratic Party’s voter protection hotline, warning that Georgia’s election websites have major security vulnerabilities.

Election law experts pointed out press releases about the alleged hacking appear prominently on the secretary of state’s homepage, where many voters research information about their voter registration status and polling location before voting. They lambasted the move as a scare tactic.

Kemp’s maneuver is “perhaps the most outrageous example of election administration partisanship in the modern era,” University of California, Irvine, professor and election law expert Richard Hasen wrote in a Slate article Sunday.

The announcement amounts to “an appalling abuse of power,” elections expert and associate professor of political science at University of Florida Michael P. McDonald said on Twitter Sunday. “It undermines democracy and hurts confidence in the work done by professional election officials across the nation to run fair elections.” 

Depressed turnout for Democrats could also impact two competitive congressional races. Republican Rep. Karen Handel faces a challenge from Lucy McBath in a race Inside Elections rates Lean Republican. Republican Rep. Rob Woodall leads in a race with Carolyn Bourdeaux also rated Lean Republican

Controversies about the exposure of voters’ personal information and voter suppression have dogged Kemp’s tenure as secretary of state. For example, he garnered national headlines for failing to process more than 50,000 voter registrations in what civil rights group said was an attempt to suppress the vote of African-American, Latino and Asian-American applicants.

Abrams called Kemp’s allegations of hacking “a desperate ploy” and a distraction from those scandals.

“He is attempting to get the headlines off of his attempts at voter suppression and force attention elsewhere,” she said.

Cathy Cox, former Georgia secretary of state and former Democratic candidate for governor, suggested that law enforcement officials should have determined whether the press release was necessary at the launch of any investigation, and that Kemp should abstain from any such investigation.

"It sort of jumps off the page at me as being something that probably should have been turned over to the [Georgia Bureau of Investigation] or to an appropriate district attorney to investigate,” Cox told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And then those entities could have decided whether or not a public comment was warranted at the start of an investigation.”

“If it involves your own election,” she continued, “I just cannot imagine the candidate remaining involved in the investigation of something that might relate so directly to their own race. It doesn’t meet the smell test under anything I could measure.”

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