Republican state Rep. Brad Raffensperger defeated former Democratic congressman John Barrow on Tuesday in a runoff election for Georgia secretary of state that took place amid lingering concerns about voter disenfranchisement in a state likely to remain a battleground in 2020.
Raffensperger’s election continues a losing streak for Georgia Democrats, who have not won a statewide election since 2010, and ensures that stricter election laws pushed by state Republicans remain in place barring successful legal challenges.
The campaign went to a runoff after no candidate received a majority of the vote last month. The two candidates were separated by less than 20,000 votes in the first election, with Raffensperger running slightly ahead.
Democrats were unable to harness the energy that they had during the November election, however, and Raffensperger led by more than four points Tuesday with 98 percent of precincts reporting. Turnout appeared to be only about a third of the November number.
“Tonight’s victory, it’s all about the people. And it’s all about the Lord,” Raffensperger told supporters at his victory night party. “I’m just very excited, and humbled, that I’m going to be your next secretary of state.”
The campaign unfolded amid accusations that Republicans have attempted to suppress minority turnout, contributing to a bitter partisan divide that emerged in the aftermath of a competitive gubernatorial race. In that contest, whose results were delayed for days after Nov. 6 because of a labored count, Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp narrowly defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Democrats have charged that Republicans purged voters from the rolls and understaffed polling precincts to create longer lines in Democratic areas. Republicans have countered that they are trying to protect the integrity of the election and that Democrats are upset because they lost.
That battle is likely to intensify over the next two years.
A group affiliated with Abrams brought a federal lawsuit against interim secretary of state Robyn Crittenden that sought changes to state laws that the group, Fair Fight Action, said were making it harder for voters to cast ballots.
Among the changes sought were halting the purging of voters from registration lists, requiring the use of voter machines that provide paper confirmations, and reducing lines at polling places.
“Voter suppression works when people decide their individual voices are too weak or too fragile to bring about change,” Abrams said in a recent Washington Post interview. “John Barrow is part of the solution.”
Raffensperger has pledged to continue Kemp’s strict enforcement of voter ID laws and to continue removing inactive voters from registration rolls. He has said that one of his primary concerns is making sure undocumented immigrants don’t vote, and in one ad, he asserted that Barrow could enable “more illegal voting than ever.”
Raffensperger said he also would attempt to replace the state’s paperless voting machines with a system that creates paper records of the vote, allowing for better election audits and making an election less vulnerable to hacking.
The race for secretary of state lacked the pizazz of the gubernatorial battle, which attracted national attention.
Barrow is a centrist who ran ads in which he said, “Yeah, I’m a Democrat, but I won’t bite you,” and he was attempting to energize a base of liberal voters Abrams had mobilized for her campaign. He was also attempting a political rebirth: He served as a congressman for a decade before losing his seat in 2014.
Abrams, a rising liberal star in the state and the party, attempted to rally her supporters behind Barrow.
“I won’t stop until we guarantee a fair fight for future elections,” Abrams said in a radio ad. “The other side thinks we’ve given up — that because I didn’t win, we won’t come back out. Let’s prove them wrong.”
Raffensperger ran an under-the-radar campaign and skipped the only televised debate of the runoff.
He was backed by Kemp, as well as President Trump, who tweeted on Nov. 26 that he “will be a fantastic Secretary of State for Georgia.”
The state lawmaker hoping to oversee elections, Trump said, “is tough on Crime and Borders, Loves our Military and Vets. He will be great for jobs!”