ATLANTA – Georgia’s secretary of state candidates each sought to portray themselves Tuesday as the best protectors of democracy and elections – past, present, and future – during a debate in Atlanta.
The three candidates emphasized their strong support for free and fair elections but disagreed over details.
“I’ve had to stand up to incredible pressure,” incumbent Republican Brad Raffensperger said, referring to threats and pressure he faced following the 2020 election in Georgia. “I’m standing up for you, the voter. I’m standing up for the Constitution, and I’m standing up for the rule of law.”
Democratic state Rep. Bee Nguyen of Atlanta grounded her claim to the job in a lifelong commitment to civil rights.
“My parents fled their country (Vietnam) in the middle of the night on a boat in search of basic civil liberties, including the freedom of speech, the freedom of press, and the right to free and fair elections,” Nguyen said. “And right now our basic rights are under attack, including the freedom to choose and the freedom to vote.”
And Libertarian Ted Metz argued Georgia voters should vote “principle over party for the preservation of our republic.”
Much of the debate focused on Georgia’s Senate Bill (SB) 202, a lengthy and often controversial state election reform bill the General Assembly passed last year.
“I oppose laws that make it harder for Georgians to vote, including the 98-page bill that criminalizes handing out a bottle of water to voters waiting in line,” Nguyen said.
She also argued that the law increased the burdens on local county election boards without increasing funding.
“More and more people are leaving [local elections offices] because they don’t have the adequate resources to administer free and fair elections in all 159 counties and poll workers are being threatened and harassed,” said Nguyen. “We need a comprehensive plan to make sure that our local boards are well resourced and well equipped.”
Georgia should repeal the provisions of SB 202 that allowed the voter registrations of 65,000 Georgians to be challenged, Nguyen said.
Raffensperger agreed that reform is needed and said he would support changes to the law to address the recent mass challenges to voter registrations.
“I think everyone would share that same interest that we have accurate voter rolls,” Raffensperger said. “But, that said, frivolous challenges just gum up the works.”
Raffensperger pointed out that in today’s Georgia, people move frequently, both within the state and across state lines. The state has joined an online system to help update the voter rolls.
“I also think we should do annual list maintenance for the counties,” Raffensperger added.
And non-citizens should not vote, Raffensperger said. He pointed to his effort to clean the voter rolls and said he found around 1,600 cases of non-citizens who attempted to register.
Nguyen hit back, noting that Raffensperger did not find any instances of non-citizens actually voting.
Nguyen also criticized Raffensperger’s handling of allegations about breaches to the voting system in Coffee County. She said his office took too long to open an investigation and didn’t keep the public informed.
“People who broke the law should be investigated, held accountable and go to jail,” Raffensperger responded, adding that an investigation is ongoing.
Libertarian Metz contended that Georgia should hand-count its ballots and that there are still lingering questions about the 2020 count.
But Raffensperger said the 2020 election results are valid, and the votes were counted several times.
“Every single ballot that was counted through the scanners was then hand counted,” he said. “We did a 100% hand recount to verify the results. And I’ll stand by those results.”
Raffensperger said he has made a strong effort to be transparent with the public by traveling around the state and addressing election misinformation.
“I’ve said I’ll talk to any group to give them the facts and the information because we’ve been pushing back on election deniers since the election of 2018,” he said.
Raffensperger asked Nguyen about Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election, in which Democrat Stacey Abrams was narrowly defeated by Republican Brian Kemp. Nguyen confirmed that she stands by the results of past elections.
Around 130,000 Georgians voted on Monday, the first day of early voting in the state, which Raffensperger said proved that Georgia’s elections are working well.
During a part of the debate where candidates were allowed to ask each other questions, Nguyen asked Raffensperger about prior statements about his pro-life stance.
Raffensperger said the secretary of state has little to do with the abortion question, adding that Nguyen’s question indicated she doesn’t understand the job.
“Job one is to know the job, and you don’t know the job,” he said.
Nguyen countered by saying the secretary of state is in charge of professional licensing, including the Georgia Board of Nursing.
“Given the close ties to the nursing board, it is important that nurses and other health-care workers decide if they want to trust a staunch anti-choice secretary of state, and that women in Georgia should decide if they want to trust a staunch anti-choice secretary of state,” Nguyen said.
Early voting in Georgia continues through Nov. 4, the last Friday before Election Day Nov. 8.
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.