ATLANTA — In the wake of a tumultuous election, Georgia’s GOP-led legislature set its sights on a sweeping and controversial overhaul of the state’s voting system.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp was relatively quiet as legislators went through the ebb and flow of rewriting laws that govern the state's election process. But after signing the nearly 100-page bill into law, he is now speaking out in defense of the measure.
In an interview with CNHI, Kemp slammed opponents for what he called “lying to Georgians” about what provisions were actually included in the final bill, decried looming boycotts of Georgia companies and addressed the controversy stirred by the bill’s signing.
“People need to know that this law continues to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat in Georgia,” he said.
Earlier versions of the bill contained extreme changes such as doing away with no-excuse absentee voting and banning early voting on Sundays, both changes that voting rights advocates argued disproportionately harmed Black voters. But through the back-and-forth between House and Senate lawmakers, neither provision made it into the final bill.
Kemp said he was comfortable signing the final product. The Republican governor pointed to beefed up ID requirements for absentee ballots as a better alternative to the state’s signature match method of verifying ballots. Kemp said it also codifies into law the use of drop boxes — which would require 24-hour monitoring — although critics argue provisions limit access to them for voters.
Kemp pushed back against the argument that the election changes were a reaction to false allegations of voter fraud spread by the former president and his Republican supporters. He pointed to the pandemic as a root cause of many of the issues seen in November.
“What the bill does is it provides more access and really addresses a lot of issues that we saw in the last election that was caused, in many ways, by the pandemic,” he said.
"When you have a 351% increase in absentee ballots by mail, it certainly created a lot of problems with the process,” he said.
Voting rights advocates and Democrats have called the bill an egregious attack on voting rights and labeled it “Jim Crow 2.0.” Written between the lines, they say, is a direct attack on voters of color who turned out in droves and helped back Democratic candidates for federal level positions.
“That crowd is essentially lying to Georgians,” Kemp said.
Several civil rights groups have filed three federal lawsuits challenging the voting laws since Kemp signed the bill in late March.
Opponents of the law have also called for boycotting Georgia businesses that haven’t taken a stance against the elections overhaul. Kemp slammed threats to boycott some of Georgia’s largest corporations — including Delta and Coca-Cola — while the economy is still in recovery.
“It's ridiculous that people would want to target hardworking Georgians and their opportunity for a great future here in the middle of a global pandemic,” he said.
The bill’s signing also caused a stir after Kemp chose to sign the bill during a closed-door ceremony. On the other side of the door, State Rep. Park Cannon, an Atlanta Democrat, was arrested by Capitol police officers. Kemp said he chose to move quickly and privately to dissuade what he says are false “narratives” surrounding the measure.
"By signing the bill quickly, it allowed me to get the message out there what was really in the bill because I knew that (opponents) were going to portray it this way and try to turn it into some sort of racist, boycott business-type movement,” he said. “It’s ridiculous that they’re doing that."
The Republican governor has faced criticism on both the left and the right and is among several GOP incumbents expecting primary challenges from pro-Trump candidates. The former president has pledged to throw his political weight behind unseating Kemp after he bucked Trump’s calls to question Georgia’s election results.
Kemp said he hopes the party can move forward and noted Republicans were successful in winning statehouse seats in November.
"I think it is a great opportunity for Republicans to come together to keep our majorities and stay focused on what's ahead for us and, quite honestly, the challenges that we have,” he said. "This is a tough state to win in now — I saw that in 2018. We won some really big races in 2020, but we lost some really big ones, as well."
While GOP-controlled legislatures across the country are pushing stricter voting measures after the 2020 election, Democrats at the federal level are making a case for national voting rights legislation. Kemp said if H.R.1 — also known as “For the People Act” — were to pass, it would be challenged.
"I believe what they're trying to do with H.R.1 is an unconstitutional power grab,” he said. "I think if it were to pass immediately, there'd be tons of attorney generals from all over the country, including ours, that would be filing suit against that.”