As the race to succeed Tom Price in the 6th Georgia House district settles into a runoff contest between Jon Ossoff and former Fulton County Commission chair Karen Handel, Handel has raised an old rallying cry: If it’s hard to secure a majority of the votes, it’s because it’s too easy for your opponents to cast a ballot. This, of course, dates back to Handel’s days in Fulton County politics, where she led a faction of north Fulton Republicans who were continually frustrated by the way that the black Democratic majority of the commission represented their constituents. In Fulton County in the late 1990s, Handel supported the shrinking of county government through budget cutting and advocated the “municipalization” of north Fulton into incorporated, white majority cities that privatized services, cut taxes, and avoided the established County workforce. I wrote about that in a scholarly way here, and also touched on some of the ironies of “good government” justifications for incorporation here.
Handel won election as Georgia’s Secretary of State, where she made the implementation of a controversial voter ID law written by fellow Fulton County Republican Hans von Spakovsky a top priority. This bill disenfranchised tens of thousands of Georgians due to false-positive matches in a database of convicts and other ineligible voters, without, as Richard Doner, Jonathan Schneer, and Dan Amsterdam have noted, demonstrably preventing any fraudulent voting (link to .pdf). It might not surprise you to know that studies of these database services demonstrate that the frequency of common names among Asian, Latino/a, and African American citizens contributes to higher rates of false matches, and therefore more wrongful disenfranchisement and more vote suppression, for members of those groups.
I’ve argued that that was hardly accidental, and not distinct from Handel’s background in Fulton County metropolitics, where voter turnout was a crucial factor in governing a county that was racially, ideologically, and socioeconomically divided between its north and south ends. While we think of vote suppression as consequential to the recent Presidential contest (as Ari Berman’s great reporting stresses), it has a great impact in metropolitan areas too, where gerrymandered districts, voting restrictions, and other tactics can create significant divergence between the people governed and their representatives in both local and state government.
More recently, Handel castigated the decision of Judge Timothy Batten (a G.W. Bush-appointed Republican) to overturn the state’s restrictive registration period for the congressional runoff election:
“Its [sic] clear Jon Ossoff’s campaign to deceive the voters of the 6th District is not working. When the Democrats can’t win Elections following the rules – rules they themselves authored and enforced for years – they file partisan lawsuits to change them,” she said in the statement. “This lawsuit should be seen for exactly what it is: A partisan attempt to change the rules in the middle of an election for a nakedly partisan outcome.”
Timothy Batten is no one’s idea of a staunch voting rights advocate. I criticized his decision in 2013 in Lowery v. Deal, which dealt with the dilution of minority voting power in Fulton County’s newly incorporated cities. And the judge had rejected a claim that new Secretary of State Brian Kemp intentionally purged Georgia’s voter rolls ahead of the 2016 election. His decision reflected a very clear reading of a statute that requires voters be able to register up until 30 days prior to an election, whether runoff or primary. But it shouldn’t be surprising that Handel views higher turnout as risky to her chances.