Election night left both voters and candidates on the edge of their seats. Now, well past Nov. 6, the offices of Georgia secretary of state and public service commission District 3 are still undecided. Though the governor’s race held the center stage until Democrat Stacey Abrams ended her bid on Nov. 16, the secretary of state race's is going into a Dec. 4 runoff.
The secretary of state’s duties include registering in-state corporations, overseeing the licensing of select professions, regulating the state securities market and running the state’s elections.
John Barrow, the Democratic candidate for the position, was born in Athens, graduated from Clarke Central High School and received his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia. After living in Savannah, which is in Georgia’s 12th Congressional District, for which he served as a U.S. Congressman for 10 years, Barrow returned to Athens.
Athens-Clarke County used to be part of District 12 but was later redrawn and split between Districts 9 and 10.
Barrow discussed recent events and controversies surrounding the secretary of state’s office and how he would handle them, as well as his preparation for the runoff. He feels the midterms this year brought greater attention and appreciation to the secretary of state’s office.
“If people didn’t know it was important, they do know now,” he said.
Following the election, many voters expressed discontent with how it was handled, from long lines at the polls to missing power cords for ballot machines. This was paired with the meticulous recounting and lawsuits over absentee and provisional ballots which also pushed back any final calls.
Governor-elect and former Secretary of State Brian Kemp faced calls to resign due to a perceived conflict of interest — he served as the state’s top election official while running for governor.
“A whole number of issues I have talked about through this campaign, folks are now focusing on for the first time because of the closeness of the outcome of the governor’s race,” Barrow said. “Things like trying to make it easier for folks to vote without making it easier for folks to cheat.”
Barrow touched on the exact match policy, which was brought before the courts and struck down. The law flagged voter registration that was inconsistent with other forms of ID, anything from a typo to a stray hyphen in a name. It led to thousands of registrations being put on pending status just weeks before the election.
“The secretary of state’s office will have information entered into their records that don’t agree with the ID that citizens have, and that’s a problem we need to fix,” Barrow said.
Expressing discontent with how absentee ballots were handled, Barrow said other states make it easier for voters to use a paper mail-in ballot.
“These are things they’re doing successfully in other states, and all of these problems are coming up in our election because we’re not keeping up with the times,” Barrow said.
In addition to absentee ballots, Barrow also said he wants to revise in-person polling, starting with the voting machines. Georgia’s touch screen voting machines were implemented in 2002, making them 16 years old.
Despite calls for them to be replaced, supported by a lawsuit earlier this year to throw them out, the machines were used in this year’s election. There is currently no plan to replace them.
Barrow himself called for the decertification of the machines back in February to no avail.
“These machines have long outlived their useful work life … this is something that should have been planned for and provided for long ago,” Barrow went on to say, “Anybody that’s using a large bit of infrastructure on a periodic basis needs to have a life cycle plan for retiring what they’re using ... there’s been no plan for retiring these.”
His intended solution is not for online voting, as has been recently pushed by some voters. Barrow is an advocate for paper ballots and optical scanners, which he said are safer and easier to use.
Barrow has some concerns over online voting.
“I have real concerns, and the election integrity community has real concerns about relying on technology to record and count out votes,” Barrow said. “If people have a lack of confidence in these primitive old machines, they’ll have a different kind of concern about new and improved machines.”
He says there should be an even mix of technology to make them more efficient.
“A 'Back to the Future' moment is appropriate where we use the best of the old and the new,” Barrow said.
Another hot button issue of this year’s elections was voter suppression. Kemp was accused by his opponent and civil rights groups of voter suppression.
When asked about these concerns, Barrow offered his definition of suppression and what he might do to fix it.
“Suppression is a word that tends to get overused. I regard anything that we do that makes it harder than some people to vote than others is undermining the right to vote,” Barrow said. “It should be equally easy for any honest citizen to vote as it is any other honest citizen to vote.”
If it is harder for some to vote, there needs to be a valid benefit and justification, Barrow said.
The American Civil Liberties Union contends that voter ID laws, such as those in Georgia, are a form of voter suppression. Barrow agreed that they do bear some impact on a part of the population but did not hesitate to express support for these laws.
“I support strong IDs, I just think we can accommodate the very small percentage of those who cannot get one through no fault of their own,” Barrow said.
Another issue linked to the suppression accusations was the “cleaning out” or “purging” of voter rolls by the secretary of state’s office. Barrow said this process is required by the federal law but was executed improperly in the state of Georgia.
“It’s good practice to maintain clean, up-to-date rolls … What I think we have to do, though, is insist on doing this in a way that only uses accurate information and not use information for purging people from the rolls that we know are going to be inaccurate to any significant degree,” Barrow said.
Barrow's opponent, Republican Brad Raffensperger, did not respond to requests for comment.
Correction: In a previous version of this article, The Red & Black misidentified the city in which John Barrow lives. The Red & Black regrets this error, and it has since been fixed.