Should Georgia’s top elections officials be candidates in the elections they oversee?
It’s a yes-or-no question—one that has come up in the Georgia governor’s race—so credit the lone lawyer among the past five secretaries of state to seek an answer in the middle.
Cathy Cox, who is now dean of the Mercer University law school, did not step down from her job as secretary of state when she ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2006. However, she recused from her role chairing the State Election Board, which makes rules and investigates complaints about voting.
“I didn’t want there to be any appearance of impropriety,” she said. “I felt like that was an appropriate compromise.”
Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican nominee for governor, cites Cox’s example and that of another Democrat, Lewis Massey, among his reasons for staying on the job amid complaints he has made it harder for Democrats, especially African-Americans, to vote.
A spokesman said Thursday that Kemp, “is not going to abrogate his responsibility just because he is appearing on the ballot this November.” Kemp told The Associated Press that 53,000 applications of mostly black voters are still “pending” because they were sloppily filled out, largely by an organization founded by his Democratic opponent, former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.
Kemp has not recused from chairing the State Elections Board as Cox did, but published minutes show he has not chaired any of the three meetings held this year. A spokeswoman did not respond to a question about why he didn’t chair those meetings.
Whether a secretary of state seeking higher office stays on the job has had a decidedly mixed partisan answer. In 1996, Democrat Max Cleland resigned while he successfully sought a seat in the U.S. Senate. In 2010, Republican Karen Handel did the same as she ran for governor. Like Cox, Handel lost in the primary.
On Thursday, Cleland called on Kemp to resign his post, recalling his Senate campaign. ”I recognized that it would not be fair to Georgia voters if I oversaw an election in which I was a candidate for higher office,” he said in a press release issued by the state Democratic Party.
Both Cleland and Handel said when they resigned that they wanted to focus on their respective races. Cox said Thursday that another major motivation for both candidates would have been that state office holders cannot raise campaign funds for the three to four months while the state Legislature is in session.
The question of whether a secretary of state running for higher office suffers from a legal conflict of interest was briefly before Republican state Attorney General Chris Carr this week.
On Oct. 3, Bettianne Hart, a former Fulton County prosecutor, and former Fulton Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore asked the AG for an opinion on the matter.
Their letter cited court opinions from Georgia and elsewhere and opinions from earlier attorneys general arguing that even potential conflicts between two jobs put a state official in an “incompatible” position.
Hart, an ardent Abrams supporter, noted that there is nothing to keep a secretary of state from organizing his own campaign for re-election.
She acknowledged that “there is some ambiguity” in the law “that might require some legislative action.”
The AG’s response came Thursday in a letter from senior assistant attorney general Rebecca Mick, who wrote: “The mission of the Law Department is to provide legal representation to state government and its many departments, agencies, boards, and commissions. This office is not authorized to provide legal advice, research or opinions to private citizens. We would like to note, however, that over the past twenty years a number of Secretaries of State have continued to hold office and discharge their duties as Secretary of State when on the ballot in Georgia, whether running for Governor (Lewis Massey, 1998; Cathy Cox, 2006) or for Secretary of State (Cathy Cox, 2002; Brian Kemp, 2010 and 2014).”