ATLANTA — Republican Brian Kemp resigned Thursday as Georgia's secretary of state, a day after his campaign said he had captured enough votes to become governor. His Democratic rival, Stacey Abrams, refused to concede and her campaign demanded that state officials "count every single vote."
As the state's top election official, Kemp oversaw the race, a marquee contest in the nation's midterms. His resignation Thursday morning came as a hearing began for a lawsuit in which five voters asked that he be barred from exercising his duties in any future management of his own election tally.
Abrams' campaign had repeatedly accused Kemp of improperly using his post as secretary of state and had been calling for him to step down for months, saying his continuation in the job was a conflict of interest. Kemp made clear that he wasn't stepping down in response to that criticism, but to start on his transition to the governor's office.
His resignation took effect just before noon Thursday. He said an interim secretary of state had been appointed to oversee the rest of the vote count.
The Associated Press has not called the election.
Shortly after Kemp's announcement, Abrams' campaign and its legal team held a news conference to announce that they would not give up the fight to have all ballots counted. They insisted enough votes remained uncounted to affect the outcome of the election.
"This is all public information, ladies and gentlemen, public information," said campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo. "We demand that Secretary of State Kemp, his campaign ... they need to release all the data, all the numbers, and they need to count every single vote."
The lawyers said they planned to file a lawsuit Thursday against officials in Dougherty County, where they said absentee ballots were delayed because of Hurricane Michael, which devastated parts of south Georgia.
They also said they ask the court to ensure those votes are counted, and to require that elections officials preserve all potential evidence about the vote count.
"How can anybody claim a victory when there are enough votes that have not been counted that could cause a runoff here?" Attorney John Chandler asked. "We will litigate until we have determined that every person's vote has been counted."
Previously, Abrams had pointed to ballots that had yet to be counted in metro Atlanta counties where she won a large share of the vote. Her campaign has said she must pick up about 15,000 votes to secure a runoff in December.
Kemp said Abrams is using "old math." Without providing specifics, he said in a WSB Radio interview that the number "is actually more like 30,000 votes."
At a news conference with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal late Thursday morning, Kemp declared that there are only about 20,000 provisional ballots that have not yet been counted in the race. He did not offer any details, but in response to a question said he would ask about releasing county-by-county results.
Of Abrams, he said, "Even if she got 100 percent of those votes, we still win."
In fact, Kemp's office did release to the AP a county-level breakdown about the same time he started speaking in Deal's office Thursday. The office had not immediately shared that requested information the day before, however, even as Kemp's campaign cited the statewide estimate as his justification for declaring victory.
The standoff continued to attract attention around the country, with the head of the Democratic National Committee applauding Abrams for pressing on and blasting Kemp as untrustworthy.
"It is grossly unfair to any fox in America to compare Brian Kemp with a fox guarding the hen house. It is much worse in Georgia," DNC Chairman Tom Perez said in Washington. "I don't think that race is over. Every vote must be counted, and the integrity of that election is at stake."
Late Wednesday afternoon — after a day of the campaigns, news outlets and partisan observers scrambling for information about outstanding votes across Georgia's 159 counties — Kemp aide Ryan Mahoney told reporters on a conference call, "We are declaring victory." Campaign official Austin Chambers added: "The message here is pretty simple: This election is over, and the results are clear."
If a runoff is necessary, it will take place Dec. 4, extending Abrams' bid to become the first black woman elected governor in American history, while Kemp looks to maintain the GOP's domination in a state where Democrats haven't won a governor's race since 1998.
Partisan observers nationally have watched intently for clues about just how much of a battleground Georgia can be in the 2020 presidential campaign.
With reported votes exceeding 3.9 million — almost 95 percent of Georgia's 2016 presidential turnout — Kemp has just more than 50 percent.
In 2016, with a slightly larger electorate, there were 16,739 provisional ballots. Of those, 7,592 were counted. State and campaign officials said they expected a much higher proportion to be counted this year.
The lawsuit at issue Thursday morning in an Atlanta federal court came from voters who sued Kemp on Election Day alleging that his presiding over an election in which he is a candidate "violates a basic notion of fairness." The plaintiffs asked the court to block Kemp from having anything more to do with managing his election. The hearing ended shortly after it began with the announcement of Kemp's resignation.
It's not immediately clear what Kemp's practical role was in the election tally. Local officials are responsible for counting the votes, including provisional ballots. County officials have until next Tuesday to certify their results and send them to Kemp's office. Statewide certification must come by Nov. 20.