John Barrow, the former 12th District congressman, is now seeking the office of Georgia secretary of state. Visiting Statesboro on Friday, he said he hopes to oversee replacement of Georgia’s current voting system with one that will leave a paper trail.
Barrow, a Democrat, held the congressional seat for 10 years, but lost it to current U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, a Republican, in the November 2014 election. Eight candidates, Republican and Democrat, have now announced for the office that current Secretary of State Brian Kemp will vacate at year-end since he is instead running for governor. The primaries are May 22.
The situation presented both a need and an opportunity, Barrow said. Georgians need to elect a new secretary of state to an open seat for the first time in 12 years.
“The opportunity is that, alone of all the candidates running for statewide office on either side of the ticket, I think I’ve developed and built up the largest political base,” Barrow said.
While he was serving in the U.S. House, the Republican-majority state Legislature twice redrew his district, and Barrow moved from Athens to Savannah and then to Augusta to remain in it.
“It was a very competitive district, and it was made increasingly competitive as a result of gerrymandering, and so I’ve had the privilege of competing at the highest level of intensity, for the largest number of voters, for the most sustained period of time, of anybody, I think, in memory,” he said. “So that was a great experience. It was also a great base to build on.”
With the 12th District’s shifting boundaries, Barrow campaigned over the years to “virtually half” of the state’s territory, and upwards of a third of its population, he said. Meanwhile, in the House, Barrow was a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of centrist to conservative Democrats.
Before he was first elected to Congress, he served on the Athens-Clarke County Commission.
“I’ve been able to deal with folks on both sides of the aisle and on all sides of various issues in my time in Congress and in local office, 14 years as a county commissioner before that, and I think that’s a unique qualification for this office in particular, an office that most folks think of as being a nonpartisan job,” Barrow said.
The office is not officially nonpartisan. But of all the things that the Georgia secretary of state’s office does, coordinating elections gets the most media attention. The next secretary of state is widely expected to oversee a replacement of Georgia’s aging touchscreen electronic voting system. Of course, funding the new equipment will be up to the Legislature and governor.
Barrow said he doesn’t fault state leaders for Georgia’s adoption of the current voting equipment in 2002. After problems with the vote count from varied equipment and procedures in Florida resulted in a fight to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide the 2000 presidential election, Georgia’s selection of then-new electronic equipment for uniform use throughout the state put it on “the cutting edge” nationally, he said.
“But I am critical of our persistent failure to have kept machinery up to date and to have made sure that we remained on the cutting edge of technology in this area,” Barrow said.
“Other folks have gone to school on us and have pulled way ahead of us, and the technology that we’re using is no longer as secure as it was when it was first adopted, and there is no excuse for us continuing to rely on technology that has long since become obsolete, that is not tamper-proof and does not give us any basis for deciding whether or not the votes that are recorded on the machines are actually the votes that are cast by the voters,” Barrow said.
“Absolutely,” he said when asked if this means the new system Georgia adopts should provide a paper trail.
“Now, there are new and improved approaches toward the use of paper ballots so as to avoid ballot counterfeiting and ballot stuffing,” Barrow said. “We can use technology to enhance both the voter experience with paper ballots and to make sure that the process is reliable and accurate.”
Systems in which votes from paper ballots are counted electronically are what most states are going to now, he said.
With more than 20,000 machines in use in Georgia, replacing them with a system in which all voters use machines that print ballots could cost more than $100 million to implement, he said. But he thinks the cost of a system where most people vote directly on paper ballots, with a few machines available to voters who have difficulty with paper ballots, would be less, perhaps $30 million.
Barrow would bring election officials from all 159 counties together to consider how the administration of elections can be returned to the local officials while ensuring that the procedures used are the same throughout the state, he said.
Right now, the system is overly centralized, and local election officials are “overly dependent upon a secretary of state’s office that is in turn overly dependent upon vendors” to maintain and secure the machines, he said.
“We’ve seen a number of instances where the vendors that the secretary of state’s office has been using have committed serious errors of judgment, in allowing the machines to be accessed from outside, in wiping the servers clean when attention was called in the course of litigation to these problems.”
The vendor that allegedly wiped an election data server was the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University.
The secretary of state’s office also handles the registration of corporations, regulation of charities and securities, and oversight of licensed professions and trades.
Barrow proposes to expand Georgia’s program to combat securities fraud. Securities are stocks, bonds and other investment instruments, and he says that much of the fraud takes place outside of federal jurisdiction but within the jurisdiction of the state, where it is a secretary of state’s office responsibility.
“That office is not keeping up with the demand for protecting Georgia consumers from securities fraud,” Barrow said. “This is an especially big problem for many of our elder citizens, who are most prone to (becoming victims of) this particular type of fraud.”
Alabama has fewer than 5 million people; Georgia, more than 10 million. Alabama’s anti-fraud program is several times larger than Georgia’s, he said.
“This an area where increased enforcement will actually pay for itself, because in these cases you’re talking about going after people who make money and you’re getting fines and penalties from them for what they do, so you are punishing the bad guys, you are deterring other folks from engaging in similar behavior, and it’s paying for itself,” he said.
Barrow, 62, attained a political science degree from the University of Georgia and his law degree from Harvard Law School. Since leaving office he returned to the University of Georgia to teach for a year and helped to found a scholar in residence program there. He also did volunteer work as an attorney for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.
He and wife Angele Barrow, founder of the charitable organization New Hope Enterprises, married in November. They have homes in Athens and Atlanta.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.