In the days leading up to Georgia’s hotly contested 2018 gubernatorial election, Brian Kemp—who, you may recall, is both the winner of that election and also the state official who was in charge of administering it—made a shocking accusation about the Democratic Party of Georgia and, by extension, his opponent, Stacey Abrams. They had, he said, attempted to hack into the state’s voter-registration database, and his office planned to launch an investigation into this serious case of misconduct.
According to a bombshell investigation published last week by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there is still absolutely no evidence that any such partisan election meddling took place. Meanwhile, there is a good deal of compelling evidence that Kemp—who at the time was slipping in the polls, putting him in real danger of suffering an embarrassing loss for the Republican Party—might have just made the whole thing up.
The problem, as the AJC explains it, is that Kemp had learned that the state’s voter information systems were laughably vulnerable to hackers, which opened him up to charges of rank incompetence. Earlier this year, while checking his registration status online, a Georgia voter named Richard Wright discovered that nefarious actors could use the web site to download any file on the system, and to access any voter’s personally identifiable information. Experts told the AJC that hackers could, in theory, exploit these flaws to do things like delete people from the rolls, render them ineligible to cast ballots, or even “systematically target” political and/or minority groups.
Wright reached out to an election law attorney in Washington, and on Friday, November 2, four days before election day, he also summarized his findings in an email to Rachel Small, a volunteer with the Georgia Democrats’ voter protection hotline. Small forwarded that email to her supervisor, who asked their own cybersecurity experts to take a look. “That,” says the AJC, “appears to have been the extent of the Democrats’ involvement.”
From there, Wright’s emails made their way to law enforcement agencies, and then to reporters. On Sunday, when Kemp learned that a media outlet planned to publish a story on the subject, he did what all self-respecting Republicans do when confronted with evidence of their failures: panic, and blame someone else. Minutes before it posted, the secretary of state’s web site posted an all-caps headline announcing a forthcoming investigation into a “FAILED HACKING ATTEMPT” by Democrats. Kemp’s spokesperson began talking about Rachel Small, who is part of this narrative because she forwarded an email, as if she should be considered armed and extremely dangerous by anyone who approaches her:
“The FBI is looking for information on ‘Rachel Small,’” Broce wrote [to reporters]. “We welcome any information about this person’s identity or motives to provide to federal authorities.
“Who is Rachel Small?” Broce continued. “Is that her real name, and for whom does she work? Why was she talking about trying to hack the secretary of state’s system…?”
A few days later, Kemp won the election with 50.2 percent of the vote, narrowly avoiding the prospect of a runoff with Abrams. Strangely, since the result became official, Kemp’s office seems to have forgotten all about the investigation it had vowed to conduct, back when breaking the news of said investigation was politically expedient.
More than a month later, state Democratic officials say no law enforcement agency has been in touch about the alleged crime. Lawyers and others involved in the episode say they’ve heard nothing, either. The agencies won’t comment on their investigations.
In other words, when a floundering candidate learned about a last-minute story that would reflect poorly on him, he seized on the thinnest imaginable shred of evidence to concoct an elaborate conspiracy theory that implicated his political opponents, and then used his official position to make it seem credible to the credulous. Throughout the campaign, Kemp endured persistent criticism for scoffing at the notion that supervising an election in which he was a candidate gave rise to any problematic conflicts of interest. It was a calculated bit of shamelessness all along, and apparently, it was worth it.